Sunday, June 11, 2000

Carroll chases the NASCAR dream

By Tom Groeschen and Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jerry Carroll stands on the finished track of his Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        Jerry Carroll did not build Kentucky Speedway because of a great love for auto racing, although that is part of it. Mostly, he is a real-estate developer who saw a chance and seized it.

        “I'm a salesman at heart,” Carroll said. “This is just another chapter in my life, and right now I'm selling Kentucky Speedway.”

        Carroll is chairman and developer of the 11/2-mile speedway, which opens for racing next weekend (June 16-17) with a NASCAR Craftsman Truck race featured Saturday night. The 66,000-seat speedway is in Sparta, Ky., about 40 miles southwest of downtown Cincinnati.

        Carroll, 55, is trying to capitalize on the NASCAR popularity wave. Winston Cup has risen to No. 2 in regular-season sports TV ratings, behind only the National Football League.

        With no major speedway within 100 miles of Cincinnati, Carroll saw a need and tried to fill it. He purchased 1,000 acres of land in Gallatin County, and his speedway today is nearly complete.

        Don Schumacher, president of Don Schumacher Associates and a consultant to Carroll on the speedway project, said Carroll's vision has helped him succeed.

        “Jerry's one of those people that you either like or you don't like,” Schumacher said. “He's such an entrepreneur and so full-speed ahead, he sometimes blazes right by people.”

        The bespectacled Carroll is small in stature, but his effervescent,

        go-getter personality has won important friends and influenced the right people. Some of Carroll's biggest deals have been tied to his close associations with politicians to whom he has contributed money.

        Since 1997, Carroll has given $19,000 to Democratic and Republican candidates and political organizations, according to Federal Election Commission records. He also has helped both parties raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in Kentucky.

        He has written checks to U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican; U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Democrat; Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat; the Democratic National Committee; the Kentucky Republican Party State Senate Trust; and the presidential campaign of Democrat Al Gore.

        “Jerry Carroll is one of the few people who can call Paul Patton and Jim Bunning and both are eager to take his call,” said Kentucky GOP Vice Chairman Damon Thayer, director of marketing for The Breeders' Cup in Lexington. Thayer worked for Carroll at Turfway Park horse-racing course in Florence.

Well-connected lobbyist
        Carroll owned Turfway from 1986-98. He sold it for $37 million in early 1999 to devote full attention to the speedway.

        Since leaving the highly regulated thoroughbred horse racing industry, Carroll's political contributions have dropped off. But he is still well-connected, particularly in the Kentucky capital of Frankfort.

        His lawyer and head lobbyist for the speedway is Mark Guilfoyle of Edgewood, a true Frankfort insider who served as chief of staff under former Gov. Brereton Jones.

        Guilfoyle helped convince lawmakers to pass a bill earlier this year that will allow liquor to be sold on Sundays at Kentucky Speedway. Laws in Gallatin County do not allow Sunday sales of alcohol, but the speedway was granted an exemption.

        There are other examples of Carroll receiving favorable treatment in Frankfort:

        ăThe road leading to the speedway was scheduled to be widened and improved, but the work was moved up after Carroll announced plans for the speedway.

        ăThe speedway was given $17.5 million in tax credits under a state incentive program for tourism projects that was pushed through the General Assembly two years ago. Another project that received the tax break was the Newport Aquarium.

        Carroll and four other major investors — Richard Duchossois, Richard Farmer, John Lindahl and Chris Sullivan — are spending $153 million to build Kentucky Speedway.

        This is the latest career venture for Carroll, who grew up in nearby Aurora, Ind., and now lives in Fort Mitchell, Ky.

        Even in his darkest hours, Carroll has tried to make the best of things. In 1996 he was arrested twice for driving under the influence of alcohol, then announced he would help establish an office for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Northern Kentucky. He also staged two events at Turfway Park with some of the proceedings going to MADD.

        Stan Chesley, a prominent Cincinnati attorney, once did a feasibility study with Carroll on Cinergy Field renovation and stadium construction in Cincinnati.

        “Jerry is one of the most creative, imaginative people I know, but the difference between he and so many others is he follows through and gets things done,” Chesley said. “I'm glad he's not practicing law, because I couldn't handle the competition.”

        Carroll has rubbed elbows with President Clinton at Chesley's Democratic fund-raisers in Cincinnati. Carroll occasionally sports a pair of presidential cuff links given him by Clinton.

        “Anybody who goes to one of Clinton's big fund-raisers gets them,” Carroll said. “It's not that big of a deal.”

        The son of a country club manager, Carroll once aspired to be a comedian. He played golf collegiately and briefly was a golf professional, then went into real estate in 1972 in Nashville.

        His brash, wheeler-dealer persona did not always sit well.

        “I can remember when I was totally shunned in the develop ment business, but I became the largest office-building developer in Tennessee,” Carroll said. “That's been my whole life, having to prove myself.”

        By the mid-1980s, having conquered Nashville, Carroll was searching for more office space when he came upon some land in Florence, about 10 miles south of Cincinnati. He bought the old Latonia horse track in 1986 and renamed it Turfway Park.

        Some $30 million later, he had helped turn Turfway and its surrounding land into one of the most dominant areas of commercial development in Greater Cincinnati.

Horses to cars
        When Turfway Park started losing customers to the new Indiana riverboat casinos a few years ago, Carroll pondered a move out. He had heard of the NASCAR boom, and enlisted Schumacher for a feasibility study.

        Carroll traveled to speedways nationwide, took notes, then jumped in. He had never been to a major auto race before that but said he had long followed NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip, who was a Tennessee hero when Carroll worked there. Waltrip now is a paid consultant for Carroll's speedway.

        “When you go to an auto race and see the start, there's nothing like it,” Carroll said. “It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”

        In January 1998, Carroll announced he would build a 11/2-mile motor speedway just off I-71, on rolling farmland near tiny Sparta. He also bought Louisville Motor Speedway to show NASCAR he was a “player,” the idea being to move Louisville's Craftsman Truck race to Kentucky Speedway. That, Carroll hoped, would be a springboard to getting a Winston Cup race.

        Ground was broken for Kentucky Speedway in July 1998.

        The following year, NASCAR moved its Louisville truck race to Kentucky for 2000.

        Carroll said he can make money on the speedway without a Winston Cup race, which he hopes to attract by 2003. Other events, such as a Metallica concert July 8, will bring in extra money. But the goal is a Winston event, the top circuit in U.S. motor sports, featuring drivers such as Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

        Carroll loves doing multimillion dollar deals and being in the spotlight, but mostly he just likes the action.

        “It's not about the money,” he said. “It's the enthusiasm and the drive. Once I feel a little of that enthusiasm waning, I know it's time to move that product and move on to something else.”

        That could include Kentucky Speedway. Carroll doesn't rule out selling the track perhaps 10 years from now, or even sooner.

        “He has an almost boyish enthusiasm about everything he does,” Schumacher said. “But with all that emotion, he has calculation.”

        Andy Furman, a WLW-AM sports talk-show host, said he almost can't wait to hear what Carroll's next project might be.

        “He's a guy who does things,” Furman said. “This speedway thing came up almost overnight, and now look at it. Here's a guy we're really lucky to have in our Tristate area.

        “Whether or not you like horse racing or auto racing, just look what he's done for the economy here with new jobs.”

He gets it done
        While Carroll's business ventures do profit through assistance from government and politicians, so do others as well as the local economy, said Hayes Robertson, a Republican Party strategist and fund-raiser from Covington.

        “Jerry Carroll does what is good for Northern Kentucky, and yes, those things are good for him, too,” Robertson said. “But Jerry supports politicians that are working hard for Northern Kentucky and who can get things done for this region.”

        Carroll said he has accomplished almost everything he has wanted in life. The speedway, especially if it gets a Winston Cup race, would be his crowning achievement. With typical Carroll flair, he has called the speedway, “the most important facility ever built in the state of Kentucky.”

        “People want to find out whether you can add value to their business,” Carroll said. “Right now, once we show NASCAR we'll add value to the industry, we'll be accepted.

        “I'm a developer, and that means I'm a dreamer. I live off of dreams.”

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