Sunday, June 17, 2001

Carroll makes his pitch to NASCAR boss

        SPARTA, Ky. — Brad Paisley sang Saturday night for a crowd of 70,338 and a target audience of one.

        “Someone asked me, "I thought you don't like country music,'” Kentucky Speedway chairman Jerry Carroll said. “I said, "I don't, but Mike Helton does.'”

        Pleasing Helton, the NASCAR president, was Job One at the Outback Steakhouse 300. It was also Job Two. So long as Helton controls scheduling for Winston Cup racing — the major leagues of stock car competition — his wishes will be Carroll's commands and his whims will be instantly indulged.

        When Mike Helton says, “jump,” Jerry Carroll asks, “Which bridge?”

        Carroll treated Helton's brief trip to the track
Saturday with the deference due a visiting head of state. Helton's private plane was met by a helicopter, and Speedway executive Lisa Wilson was appointed as his personal tour guide. Carroll hoped to present Helton with a rare bottle of wine and an understated (for him) sales pitch. His post-race plan was to seek Helton's input on what he might improve.

        No amount of groveling is too much when a Winston Cup race is at stake. With a season that now spans nine months and 36 races, the lucrative circuit is already stretched near its limits. The proliferation of new tracks and the ambitions of old operators has made the competition for dates as keen and cutthroat as “Survivor.”

No promises made

        With a capacity crowd, a healthy purse, a modern plant and improved parking, Kentucky Speedway made a powerful case for Winston Cup consideration Saturday night. The Outback 300 was fairly tedious — just two lead changes in 200 laps — but Helton would be hard-pressed to find prettier packaging.

        How much does that matter? Hard to say. Helton's considerations are so complex, and racing politics so peculiar, that there is no way of telling when NASCAR might give Kentucky Speedway the green flag for Winston Cup.

        “They don't promise you anything,” said Darrell Waltrip, the retired driver who serves Carroll as a consultant. “They don't guarantee you anything. If anything, they discourage you.”

        NASCAR must grow to satisfy Wall Street, but it is reluctant to uproot races from the older tracks that formed its foundation. A team of Bear Stearns analysts recommended last month that the races should be reallocated; that the circuit reduce its regional concentration in the Southeast; that the Martinsville, Pocono and New Hampshire tracks be stripped of one of their two races.

Change is possible

               Currently, NASCAR's 36 points races are divided among 23 tracks, with 12 of the races concentrated in the Confederate corridor between Richmond and Atlanta. Loyalty is a great virtue, but logic says it's time to spread out to new markets.

        Since NASCAR only awards races on a one-year basis, change is certainly achievable. Helton hinted, however, that it is not imminent. Much as Carroll covets a Winston Cup race for 2002, he recognizes 2003 might be more “realistic.”

        “If NASCAR had a clean sheet of paper to start with, and with the support and enthusiasm that exists today, there's no question that things would be different,” Helton said Saturday. “But that's not the case. We've been mindful of still wanting to grow the sport, but keeping ourselves attached to what got us here.”

        Jerry Carroll is advised to keep groveling.

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