Friday, June 18, 2004
Kentucky not in Nextel's future
Speedway's desires compete with booked NASCAR schedule
By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A concrete and asphalt oval-racing paradise sits waiting in Sparta, Ky., 35 miles southwest of Greater Cincinnati, 65 miles northeast of Louisville and 85 miles north of Lexington.
They built it, but NASCAR didn't come - not at the premier level, anyway. On Saturday, Kentucky Speedway will host its fourth NASCAR Busch Series race, but the 5-year-old track has been turned away once again by NASCAR for a coveted Nextel Cup race in 2005. And so the annual game of "wait 'til next year" begins as Speedway officials find their way in the ever-increasing political battle of landing a Cup date. Owner Jerry Carroll and Speedway investors target 2006, of course, but they said the same about 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Though Kentucky Speedway has displayed impressive marketing ability in drawing 69,000-plus sellouts for all of its Busch races, the primary issue regarding Nextel Cup remains the same: There is no room on the 36-race schedule for Kentucky unless the track merges with or is acquired outright by a major speedway ownership group.
"There's nothing that indicates we'll have to completely sell out," said Carroll, who along with four other investors forms Kentucky Speedway's core ownership group. "Our group is open to making something happen. Whatever we have to do to get this Cup race, that's what we'll do. But the five of us want to remain in it in some way."
Making that deal happen has become Carroll's passion, a barometer by which his legacy in auto racing ultimately will be measured.
Will he be able to bring Nextel Cup to Greater Cincinnati as he has promised since building the track?
To do so, Carroll probably must negotiate with one of two rival companies: International Speedway Corp. or Speedway Motorsports Inc., powerful auto racing entities that would have to agree to transfer one of their Nextel Cup races to Kentucky Speedway.
As NASCAR's unofficial right arm, International Speedway Corp. owns 12 racetracks and is in the planning stages to build two more, in the New York City borough of Staten Island and in the Pacific Northwest.
NASCAR's first family, the Frances, control ISC, whose president, Lesa Kennedy, is the sister of NASCAR chairman Brian France, who is on ISC's board of directors. International Speedway Corp. hosts 21 Nextel Cup events, more than any other company. It does not appear interested in adding any races by coming into Kentucky.
"International Speedway Corporation ... has no current plans for acquisition or development with Kentucky Speedway," ISC spokesman David Talley said.
The New York project is expected to be a joint effort between Speedway Motorsports Inc. and ISC because of the enormous costs associated with building and operating a track in New York City.
With six tracks, SMI is not actively looking to acquire Kentucky Speedway, but the company is aware of Kentucky's potential.
"Kentucky is in a very, very good market," SMI president Humpy Wheeler said. "Over a period of time, I would think they would be looked at strongly. The problem is, if there's a merger, what do you do with them? You can't bring in a date that doesn't exist, and unless you've got a weak speedway, it doesn't make sense to take a race away from a track and give it to Kentucky."
As the last independent speedway built in the United States, Kentucky Speedway is left to fend for itself and infiltrate two companies whose focuses are elsewhere. By continuing to move races out of the Southeast, NASCAR has shown an intention to realign its schedule to meet growing interest, but the likelihood that an independent track would receive a reshuffled race is slim.
"The odds are not in your favor to remain an independent and get a Cup date," Kentucky Speedway general manager Mark Cassis said. "And we know that. But you keep operating and make sure you've exhausted every avenue you can as an independent."
For now and in the foreseeable future, Kentucky Speedway will remain the largest track in the country without a Cup date unless a dramatic philosophical shift occurs in the powers that control NASCAR.
Carroll's track continues to put on one of the best shows in the Busch Series and secured a five-year title sponsorship deal with Meijer, a length nearly unheard of at the Busch level.
But the blueprint for making a Nextel Cup deal happen remains largely a mystery.
"Once we understand the deal itself, then we will be capable of understanding our entrance into the Nextel family," Carroll said. "We are not, nor have we ever been told that we are not, not part of NASCAR's realignment.
"We're on the dance floor. We can hear the music. We've just got to get the right tune."
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