Darrell Waltrip talks about the evolution of Kentucky Speedway.
By Darrell WaltripFoxSports
In 1998, I was standing on this very spot where I am Saturday at Kentucky Speedway with Jerry Carroll, who was running point for groups of investors, and we were looking out into a big open field. He told me that we were going to build a beautiful, 1 1/2-mile race track and if things worked out that one day we might even get a NASCAR Sprint Cup race here.
I told Jerry then that the key would be to build the track to Cup standards and have all the amenities and that over time I believed we could convince NASCAR that this is a great market. The northern Kentucky and southwest Ohio market is huge. They were craving a race track like this. In addition to that, you had major corporations such as Cintas and Procter & Gamble right here in the area that would support it.
So we broke ground in 1998 and, two short years later, opened up with a Camping World Truck Series race in front of 75,000 screaming fans. I honestly don’t know who was more excited — all those fans in the stands or me — for having a track the quality that Kentucky Speedway was. We all knew this place was something special.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We were able to add a Nationwide Series race, but NASCAR resisted allocating a Sprint Cup date here. You have to remember that, at the time, Chicago and Kansas were coming online. Even the folks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway voiced their concern that Kentucky Speedway was too close to them.
Things looked bleak, and many lost hope. For those of us who endured, the answer came in one Mr. Bruton Smith. He promised me and anyone who would listen that he would bring a Sprint Cup date to Kentucky Speedway. The man lived up to his word.
Bruton took one of the race dates from his Atlanta Motor Speedway and brought it here to Kentucky, where we are now enjoying our third year. It’s been a thrill for me to have been here when it literally was me standing on a hill looking out over a field, to what we have today.
No one can ignore the problems of the very first Sprint Cup race. While this place was capable of handling 75,000 fans in the past, the infrastructure simply was overwhelmed when 140,000 showed up for that first Cup race. Bruton then did what Bruton has always done when there is a problem. He rolled up his sleeves and went to work to solve it.
He and the track worked with the state of Kentucky to expand and improve the infrastructure, making it much easier for folks to come and go from Kentucky Speedway. I’ve said for many years that Bruton Smith is a race fan's best friend, and he proved it once again by taking a negative and turning it into an overwhelming positive for the fans.
Now this joint holds a triple-header weekend featuring the Camping World Truck Series on Thursday night, the Nationwide Series on Friday night and then, naturally, the Sprint Cup race on Saturday night.
This past Thursday night, we saw young Ty Dillon in his Bass Pro Shops No. 3 truck show Cup regulars Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch how it's done. So he and his grandfather and truck owner, Richard Childress, got to celebrate his second win in the trucks series.
On Friday, I had the honor of taking Delilah Selensky and Justin Ayres from Moore, Okla., on a pace-car ride. These are two teachers who are true heroes — who saved a number of students' lives when that deadly tornado slammed into their school in May. We also took our buddy and national anthem singer Bo Bice with us. He was in the back seat, and I think he might have a new single coming out called “Screaming In The Back Seat.”
Unfortunately, the rain moved in 30 laps from the finish of the Feed The Children 300, so Brad Keselowski, who was leading at the time of the red flag, was declared the winner. That was his second win in the Nationwide Series this year.
On Saturday night, we have Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Sprint Cup pole with yet another track record being broken. He and his No. 88 blazed around this joint at more than 183 mph. You also will see during the Cup race that the walls around the track are green and not my Kentucky blue. Can you guess why? The answer is the race is the Quaker State 400.
One of my favorite NASCAR sayings is “there’s a limit to what you’ll do for a friend — but there's no limit to what you will do for a sponsor." So with Quaker State as the sponsor, the walls tonight are Quaker State green. I think that is a really nice touch.
The prerace show will be exciting. The track has activities all day long for the fans. Heck, they even woke all of us up here in the motor-coach lot in the infield as they were taking some lucky fans around the track with a drive-and-ride program. Those lucky fans are having a dream of a lifetime, just like I am having a dream of a lifetime with a NASCAR Sprint Cup race here in my home state.
I also want to take a minute and send a big thank you to Sonoma Raceway president and general manager Steve Page and his entire staff out there. I had been asked by Steve to serve as the grand marshal last week, and what a thrill that was. All his folks out there made sure that Stevie and I wanted for nothing. Being able to give the command for the drivers to start their engines is always a thrill. I even worked in a “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity — Let's Go Racin’, Boys and Girl!”
On Saturday night, though, it’s racing in the Bluegrass State under the lights. Thank you to all the fans who have stuck by Kentucky Speedway through thick and thin. It sure means a lot to all of us, including me, who have put our hearts and souls into this track!