With Carroll driving, track can't lose

Sunday, July 19, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Sheila Beatty pulls son A.J., 5, from Bobby Hamilton's race car at Turfway Park Saturday.
(AP photo)
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The dirt was imported. A backhoe broke ground in Gallatin County, and the precious soil was trucked to Turfway Park for ceremonial shoveling.

Jerry Carroll's people took a lot of pains to stage a photo opportunity Saturday -- the symbolic groundbreaking for the Kentucky Speedway -- and this is one of the reasons the project should prosper. Carroll sweats the small details that often add up to a big score.

Carroll doesn't have as much of the vision thing as he does the hearing thing. He listens to what people want, and then he sets out to supply it. He is building a racetrack not out of any great love of cars, but because he has been able to identify an intense demand for an unfilled niche.

If Saturday's ceremonies were any indication, Kentucky Speedway promises to be the perfect marriage of an attentive entrepreneur with an appreciative audience. Roughly 10,000 race fans showed up at Turfway for an autograph session with assorted drivers. Some of them camped out to ensure leading places in line. Carroll saw some of their tents when he drove in at 7 a.m. and was reassured that his risk would be rewarded.

"If we held this groundbreaking and 20 people showed up, I'd be worried," Carroll said. "But these people are driven."

Tom Ferguson drove to the premises at 5 a.m., though the gates would not open until 11. The Greenhills forklift operator secured the shady pole position at Jeremy Mayfield's outdoor signing table and waited more than two hours for the driver.

"He drives Fords," Ferguson said. "I don't like no Chevy drivers."

Racing fans are as loyal as Labradors, and almost as undemanding. They drive incredible distances to follow their favorite driver -- Ferguson is a season-ticket holder at the track in Bristol, Tenn. -- and they customarily consider it a duty to patronize the sponsors.

"Fans in the '60s and '70s, they had no expectations," said Darrell Waltrip, the three-time NASCAR points champion. "If they had to sit on a Coke carton and there were no bathrooms, that's what racing was."

Spectators are a little more particular about their speedway experience nowadays. They want to be able to see the entire track from their seats, good access roads and plenty of parking. If Carroll follows through on his state-of-the-art blueprint, Kentucky Speedway should be a money machine.

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Overhead view
Overhead view
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Artists renderings include a heliport, an infield playground, and seating for 63,000. The grandstands will grow with the demand for tickets, and could be swiftly expanded for a Winston Cup race. To get one, Carroll will probably enlist the effusive Waltrip.

"We're going to go down to Daytona Beach and get (NASCAR czar) Bill France by the ear," Waltrip, a native of Owensboro, Ky., promised. "I'm going to tell him, "Looky here, Bill, we need to be racing here real soon.' "

Waltrip will be armed with a persuasive argument. Older, landlocked NASCAR tracks, some of which stage two Winston Cup events per season, cannot produce the kind of purses possible in newer, larger facilities. Jerry Carroll is building in the midst of a boom.

"When Bruton Smith built condos at Charlotte, he offered them to some of the drivers for $75,000," Cale Yarborough recalled Saturday. "I told him, "I know you're a pretty smart man, but who in the world would want to own a condo at a racetrack?' "

Those same condos sell today for as much as $400,000. In racing, it always helps to be ahead of the curve.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at Speedway groundbreaking
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