Sunday, June 18, 2000

Carroll strikes gold despite mud

        SPARTA, KY. — Jerry Carroll went up to the roof to survey his kingdom Saturday afternoon, and all around him was gridlock.

        I-71 was backed up for miles. Highway 35 was bumper-to-bumper. Overnight rain had turned some of Carroll's parking lots to swamps, and the weather forecast said things would only get soggier for the grand opening of Kentucky Speedway.

Big crowd watches the start of the race
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        And still they came. Four hours before the scheduled start of the Kroger 225, the cars were moving at maybe one mile per hour, but the race fans pressed on against the elements and toward the track. You didn't need to see the ledgers to know Carroll had struck gold in Gallatin County. The traffic told you everything.

        “There's something about this sport,” Carroll said Saturday afternoon. “People want it. They're passionate about it ... and this is a truck race. This isn't Winston Cup.”

        Kentucky Speedway was not equipped for its popularity Saturday. When the parking ran out, some spectators were turned away. Angry customers are always bad for business, but it was a testament to the track that so many endured so much to get there.

        Jerry Carroll does not completely comprehend the American motorsports phenomenon, but he understands excitement and he is fluent in cash flow. He couldn't begin to describe an intake manifold, much less how Wayne Anderson's got him disqualified in Friday's track opener.

        “I know one thing about a car — that you put gas into it and go,” he said. “And every time I pull up to a gas pump, I'm on the wrong side.”

        Carroll's strength is not in the small details, but the big picture. A hundred Tri-State entrepeneurs might have picked up on NASCAR's soaring popularity, but when Carroll senses an opportunity, he usually seizes it. Kentucky Speedway exists because of his vision, his instincts, his salesmanship and (mostly) his nerve.

        Carroll concedes he was over his head when he turned his high-beams on auto racing. He would say the same of his equine experience at Turfway Park. He has struck it rich by living by a simple credo: “Fake it until you make it.”

        The former drama student relishes the role of Willy Loman, the doomed protagonist of Death Of A Salesman, but his character more closely resembles that of Starbuck, the charismatic huckster of The Rainmaker. When Carroll starts a pitch, your first instinct is to guard your wallet. When he's finished, you wind up wishing you'd been in on the ground floor.

        “A con man comes, he cons you and he's gone,” Carroll said. “I've got to play the whole ballgame.”

        What that entails at Kentucky Speedway remains to be seen, but the track's potential is plain. While Saturday's near-capacity crowd was attributable at least in part to the novelty of the new track and some spectators were surely turned off by the traffic, Carroll has clearly tapped into a huge market.

        He will need to do some damage control in the days ahead, soothing spectators who were inconvenienced and/or infuriated by the parking predicament. He should also resolve to replace Joe Walsh with a singer who knows the lyrics to the national anthem.

        Rain, presumably, is beyond his reach.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at at


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