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Oh what a night!
Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway saw the culmination of a lot of people’s dreams, vision, hard work and dedication. You know back in July of 1998, I was one of those who helped turn the first spade of dirt for what the Speedway was to become. We all knew even back then that the tri-state area track would serve as a hotbed for race fans. We knew those fans were hungry for racing and so our ultimate goal was to get a NASCAR Sprint Cup date there.
We knew that if a great Speedway was built in a great market like the one that Kentucky Speedway serves, eventually NASCAR would have to take the place seriously. So that became the plan. It was a first-class facility built in a great location.
Now sure, none of us had a crystal ball and could have foreseen all the obstacles that lay ahead. Trust me, there were many. It started with the very first race ever run there in 2000 with the Camping World Truck Series race. The skies opened up and we didn’t know if it was ever going to stop raining. There was talk of postponing it, but that wasn’t necessary. The rains finally stopped, NASCAR was able to get the track dried and the green flag waved for the very first time there.
You have to admire the dedication of the fans. There was water everywhere but yet they came. They struggled to find a place to park. They struggled to get to the track around all the water and mud. That was a clear signal to all of us that we had made the right decision to put the track there. If those fans were willing to endure everything that Mother Nature threw at them to come watch the very first truck race at Kentucky Speedway, well then the sky was the limit.
Then the following year things advanced to another level with the addition of a Nationwide race. Following that, IndyCar races and ARCA races were added. It didn’t matter what series was racing at Kentucky Speedway because the fans simply showed up in droves. Time after time the place set attendance records for stand-alone racing events. However, the dream of one day having a NASCAR Sprint Cup race there seemed always elusive.
It wasn’t easy to endure. The original investor group got tired of investing money into the track in hopes of one day getting that highly sought-after Cup date. The investors got so disillusioned at one point that they filed a lawsuit against NASCAR. That turned things from bad to worse. That was tough to deal with and hard to overcome.
The courts finally sided with NASCAR and said the investors didn’t have a case. Speedway Motorsports owner Bruton Smith then came into the picture. He bought the racetrack and announced in 2010 that he would bring a Cup race to Kentucky Speedway. Bruton was true to his word. As you all know, he owns a number of tracks that have dates on the NASCAR schedule, so he rearranged the allocation of dates and Saturday night, July 9, 2011, became the pinnacle of the track’s history.
Also to Bruton’s credit, once he took it over, he spent millions upon millions of dollars to improve the facility. Remember, by now it was now 10 years old and needed upgrades. Bruton did all that.
It’s not where it needs to be yet. We all know that. And unfortunately, Saturday night proved that. Over the years the ability to get 50,000 or 60,000 people in and out of the joint had evolved. Now with additional seating and natural increase of attendance with the Cup date, those totals swelled by an additional 50,000 people.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear was there. He recognizes the issues and will address them. He agrees there are issues with Interstate 71 that have to be addressed. Bruton Smith has said he wants to open up something like 250 more acres for parking. Everyone, while knowing it wasn’t the best option, thought that at least for the first race the plans in place would be adequate. They missed it and missed it big time.
One of the things that Bruton is known for is improvements to a race track. He’s legendary in our sport for doing that. He’s done it at every track he has owned and he will continue to do it at Kentucky Speedway. I talked to him, and a priority for him is getting things straightened out and improved at Kentucky Speedway.
What happened Saturday night can’t happen again and, trust me, Bruton won’t let it happen. It just turned out to be overwhelming. The fans just came and came and came. Everybody was blown away by the magnitude of the crowd. Now sure, things were a mess Saturday night. You can’t ignore the positive side of it and that’s the fans turned out. It was exciting to have a new date on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. We haven’t had that in years.
The air was just electric all week. We had a great truck race on Thursday night that Kyle Busch won. Then Friday night saw Brad Kesolowski take home the checkered flag, after my brother Michael and I were dealt a blow earlier in the day.
Michael had chosen Kentucky as the place to honor me and my recent selection into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He took my 1975 orange and white paint scheme from my first NASCAR Cup win and combined that with old Victory Lane photos for his paint scheme. The car was so cool; however, Mother Nature had other ideas.
NASCAR wasn’t able to finish their Cup qualifying session before the skies opened up. Even though he was fast enough in qualifying, because the way the rules are written, if not all cars get a chance to qualify, the Cup field is set based on points. Michael didn’t have enough points to make the race and so the Tribute car for Saturday night didn’t happen.
That was a big deal to both of us because obviously being from Owensboro, Ky., it would have meant the world to us to have that car in the very first Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. So Michael is looking at possibly trying it again later in the season. I sure appreciate what he tried to do this weekend for his older brother, though.
Kyle Busch dominated Saturday night. That made two wins in three nights of racing there for him. You have to give a tip of the hat to David Reutimann. He came on really strong Saturday night and brought the No. 00 car home in second spot. That was a great finish for him.
I know there are a lot of fans out there that were discouraged and disheartened by what happened Saturday night. A lot will be done to make things better. Will it ever be perfect? Nah, probably not, but that is always the goal to strive for.
There were a lot of problems Saturday night. You fans came to show your support and you endured it all. Trust me when I tell you it will get better. In the short term, I know Bruton Smith has already begun working on a plan to solve the traffic issue plus something for those that had tickets and couldn’t get in.
Every one of us from the Kentucky governor on down is committed to making Kentucky Speedway a show place. After what some of you went through Saturday night, I know it is really tough to ask you to be patient, but that’s what I am going to do. I promise as soon as Bruton figures out the new plan, I will fill you in.
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