Bruton Smith gets his way ... again
SPARTA, Ky. -- The welcome mat -- "Girls, Girls, Girls, Racers" -- was out at a local establishment on Tuesday as we exited Interstate 71 for Kentucky Speedway. The small house across the street from the track entrance was decked out for a race weekend with the American and Confederate flags.
Just outside the front gate was a huge white tent in which waiters served lobster and crab rolls. A small band was in one corner playing music and a bugler from Churchill Downs was wetting his lips, preparing to announce it was post time.
When Speedway Motorsports chairman Bruton Smith makes an announcement, he does it up big. Even the governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, said he could learn a thing or two from the 83-year-old billionaire.
And when Smith says he's going to make something happen, it usually does.
It may take a few years and several lawsuits, as was the case in getting Kentucky Speedway a Sprint Cup date, but he gets it done.
Yes, it's official. Kentucky Speedway will host its first Cup race on Saturday night, July 9, 2011.
But Smith's just getting started. Before he could get the huge banner outside the front gate unrolled he was lobbying the governor to build an airport large enough to land 747s on these sprawling hills.
"All you camera guys, are you looking at me?" Smith said as he began his rundown of planned improvements. "Look at me!"
Smith then promised to spend between $90 million and $100 million expanding seating capacity from 66,000 to 116,000, building new restrooms, adding 200 more acres of campground space and putting in more elevators.
When you see what he has accomplished already and what he promises, you almost believe one day he'll convince NASCAR to move the season finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"I don't think there is anybody since [former NASCAR chairman] Bill France Jr. that has done more to grow this sport than Bruton Smith," three-time Cup champion and Owensboro, Ky., native Darrell Waltrip said.
In a room filled with stars, from Gov. Beshear to Waltrip to horse jockey extraordinaire Steve Cauthen to Joey Logano, nobody was bigger than Smith. He got two standing ovations and made more promises than any of the politicians, vowing to make this area an economic bonanza.
As long as he gets the airport, that is.
And he probably will.
Smith gets whatever he wants.
And, as Smith said, "If you haven't figured it out, I enjoy it, too."
Smith was giddy, and rightfully so. Even though everyone in the free world knew what he was about to announce, he had fun with it.
"We're here to announce we're adding 50 more miles to the truck race," Smith said. "Thank you for coming."
Smith was the hero of the day. But his persistence in getting a Cup date to Kentucky made him public enemy No. 1 in some NASCAR circles the past few years. He and NASCAR president Brian France butted heads and exchanged harsh words more than a few times.
Smith did this because he believed in Kentucky Speedway and what it could offer the sport -- as well as his wallet. After an initial trip to the area, it's hard to argue he's wrong.
This area is hungry for NASCAR, far more than Atlanta Motor Speedway, which lost a date so that Kentucky could be on the schedule. There are 2.1 million people within a 50-mile radius and 51 million within 300 miles.
In the new NASCAR, where fans refuse to travel the long distances they once did to attend races, this makes the 1.5-mile track a gold mine.
"We're seeing more and more like other sports, it's more local," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of race operations and the man who oversaw putting together the 2011 schedule.
The time was right for Kentucky Speedway to join the Cup schedule. Fortunately, people such as Smith and former owner Jerry Carroll, who had the vision to turn this empty field into a speedway 11 years ago, never gave up.
"I got mad enough sometimes to walk away," Carroll said. "You feel like an orphan sometimes. I never turned my back."
NASCAR's argument for years was a race here would oversaturate the market that already included Indianapolis, Michigan and even Bristol. There also wasn't reason to take a race from an existing track such as Atlanta, which was doing well.
But as the economy went south and tracks such as Atlanta struggled to fill seats, it became apparent the formula wasn't working.
"I knew NASCAR knew what it was talking about," Carroll said. "But I didn't think they knew what they were talking about in our case."
Neither did Smith. He clawed and fought to get this date to fulfill a promise he made in 2008 when he purchased the track for a steal at $78 million. His motto was and always is, "I like to keep my promises."
Now, sitting in the press box as one of the two Andretti Autosport/AFS Indy Lights cars buzzes around the rough surface, you can almost visualize packed campgrounds and packed stands -- everything that NASCAR had in its heyday.
This is new.
NASCAR needed something new even at the cost of something old in Atlanta, although several other tracks deserved to lose a race before Atlanta did.
"Weather," Smith said as he explained why Atlanta lost its March date. "That was the big thing, the weather."
And like Smith -- his shirt covered in sweat because the air-conditioner in the tent couldn't keep up with the outside temperature and crowd -- you can almost visualize the NASCAR flying circus of about 150 filling the runway at the new airport.
"Governor If you give me a contract to build an airport I'll have it built in six months," Smith bellowed from the stage.
He will. One day he'll get Vegas in the season finale as well.
"He asks for a lot of things," O'Donnell said with a smile.
He gets most of them, too.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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