Saturday, June 16, 2001

Speedway spectacle should set record

Crowd of 70,000 expected for NASCAR event

By Tom Groeschen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPARTA, Ky. — The roar of NASCAR engines will bring tens of thousands together here tonight, for what may be the biggest Tristate party this side of Riverfest.

        Kentucky Speedway expects more than 70,000 people for a NASCAR Busch Series race, the Outback Steakhouse 300 (8 p.m., FX cable). The 66,089-seat grandstands were sold out Thursday, and with standing-room sales the crowd will easily top the Greater Cincinnati sports record attendance of 64,006 for the Bengals-Browns opener at Paul Brown Stadium in September.

        “It's an event, it's a circus, it's a party,” said Jerry Carroll, the Kentucky Speedway chairman and founder. “It's all of that rolled into one.”

[photo] Hank Josefczyk of Lebanon takes in the All-Pro series practice Friday at Kentucky Speedway. Rain came later and postponed the Busch Series practice.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        And then some, as Mr. Carroll tries to capture the growing excitement with the sport. NASCAR only grows in popularity, here and elsewhere. Last season, NASCAR ranked second only to the NFL in TV popularity. Though only No. 32 among Nielsen markets, Cincinnati consistently ranks in the top 10 cities for watching races on TV. Nationally, attendance at Winston Cup events has more than doubled since 1990.

        Rich and famous will attend from the worlds of politics, sports and entertainment. With the Reds struggling and the Bengals in a 10-year rut, Mr. Carroll thinks his $1.15 million race ($82,000 to the winner) could be the event of the year in Greater Cincinnati.

        “You figure there have been 100 years of sporting events in Cincinnati, and this will be the biggest one,” Mr. Carroll said.

        Among the stars and events surrounding today's race:

        • Kevin Harvick and Kenny Wallace, regular drivers in NASCAR's major-league Winston Cup circuit, will be in the race. Mr. Harvick and Mr. Wallace are commuting between Kentucky and Long Pond, Pa., this weekend, with a Winston Cup race scheduled Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

        • Kerry Earnhardt, son of the late NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Sr., will drive in the race and sign autographs beforehand.

        • Ky. Gov. Paul Patton and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft will help dedicate a bronze statue of Darrell Waltrip, a former NASCAR Winston Cup star and Owensboro, Ky., native. • Mr. Waltrip, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds, the top Winston Cup TV team for the Fox and FX sports networks, will call the race live on national TV for FX.

        • U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning of Southgate has arranged for the flyover of a B-1 bomber, Mr. Carroll said.

        • Country music star Brad Paisley will give a concert before the race.

        This is the kind of festival Mr. Carroll envisioned in 1998, when he announced plans for a speedway 35 miles southwest of Cincinnati.

        And this many people and this much star power for a Busch race is what Mr. Carroll hopes is only the beginning. The Busch series is the No. 2 NASCAR tier.

        The long-term goal is Winston Cup, with The Sporting News reporting this week that the “garage rumor” is that Kentucky will get a Winston Cup race in 2002.

        However, a report Friday on the Charlotte Observer Web site quoted NASCAR senior vice president George Pyne as saying it was “very unlikely” that any races would be added to the 2002 schedule.

        Winston Cup champions including Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte all have raced in the Busch series during their careers. Mr. Gordon occasionally still does.

        “As recently as five years ago, the NASCAR Busch series was regarded as maybe a Saturday fill-in for the Winston Cup series,” said John Darby, director of the NASCAR Busch series. “Now, we've got the bar set to where we can say the Busch series is second to Winston Cup in all of motor sports in the United States.”

        With several Winston Cup stars occasionally racing in Busch, along with a decline in popularity of IndyCar racing, the Busch series has become a breeding ground for future Winston stars such as Mr. Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth.

        Several Busch races award more than $1 million in prize money, with Kentucky's $1.15 million purse ranking in the top four. A few years ago, no race offered more than $1 million in prizes.

        Mr. Darby said nine Busch races are on network television this year, compared with just two in 1996. All other Busch races are televised on cable, including tonight's race on FX.

        Dick Berggren, a pit reporter for Fox Sports' NASCAR coverage and editor of Speedway Illustrated magazine, said Kentucky fans should experience an intense race. One reason is that Busch races are usually shorter in distance than Winston Cup, such as tonight's 300-mile Busch race. Winston Cup races all are at least 400 miles.

        “Those (Busch) guys really go at it,” Mr. Berggren said. “On many weekends they have the better show than Winston Cup. They've got to stand on the gas harder and make everything work, because they don't have as many chances to catch up if something goes wrong.”

        Mr. Berggren, who follows the Winston Cup on a weekly basis, said the rumors of Kentucky getting a Cup race in 2002 must be considered just that — rumors. Since the February death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials have been extremely careful in all media dealings.

        “Trying to predict NASCAR's behavior these days is very difficult,” Mr. Berggren said. “No one outside the inner circle is sure who is making what decisions. All you can do is wait and see what they announce.”

        Mr. Carroll has played down the Winston Cup talk, saying he'd like a Cup race but is concentrating mainly on “putting on a show” for the sellout crowd.

        “We want everybody to have a good time, we hope for good weather, and we want to get people in and out of here quickly,” Mr. Carroll said. “We've prepared for this night for three years now, and we feel very good that people will be talking about it for a long time.”


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