Kentucky Speedway is a modern 1.5 mile speedway at Sparta, Kentucky, which has seen more than its fair share of controversy during its short life and is currently without any scheduled racing activity.
Built by local investors but subsequently bought and renovated by Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports group, the circuit fought hard (including suing NASCAR) to get a Cup Series date, finally achieving it in 2011, replacing the IndyCar race as the headline event.
The tri-oval was extensively remodelled ahead of its NASCAR Cup Series debut and again during a 2016 resurfacing project.
Having had its race cancelled due to coronavirus in 2020, there was surprise when NASCAR elected not to return Kentucky to the schedules in 2021, leaving the track with no sanctioned racing events. While the Rusty Wallace Driving Experience continues to operate at the track, speedway bosses have had to find new sources of income. During 2021 the parking lots were used as a storage facility by both Ford and Amazon and it remains to be seen if and when racing will resume.
In January 1998, a consortium comprising comprised of Jerry Carroll (Carroll Properties), Dick Duchossois (Chamberlain Industries), Richard Farmer (Cintas Corp.), John Lindahl (State Industries) and Outback Steakhouse, Inc announced plans for a 66,089-capacity speedway costing $158 million.
A special ceremony in July saw ground breaking begin on the biggest excavation project in Kentucky history, requiring some 7.2 million cubic yards of earth to be moved. The facility was constructed with 48,000 cubic yards of concrete, the equivalent of a 50-storey building.
As construction continued, the speedway announced deals to host the ARCA stock car series as its opening event in 2000, followed quickly by the Indy Racing League. In November 1999, it was announced that it would also hold a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event during 2000.
As the circuit was nearing completion, it was decided to resurface the track because of bumps which has emerged as the surface weathered through the winter.
By summer 2000, the circuit was ready and opened on June 16 with a NASCAR regional race, Billy Bigley, Jr., emerging as the first race winner in the track's history. One day later, the speedway held its first major series, the Craftsman Truck Series, which was won by Greg Biffle. In August of the same year, Buddy Lazier won the inaugural IndyCar Series race.
On August 29, 2000, NASCAR announced that Kentucky Speedway would also sanction a Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) race in 2001. One year after the speedway opened, it held its first Busch Series event, with Kevin Harvick emerging as the winner.
Over the next few years, Kentucky consolidated its position on the Indycar and second-tier stock car scene and earned an unusual distinction in being the venue for a number of 'firsts' for female drivers. It was at Kentucky in 2002 that Sarah Fisher became the first woman to earn the pole award for a major North American open-wheel event. Her qualifying lap record of 221.390 mph remains as the all-time fastest at the facility.
Continuing the theme, Danica Patrick earned pole for the 2005 Indycar event, having been awarded the top spot on the basis of combined practice times when traditional qualifying was rained out. She clicked off her best practice lap at 217.516 mph. Finally, in 2010, Firestone Indy Lights driver Pippa Mann became the first female competitor to earn a Kentucky Speedway victory by leading all 67 of a 100-lap event.
Pursuit of NASCAR fails until Bruton Smith steps in
In 2005, Carroll began pushing for a top tier NASCAR Cup race, but found little interest from the series organisers. In response Kentucky Speedway filed an anti-trust lawsuit against NASCAR and the International Speedway Corporation (ISC). The suit alleged that the two organisations had colluded to illegally restricted the award of races to non-ISC like Kentucky, in violation of federal laws. By any standards this was an unusual tactic to gain favour with the sport's promoter!
The case dragged on for a number of years before concluding in January 2008 with Judge William O. Bertelsman dismissing the trial with ISC and NASCAR winning the lawsuit. Various appeals and counter-suits against Carroll from the other investors were eventually settled in 2010.
In the midst of the court cases, the Speedway was purchased by Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsport company. Under Smith's tenure, a $50 million renovation was undertaken at the end of the 2010 season. This saw the construction of two new 20,000-seat grandstands, expanding the venue's capacity to 107,000, while 200 acres of camping was also added. The pit lane was also moved closer to the grandstands to give spectators a better view of the action.
The changes were completed in anticipation of the much sought-after NASCAR race, which was finally achieved when Bruton transferred a race from another of his tracks. The inaugural Quaker State 400 was held on July 9, 2011 and was won by Kyle Busch, but the race was not without its own controversies. Huge traffic jams built up outside the venue, tailing back onto I-71, when the event proved far more popular than the circuit organisation could cope with. Some 20,000 spectators were unable to gain entry and by halfway through the race, those still queueing for entry were told to turn round and go home to ease the egress of those trying to leave the track.
In response, Speedway Motorsports bought purchased land near the speedway for parking and began to work with the state government to improve traffic plans in time for the 2012 race. Fans who had been unable to get it in were offered free tickets at Speedway Motorsports' other tracks for the rest of the season, or the 2012 Quaker State 400. Subsequent year's events have passed without significant incident.
IndyCar departs, leaving NASCAR as the only event
The track was unable to agree a deal for 2012 with IndyCar, leaving NASCAR's events as the only sanctioned motorsport taking place. Even then, the race card was slightly reduced, with one of the two Camping World Truck Series dates being dropped. Nevertheless, the remaining NASCAR events were a success, with the drivers even praising the slightly bumpy track surface!
Problems emerged, however, during a rain-plagued 2015 weekend, when numerous delays were caused by 'weepers' - moisture which was seeping through gaps in an otherwise drying track. The racing surface itself was also "worn out" according to the track and in need of overhaul. As a result, Speedway Motorsports elected to repaved and partially reconfigure the track, with plans announced in December of that year. Drainage issues would be fixed during the work, which would see Turns 1 and 2 reconfigured with the banking increased from 14 to 17 degrees.
At the same time, the track width was narrowed from 72 to 56 feet to give greater room for cars emerging from the pits. A curing process was used to "season" the new racing surface to give it character, approximating five years' worth of use. Finally, SAFER Barriers were added along the entirety of the outside wall. The newly configured track had its debut in the July 2016 NASCAR weekend and was well-received by the drivers.
Uncertain future as NASCAR pulls out
In 2018, there was a further decline in the number of race meetings held, when Speedway Motorsports elected to switch its standalone Xfinity Series date to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, allowing that track to have a second triple header weekend in the autumn. Worse was to come in 2020, when NASCAR announced it was switching the Quaker State 400 race to Atlanta Motor Speedway, leaving Kentucky with no place on the 2021 schedule. The Sparta track had fallen victim to a NASCAR drive to diversify the kind of circuits it raced on, with more road courses and even a dirt race at Bristol now featuring.
It was a severe blow for the Kentucky track, which was left with no sanctioned racing events. With a need to cover costs, the solution has been to sign agreements with Ford and Amazon to use the parking lots as storage facilities. The Detroit manufacturer has parked between 60,000-70,000 newly-built Super Duty pickup trucks at the speedway due to a global shortage of semiconductor chips. The vehicles will remain there until they can be completed and shipped to customers. Rolling three-month deals haver also reportedly been struck with Amazon to store shipping containers full of returns, the contents of which are then auctioned off to bidders in lucky-dip sales.
It's not clear what the longer term strategy may be or whether racing will ever return. Speedway Motorsports has said only that it is looking to "evolve our property into a multi-use facility". Until there is a further announcement, the future remains cloudy.