The finalization of the 2024 NASCAR Cup Schedule inevitably triggers another conversation-which tracks will be added to future schedules? After a long wait, Iowa made it this season. Who might be next?
Some fans want new tracks, tracks Cup has never been to before. They like the newness that a fresh track provides. Other fans are clamoring for a return to old tracks-give North Wilkesboro a points race; bring back Rockingham is their cry. I see that. Others are into short tracks… even though NASCAR NEXT GEN short track package is still a major work in progress. Still others would like to see former tracks like Chicagoland and Kentucky get another chance since the NEW CAR now seems to be right in their wheelhouse to produce good racing.
Since Kentucky is my home track, all this predictive chatter brings hope. The Daily Downforce has even done a timely repost of the question of Should NASCAR Return to Kentucky Speedway? – The Daily Downforce. Lot of great input but there is no way I could put my comments on it in the limited space available.
It’s an interesting question that unfortunately, with all of it comes the bitter memories of how a track worked so hard and went through so much to get a Cup date only to have it taken away. Though The Daily Downforce tells a lot of the story there is a whole lot more that went something like this…
That was then… Kentucky Speedway, Gone… Just Like That
It was September 29th, 2020. Tuesday evening a rain blew across the Bluegrass. It ended before sunset and as the sun went down a beautiful double rainbow appeared. I have seen doubles before but this one was like no other. It was huge, filling the sky with colors more intense than I have ever seen in my 60+ years of watching the skies I don’t know that I have ever seen a rainbow’s reflection… but there it is on the wet pavement.
Cars were pulling off the road to get photos. Social media filled up with photos of it from all across the state as it was like everyone within her borders could see it. It was so real, you could almost see the pot of gold at the end. It was just right there.
Unfortunately, that pot of gold never made it to Sparta.
Rainbows are a promise of hope. In these times, we could use all the hope we can get. But soon, as the sun continued making its way to the horizon, it was gone… just like that.
As the day slipped into darkness, the chatter started and grew darker as did the night. I awoke Wednesday, greeted with a bright, beautiful fall day… and the confirmation that last night’s chatter was for real. NASCAR was leaving my home track, the Kentucky Speedway next season. And like the glorious rainbow just a few hours before, it was gone… just like that.
It wasn’t just Cup leaving. All three of the NASCAR series-Cup, Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Trucks, now Craftsman Truck Series, were gone. Along with them, race sponsor Quaker State, the only race sponsor Kentucky had ever known had packed up and was heading south to a sister track in Speedway Motorsports Incorporated’s holdings, Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Gone… just like that.
In the 70+ years of NASCAR’s existence, that industry has been populated with a significant number of Kentuckians. Hall of Fame and Three-Time Champ and former FOX broadcaster, Darrell Waltrip most noted. But the list is too long to even begin to name the drivers, crew chiefs, crew members, car owners, track owners, NASCAR officials and employees who have help build and grow the sport.
Not to mention her fans.
NASCAR races in Kentucky are much rarer. There was that 1954 Cup race at Corbin Speedway that Lee Petty won. It was long dry spell before Charlie Blanton won the 1969 “Bluegrass 300” “Baby Grands” race on my favorite track growing up, Ellis Speedway, just outside of my hometown of Owensboro. Blanton beat the likes of Buck Baker, Pete Hamilton, series Champ Tiny Lund and Waltrip, who made his NASCAR GT debut that day (with less than stellar results). After that race on the neat little quarter-miler in Newman, KY, NASCAR in Kentucky, like the rainbow, gone… just like that.
It would be almost twenty years before NASCAR ventured back into the state, as Andy Vertrees brought the Xfinity (then Busch) series to his Louisville Motor Speedway for races in 1988 and 1989. The fledgling Truck Series made regular stops there from 1995-1999, only to see that end when a group of investors led by businessman and Turfway Park owner, Jerry Carroll decided to venture out of horse racing into NASCAR and build a 1.5-mile tri-oval at Sparta. The new track’s proximity to LMS, plus growing property values around that race facility ended racing at the quirky tri-corner track.
Carroll and company built the track with the goal to bring Cup to Kentucky. That was easier said than done as Cup dates were then as they are now, a very rare commodity. Around these parts we call it a long shot with a limb in the way, but Jerry even had a stiff crosswind thrown into his shot. Never discouraged, Carroll brought in every series he could, and fans responded as Truck and Xfinity races there were attended by crowds unheard of for those series at that time.
Since the track wasn’t on the Cup schedule, when NASCAR changed their testing rules and limited testing to non-Cup tracks, Kentucky became THE test track for Cup teams. Haulers were rolling in from the Carolinas so frequently that test dates were posted on-line. Being less than an hour away from the house meant that a slow workday might, just might result in a short drive north to watch some hot laps and get the need for Cup speed filled… not that that ever happened, mind you.
Everything seemed to point to Kentucky getting on the Cup schedule.
Carroll tried everything he knew to do to get a race date from NASCAR. Besides the huge turnouts for the lower series races, he begged, pleaded and eventually sued NASCAR in attempts to get Cup to Kentucky. After the lawsuit was unsuccessful, the group eventually sold out to Bruton Smith and SMI.
Smith had everything Kentucky needed. Lots of money to make improvements and expand seating to Cup levels in preparation for things to come. More importantly he owned lots of Cup tracks and several of those tracks had two Cup race dates. But Kentucky had something Bruton didn’t have… lots of hungry race fans in a new market. So, when attendance at his Atlanta track started to drop, Smith got approval to move one of his Atlanta Cup race dates to Kentucky. So, when the 2011 Cup schedules were announced, NASCAR not only rewarded race-hungry fans for their support by awarding Kentucky with two race dates each for Xfinity and Trucks but Kentucky had also landed the elusive Cup date.
Cup was finally coming to Kentucky.
Seating was expanded to over 100,000. Improvements were made to the garage area in order to accommodate the new series. It was time to go Cup racing.
The long-awaited inaugural event, the race that fans had waited years to see was nothing short of a disaster. The racing on the track was fine. The record shows that Kyle Busch won, beating David Reutimann by 0.179 seconds. It was his first Cup win of the 2011 season, twentieth of his career and it made him the second Cup race winner ever in the state, behind Richard Petty’s father, Lee.
Unfortunately, that won’t be remembered, but it was what took place off track that will go down in NASCAR history. I’ll spare you the painful details but let’s just say, SMI’s traffic control plan was woefully inadequate to handle the over 107,000 fans who had bought tickets to the sold out the inaugural event. The result was thousands upon thousands of fans stuck in traffic jams on all roads leading to the track who never made it in to see the race. Helicopter shots looked like the closing scene out of “Field of Dreams”… on steroids… except no cars were moving. No cars could move.
If things weren’t bad enough, they really got interesting after the Checkered Flag fell. Now you had folks who were trying to get to the track to see the race stuck going in and all the ones lucky enough to see the race now trapped trying to get out. Let’s just say that except for the few fans who were camping on-site and had no intentions of leaving, the remaining 105,000 fans or so left had put angry several laps down. The inaugural event, Kentucky’s shining moment went down in NASCAR history and is forever known as “Carmageddon”.
The only quick exit out of the mess was by helicopter for the fortunate few who had access to such transportation. Many of the media were trapped inside as well. Nate Ryan tweeted that the departure among the press corps was planned for 3:00 AM in the morning. That’s not to get out but attempt to get out. Writer Monte Dutton broke ranks with the writing herd early and embarked out on his own tweeting the best message that described the direness and frustration of the situation – if he could just make it to the river (Ohio) he could swim upstream to his hotel. I remember spending the rest of that first night following the disaster on Twitter, counting my lucky stars that I had been to enough races to know this was not the one to go to.
In its wake, thousands upon thousands of race fans old and new, had spent hundreds of dollars for tickets to a race they never saw just to sit stuck in traffic for the better part of the day. Some fans reported that between travel time to and from the track and sitting trapped in their vehicles they had spent approaching 24 hours in their vehicles… and never saw the race.
It is said that you only get one chance to make a good first impression… and SMI had failed… miserably. Their initial response was to shift responsibility to the State for not providing recently requested infrastructure changes and fans who failed to plan properly and come early, plan to stay late. Later there was an apology and attempts to make things right but fans, like Tuesday’s rainbow, were gone… just like that.
Things were ugly for a while. There were legislative hearings where SMI had to go before those same elected officials who had spent their entire race day trapped in a bus trying to get to the track and explain “Just what in the Wide, Wide World of Sports is going on here?” But in the end, SMI got the infrastructure improvements it wanted… much at State expense… just like Bruton wanted. Roads were widened, exits lengthened, pedestrian tunnels under roads and more added on the public’s dollar in hopes of improving access and keep those race revenue coming in. Unfortunately, and ironically, by the time they were completed they were no longer needed as the fans who had flooded Sparta to see the long-awaited Kentucky Cup race only to spend race night sitting in massive gridlock vowed never to come back… and many held to their promise.
Cancel Culture before it was cool.
Oh, many did return but it was never in those numbers that approached that first race. Attendance declined and never recovered. Cup crowd levels fell below those that for years Kentucky, under the ownership of the original visionary, Jerry Carroll enjoyed for Xfinity and Truck races. That same fan support that had attracted Bruton to buy Kentucky Speedway from Carroll in the first place, now gone. Race fans, who had gone to the 1.5-mile track season after pre-Cup race season to show support in hopes of one day getting a Cup race at their home track were “rewarded” in this way.
They never forgot.
All those angry fans had friends, who got to hear their horror stories, who told their friends and so on down the line. It wasn’t long before significant sections of never-to-again-be filled grandstands were dismantled, removed and shipped off to wherever once-filled stands, now hopelessly vacant, go off to die.
Kentucky’s fate was now sealed. It was now just a matter of time.
Racing at Kentucky continued on until Wednesday, September 30th when Kentucky’s clock struck midnight. Cinderella’s magnificent gala ball was over with no glass slipper left behind. It was then the fans who had remained loyal through it all found out Kentucky’s future fate. Between attendance, new tracks in the area (Nashville) being added to the schedule and SMI’s new direction to build a casino and theme park at the Atlanta track, the Kentucky race date was needed more in Atlanta than Kentucky. It was just too much to overcome. The track, which was uniquely centered between the plants of the manufacturers who participate in Cup -Toyota’s Georgetown Camry Production Plant, Ford’s Louisville Truck Plant and the Chevy’s Bowling Green Corvette Production Plant is no longer a part of NASCAR. Gone… just like that.
It’s a shame.
As they say, you get one chance to make a first impression and unfortunately getting a good deal on some wider roads and a tunnel cost everyone more in the long run. And before you say “Well the racing there sucked there, and it didn’t deserve a date” … Think about it. If you’re truly honest, if NASCAR pulled dates from every track that had sucky races, they would be running their 36 Cup race season about a half dozen tracks right now. It takes a lot of factors to make a good racing-the track is just one. A race-able race car is another. A race format that encourages racing is another. Atlanta gets to deal with all those factors and more… not once, but twice a year.
So now, Sparta (and Chicagoland) joins the ranks of the Rockinghams, North Wilkesboros, and all the other tracks once on the schedule, now gone. In a few years, maybe Junior can do a version two of his “Missing Tracks” show, and it’ll get back on TV again, but for now she’s gone… just like that.
I hate to see this day, but I’m thankful that we had our chance at the Big Time. Fans waited for so long to get that chance and they finally got it. And it started long before Sparta, as Andy Vertress was preparing fans by bringing a little piece of NASCAR to his LMS. Other fans, they aren’t so lucky. Folks in Iowa have been waiting for years and are still waiting. Maybe one day they will get their shot. Hope their treatment and the results are better.
Overall, I have a mix of emotions on this announcement. I’m a mess of thankfulness, sadness and disappointment.
I’m thankful that as fans we got what we got for as long as we got it. Kentucky has been recently criticized for its racing, but through the years we got to see Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. take the checkers here on their marches to win their respective Cup Championships. Early on Kyle and Brad exchanged wins. In later years, Martin Truex, Jr. jumped into the mix as Brad finished with three wins and Kyle and Martin taking home two wins with other Kentucky Cup winners including Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth.
Fans were critical of the racing there, but last year’s battle between brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch for the win still ranks as one of the most exciting finishes of that season, with Kurt coming away with the win. And this year, after the Governor allowed fanless racing at the track amidst the COVID Pandemic we got to see on TV rookie Cole Custer stun the series with his bold four wide restart pass that landed him in Victory Lane for his first Cup win ever, adding him to the ranks for Cup winners in the state, giving him the distinction of the being the final one.
The season isn’t over, but it may go down as one of the best finishes this year. Who knew at the time it would be Kentucky’s finale. But if you have to go away, what a way to go!
Who can forget the unsponsored Carl Edwards get his first NASCAR win in the Trucks here? Not only was a new star born and a future Hall of Fame career launched here, but Carl unveiled the coolest of winning celebrations-his signature backflip. As you watch him stick that first landing, just look at the crowd in the background… and that was for a Kentucky Truck race… with no Cup race in sight.
The Kentucky winters were hard on the track’s pavement. Bumps appeared on the racing surface. Those coupled with the dreaded Turn Three gave her character and created challenges as over the years more than one good driver miscalculated at the end of the backstretch and found themselves in the wall, often times taking others with him. Kentucky, she was a wide track and looked easy to drive but she could be tough and unforgiving as many found out.
And not all the Kentucky action was on-track as this year we saw Harrison Burton and Noah Gragson provide some post-Xfinity race extra-curriculars after a night of hard racing here.
In 2015 when Louisville-based Crosley joined Kentucky, the races here got one of the coolest trophies on the circuit – a Crosley juke box. It wasn’t a Martinsville Grandfather Clock or a Nashville Sam Bass guitar, but it was still one of the neatest and most sought trophies in NASCAR. Will Crosley go to Atlanta with other sponsors, like Quaker State? I doubt it. We’ll have to look forward to seeing if the new location has something as equally cool… if there is anything out there as equally cool.
If you ever went to the track, you had to venture to Turn Four and visit the Colonel. There on the front row was a statue of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s founder, Col. Harlan Sanders looking down on all the action. Some would go and take pictures with him… others would cuss him for his KFC one year flooding the race broadcast with commercial after endless KFC extra crispy commercials. I guess KFC was as excited about their new product as race fans were about the race. I wonder what the Colonel is thinking now? The big question is just where will he go now? I’ll go on record to say I don’t think Atlanta will be in his immediate future.
I’m glad I got the chance to volunteer at the track one year. A race day spent delivering water to track workers for the ARCA and Xfinity races was one awesome opportunity. A fellow volunteer and I, armed with a Gator, radio, coolers full of water and passes to go anywhere on the property but the suites, Victory Lane and Pit Lane and orders to keep those workers hydrated-man, what a job! Talk about seeing racing from a different side. It was a dream come true. I did my best to make sure those workers never went dry, but I have to admit I spent a lot of time scouting and scheming trying to figure out just how I could come back for the Cup race and work my way into Race Control to see Race Director David Hoots in action. It never happened but one could dream!
Kentucky gave me the chance to take my son to his first NASCAR race, to start our own tradition. It was Trucks, which for his age at that time was perfect. We not only got to go racing together but he got to pick a favorite-Kyle Busch, who he continues to root for today.
Coupled with all that is the sadness this news brought. I am sad for my son. 2020 was his year to go Cup Racing and was so disappointed when COVID took his shot away. It broke my heart, but he was so looking forward to 2021 when he would be allowed to go back to the track so he could see Kyle Busch run the “Big Cars” there. Now that’s gone too… just like that.
Guess we’ll find another track to try. Won’t be Indy. Not a good fit. I’m pretty sure it won’t be Atlanta. Not a good taste. Might try Nashville. Who knows, maybe there we’ll find a splinter from the guitar Kyle smashed there years ago. My son, he’d like that. In an odd sort of way, it’s kinda fitting that he’ll get his Cup fan start in the same town (different track) where my daddy first took me to my first Cup race in 1969. Nashville will once again be our home track.
Bruton giveth. Bruton taketh away. Kentucky… gone… just like that.
Thanks to all the Kentucky Speedway staff who made our brief stay in the “Bigs” so memorable. I know how tough this is on us fans… I can’t imagine what you all are going through. Our thoughts and prayers are will you and yours as you go forward into this new chapter in your lives.
Thanks to everyone who made racing happen here – from track owners to sponsors to car owners to drivers on down. You gave us memories we can hold onto now that the doors are closed and the track now silent. Wish you the best as you go forward into a new season.
Finally, thanks to all the fans. Yeah, on the first race everyone may have all been fighting for the same patch of open I-71 pavement so we could inch a little closer to the parking lot that many never made it to. But as COVID has shown us at the last race here, racing is a lot more fun when you can watch it live with 50K or so of your closest race friends. Thanks for being there through the years and making it fun.
A special thanks to all those fans who packed the stands long before Cup appeared. It was your dedication and loyalty that proved Cup had a place in Kentucky. Like that famous line out of that movie “Field of Dreams” … “If you build it they will come” you proved that true. Jerry Carroll built it. You came… in unprecedented numbers. It’s just a crying shame that once you came, they didn’t care enough to get you all in to watch that first race.
In closing, I think what I’m most disappointed in with the loss of Kentucky isn’t losing the Cup date but losing everything-Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series. Once again, there is no NASCAR in Kentucky… and that’s a shame. Plus, the way it was all done. You go to bed thinking you’re going to have races next year and wake up the next morning and they’re gone, all gone… just like that.
In many ways, the Wednesday schedule announcement is like the NASCAR fans’ Christmas. It is the next season. You go to bed Tuesday night, “Christmas Eve” waiting to see what “Santa” is going to bring you the next day. You wake up “Christmas morning” and rush in all excited to see what you got. This year, Kentucky and her fans woke up not to presents, not to A present, but nothing. Not even a lump of coal in their stocking. Most of all, not even a thank you.
The way it all went down reminds me how the Baltimore Colts wound up just up the road in Indianapolis. One night the good people of Baltimore went to bed looking forward to the next season with their beloved Colts and woke up and they were gone… just like that.
Yeah, I cried over that one too.
Now Fast Forward to 2024. Let’s see how much things have changed… and remained the same.
Kentucky Speedway still doesn’t have a date, Cup or otherwise. It’s now a storage lot for Ford Trucks awaiting chips so they can be completed and sold. Last I heard they still don’t have a track president. Guess you don’t need one if you don’t have any recent plans to run races there.
Time has allowed the revisionist history to get hold. The mantra now is Kentucky lost its date because of crappy racing, it was out in the middle of nowhere and there were no fans. This totally ignores the facts that the first race sold more tickets than the recently announced 2024 Daytona 500 sellout. Before it got a Cup date the Xfinity and Truck races outdrew Cup races at other tracks on the schedule. The fans were there.
When NASCAR banned testing on tracks on the circuit, Kentucky was THE test track for the series until testing was banned. Teams liked it because it had features that were applicable to a variety of different tracks, so it had to have promise. If you can test on it, surely you can race on it. A track re-config was tried but that didn’t help though. But until Vegas and Atlanta, SMI hasn’t had a lot of luck with those, just ask Bristol and Texas.
And as far as being in the middle of nowhere, I’ve gone to Bristol and had to stay in Asheville; Talladega and had to stay in Gardendale (other side of Birmingham). Few tracks have the infrastructure immediately around the track to house all the fans needing accommodations, but that’s what’s expected and if not provided is now justification to pull the date. Heck, Indy is in city (a BIG city) and wait till the last minute to find a room and see how close you can get to the track. If the lack of rooms in the immediate vicinity of the track is the reasons fans didn’t show up, they would have never showed up at Kentucky to begin with… for lower series races. It’s just an easy excuse. Besides fan support is no guarantee of a race date. Just ask the Road America fans.
Race-able cars? NEXT GEN has shown it is much better suited to this style track than previous versions and this year Kansas showed it could compete with the “Drafting Tracks” in Racing Lead Changes. Chances of fans ever seeing how they can do there… well, they are going to have to move a lot of trucks beforehand. But hey, North Wilkesboro came back (with lots of government help) so who’s to say…?
Iowa… they finally got their date. Took shutting down Fontana to get it, but they still got it. Should be a sellout with 24K seats (Just announced it is. Congratulations). Wishing them the best of luck. Hope the racing is good and the fans show well. This is your chance to shine.
As far as me finding another track-Indy or Nashville SuperSpeedway would be next closest. Seen Indy. I like a track where I can see everything. Nashville is now under SMI ownership, so I’ll have to get over some hard feelings there first before I spend my time and money with them. Same with Bristol. I was a season ticket holder there back when you had to sell a body organ to get a ticket. The Fairgrounds if that comes on-line? That will be hard to say because that was my first track in 1969. So, I’ve got a lot of thinking to do on this.
Back to the original question – Kentucky’s future? My crystal ball broke many years ago, but I don’t see the stars aligning anytime soon. They’d need a date and with it being an SMI track it would have to come from there. SMI will need to rob a date from one of their tracks for the Fairgrounds. That will be tough enough. North Wilkesboro could use one as well if a points race is in their future. Kentucky would be a distant third. Last I checked, Vegas and Atlanta are the only two SMI holdings that have two race dates each on the same configurations and I don’t see either of those dates coming to the Bluegrass State.
Thanks to The Daily Downforce for reposting the question though. The fact someone is talking about it means there is hope.
To Iowa and their fans, I wish you the very best. So happy you got your shot. Also happy for that Vertress fella you all had there from Louisville Motor Speedway. He helped get Kentucky on the circuit. Glad he’s got another one.
Heard you got your sellout, so hopefully that will be enough to come back in 2025. As we’ve learned (and Road America and Chicagoland, as well) In these changing times there are no guarantees. Enjoy every minute of it you can.
Hopefully, one day Kentucky can join you on the circuit. Till then, wishing you and your fans a great race experience and know, we’ll be watching.
Thunder On… and Stay Safe
Photo Credit (cover): Pintrest