Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Right time, place

Speedway hopes to capitalize on NASCAR boom

By Tom Groeschen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jerry Carroll's Kentucky Speedway staff has a carload of statistics that show how the $153 million speedway was built. But there are still some points to ponder.

        Why here?

        Why now?

        Why will nearly 60,000 people converge on tiny Sparta, Ky., this weekend when Carroll's speedway opens? The featured race is a NASCAR Craftsman Truck event 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

        First, why here? Because Carroll found 1,000 acres of Gallatin County farmland suitable for building. And because his research showed a population base of 51 million people within 300 miles of Cincinnati, with thousands willing to separate themselves from their money at a major speedway.

        Why now? Because NASCAR racing, particularly the major-league Winston Cup, has never been bigger. It has gone from a Southeastern curiosity to a national passion, with attendance growing 65 percent in the past decade and regular-season TV ratings second only to the NFL.

        “This will always be a Cincinnati Reds town,” Carroll said. “That will never change. But we're offering something different.”

        Cincinnati has a racing history dating nearly 100 years, with the first local race believed to have been at the old Oakley Mile Harness track in 1901.

        The city's last speedway, Tri-County/Queen City Speedway in West Chester, closed in 1987. That leaves suburban Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway and Florence (Ky.) Speedway, both of which still operate dirt tracks. And there are Tri-State Dragway (Hamilton) and Edgewater Sports Park (Cleves), which still offer drag racing.

        “I know lots of Cincinnati

        people, wealthy people, many kinds of people who've told me, "I've never been to a race, but I'm going to yours,'” Carroll said.

        There are the very wealthy, some spending thousands of dollars for luxury suites. There are the ordinary fans who have counted pennies, saving for season tickets on the chance Winston Cup does come. There are the curious, folks who know little about racing but have heard this track is a big deal.

        “It's great for our local race fans who maybe can't get to the other big tracks,” said Dave Renner, host of the Pit Talk racing show, Thursdays on WMOH (1450-AM), and an ARCA driver.

        Carroll is hoping to cash in on the phenomenon that has made NASCAR a $2 billion annual business. There will be the usual amenities of the big-time tracks — souvenirs, a museum, driving schools.

        There also will be an Indy Racing League event at the track Aug. 27, the Belterra Indy Resort 300. But while the IRL should draw well here, it is NASCAR that will drive Carroll's track.

        Carroll has a NASCAR Craftsman Truck race for this weekend, the series' No.3 tier nationally. He hopes to have a Busch race (No.2 tier) next year, then a Winston race by 2003 or so.

        The NASCAR-mania numbers, which NASCAR and Carroll's people can provide at the drop of a flag, include:

        • Attendance at Winston Cup events is up about 65 percent since 1990. Among major sports, the NBA had the second-biggest growth in that span, at 12 percent.

        • Retail sales from NASCAR-related products exceeded $1 billion in 1999, up from just $80 million in 1990.

        Cable television, savvy marketing and a strong public relations staff all have helped NASCAR. Fortune 500 sponsors are everywhere in Winston Cup, including Budweiser, Kellogg, Kodak and McDonald's.

        For sponsors, the fact is that speed sells.

        Even with all that, there are problems. This year there have been empty seats at some events, as fans rebel against rising ticket and hotel prices.

        Some believe NASCAR popularity finally has peaked. There is talk of overbuilt stadiums and not enough bodies to fill them. There is the fact that races are becoming more corporate than family affairs, with luxury boxes a prime selling point.

        But in the Cincinnati area, Kentucky Speedway seems all fun and new. The Tristate never has had a speedway of this size and magnitude. The first year will draw crowds because of the inaugural season, but how many people will return if Winston Cup never materializes?

        Will NASCAR ever put a Winston date here? NASCAR CEO Mike Helton has told The Enquirer that, with venues in Indianapolis, Michigan and Tennessee, this area is already fairly saturated with Winston events. Helton said NASCAR wants “new” markets, evidenced by his organization recently awarding Winston dates to new tracks in Kansas City and Chicago.

        Carroll remains undaunted.

        “There are so many things that bring the race fan back, and we don't have to apologize to any fans that we don't have something,” Carroll said. “... With Winston Cup, we believe they will always go where the market is. We're going to put on a performance, and let the facility speak for itself.”


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