Former NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip promised the original owners of Kentucky Speedway that if they built the 1.5-mile track tucked in the northern Kentucky hills right, NASCAR would trip over itself trying to give the circuit a Cup race.
More than a decade, a bitter court case, a well-timed sale and some sweet talking from one of the sport’s most powerful figures later, but Waltrip was right. Finally.
NASCAR’s top series will debut at the track on July 9, 2011, part of a revamped 2011 Cup schedule designed to goose the series’ sagging attendance figures and provide it with some needed buzz.
Kansas announced earlier Tuesday it will host a second race next year, getting the second Cup date previously held by Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., which announced it’s one race in 2011 will be March 27. Phoenix International Raceway, meanwhile, is moving one of its races into the second week of the year, which had previously been filled by the California track.
The full Cup schedule is expected to be completed by Aug. 18th.
“Ideally whenever you go into a new market, you want to find a date that’s going to work the best,” said NASCAR vice president of racing operations Steve O’Donnell. “So that took cooperation from all the tracks to be able to free up this date.”
Kentucky is the first new venue to join the Cup schedule since Chicago and Kansas were added in 2001.
“We hit the big-time,” said Waltrip, who grew up in western Kentucky. “Ka-ching.”
The announcement ended a decade-long pursuit of a Cup date for the original owners, who grew so angry by NASCAR’s perceived reluctance to award the track a Cup race that they filed an antitrust lawsuit against NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. in 2005, claiming they had an unfair monopoly on the sport.
The case ended earlier this year, clearing the way for new owner Speedway Motorsports Inc., to juggle its track lineup to hand Kentucky the Cup date it has coveted for so long.
Former owner Jerry Carroll, whose group sold the track to SMI in 2008, gave all the credit to SMI owner Bruton Smith.
“Without Bruton we wouldn’t have a race,” Carroll said. “In all candor, we couldn’t get a race done. We could build the facility, we could have the dream but you had to be in that inner circle to make something happen.”
Smith has been adamant about getting Kentucky a Cup race since SMI took over, giving the track an extensive makeover in preparation for bringing stock car’s elite drivers.
The state chipped in too, promising generous tax breaks to the track if SMI could secure a Cup date. The speedway already hosts annual visits from NASCAR’s Nationwide and Truck Series and IndyCar. The Nationwide race, a stand alone event held in June previously, will be coupled with the Cup race next year.
Smith plans to put the money to work, saying SMI will invest $90 million to $100 million to get the venue Cup ready. That includes expanding capacity to around 120,000, adding a dozen elevators and clearing out 200 acres for camping.
When asked if he could click everything off his ambitious checklist in the next 11 months, the affable octogenarian didn’t hesitate.
“All of it,” he said. “Every bit of it.”
Track officials estimate the race could generate up to $150 million a year in economic impact. A much-needed infusion for a state crippled by the recession.
“Start your engines,” said Gov. Steve Beshear, “because here we go.”
The track has won raves from Cup drivers, who tested at Kentucky regularly for years before NASCAR scaled back testing to save money.
Cup driver Joey Logano, who has won each of the last three Nationwide races here, first came to Kentucky when he was in middle school, winning a Legends race at the track when he was 12.
“I used to come up here about every week and I was like, ‘Man, I hope I can come up here someday and race (a Cup race) here’” Logano said. “I know what I’m looking here.”
While allowing Cup racing will likely be a little trickier because the Cup cars are heavier and more difficult to maneuver, Logano has no doubts the track will deliver a compelling product.
Waltrip called Kentucky the “raciest” of NASCAR’s 1.5-mile tracks because of the ability to race on multiple lines.
Tuesday’s announcement included a touch of the Bluegrass, with a bugler making the call to the post normally reserved for horse racing at Churchill Downs.
The path to a Cup event, was more marathon than sprint. The original owners thought they had a first-class facility when it opened in 2000 yet their pursuit of a Cup date fell flat.
Frustrated by what they considered a lack of cooperation from NASCAR and ISC, they filed a federal lawsuit hoping to break up what they perceived as a monopoly.
Federal judges twice sided with NASCAR before the ownership group finally gave up earlier this year.
Smith called the lawsuit a major stumbling block in getting a Cup race, and things moved quickly when the case was finally dropped.
NASCAR CEO Brian France called Kentucky a “worthy market” at Indianapolis last month and momentum quickly built. NASCAR granted SMI’s petition to move the spring Cup race at Atlanta to Kentucky, and suddenly the track’s long journey to landing a Cup date was over.
Yet Smith didn’t get everything he wanted. Las Vegas Speedway announced early Tuesday it was going to have just one Cup race in 2011 though Smith said NASCAR was “morally obligated” to give the popular track a second date.