Key NASCAR track owner to buy Kentucky Speedway

Updated: May 23, 2008, 5:44 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Speedway Motorsports Inc., the parent company that owns seven racetracks that host NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events, announced Thursday it has agreed to purchase Kentucky Speedway.

[+] EnlargeKentucky Speedway
Gavin Lawrence/Getty ImagesKentucky Speedway, which opened in 2000 at a cost of $147 million, has been seeking a Sprint Cup race date.

It is unknown what such a deal would mean for Kentucky Speedway's future. By purchasing the track, SMI officials would have the liberty to move a Sprint Cup date from one of their existing tracks to Kentucky if they so desired.

O. Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., said he hopes to bring a Sprint Cup race to the Kentucky track in 2009. The acquisition is expected to close in the third quarter of 2008.

The track currently has no Cup dates, and that has been a considerable point of contention between track officials and NASCAR since the track opened in 2000.

Lawyers representing the track are currently appealing a January decision by a U.S. District Court judge that dismissed an antitrust lawsuit filed by Kentucky Speedway against NASCAR and International Speedway Corp.

There was immediate speculation Smith has his eye on Pocono Raceway, which currently has two Cup races. If he purchased that track, he could move one or both its dates to any of his speedways.

"I'm always interested in a speedway," Smith said. "But here again, if I say something about Pocono, it would indicate to you that it's for sale. I don't know if it's for sale or not, but if you're telling me it is, then I'll make a phone call tomorrow."

In July 2005, Kentucky Speedway sued NASCAR and ISC, contending that NASCAR's awarding of Cup Series races to certain tracks violated federal antitrust laws, and that the companies conspired to restrict the Kentucky track from acquiring a NASCAR Cup race.

Kentucky Speedway later amended its complaint, demanding that NASCAR produce objective parameters for awarding Cup dates, for the France family to choose either NASCAR or ISC -- the publicly traded side of the company that operates the family's 12 racetracks -- and for ISC to sell at least eight of those 12 tracks. It also requested more than $200 million in damages.

NASCAR officials said they never promised Kentucky a Cup Series date, and Judge William O. Bertlesman concluded in January that even by granting Kentucky Speedway the benefit of the doubt on all reasonable inferences, the track failed to make a case. It was a huge victory for NASCAR.

Kentucky Speedway has brought an appeal of the decision before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kentucky Speedway, located in Sparta, Ky., near Cincinnati, was built for $152 million. The track is widely used by Sprint Cup teams to test cars for races on tracks with similar layouts. Kentucky Speedway also hosts a NASCAR Nationwide Series race and dates for the Craftsman Truck Series, ARCA/Remax Series and IndyCar Series.

Smith added to his string of NASCAR tracks in 2007, purchasing New Hampshire International Speedway for a reported $340 million. He also owns Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.; Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.; Las Vegas Motor Speedway; Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth; Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn.; and Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

"I think what we are doing here for Speedway Motorsports is the biggest announcement we have ever, ever made, mainly because of what we are doing and where we are doing it," Smith said in a statement released Thursday.

Asked his thoughts on adding a Sprint Cup date at Kentucky, veteran driver Jeff Burton said he's uncertain NASCAR needs to add another date in that region.

"I'm sure they would say they do [need a Sprint Cup race]," Burton said. "Does NASCAR need to be there? That's a whole other conversation. I don't know. I don't think we need to add a race. We race plenty. I think there's potential for oversaturation. We see it in Major League Baseball and the NBA. Too many games is a bad thing. It takes away the special atmosphere of it.

"In my eyes, the question becomes, if we're going to go to Kentucky, when are we going to leave? Is the gain of Kentucky a net gain? I'd have to have all that information in front of me to answer that question correctly. I have said it's in our best interest to be in as many places as possible. When I said that, I had Wyoming and Canada in mind, not another place in the Southeast."

Smith said he wants a date for his new track by 2009, but how he gets one remains to be seen.

"We will continue to wonder about that," Smith teased. "We'll certainly be working on that.

Smith has acquired race dates by purchasing tracks before. He and Bob Bahre teamed in 1996 to buy North Wilkesboro Speedway, which they promptly shuttered when Smith took one of its races to his Texas track and Bahre moved the other to New Hampshire.

When Smith bought New Hampshire from Bahre last year, there was immediate speculation he'd take one of its two races to Las Vegas, where Smith has unsuccessfully lobbied for a second date.

New Hampshire president Jerry Gappens said Smith has assured him the track is not in danger of losing one of its dates to Las Vegas or Kentucky.

"He never made a promise, but he did tell me he doesn't see any reason to change anything," Gappens said. "He spent two days up there a few weeks ago looking everything over, we just spent $200,000 renovating the offices and Bruton has a master plan for that track."

If New Hampshire is safe, then Smith might look to his track in Atlanta. The facility doesn't sell out and is saddled with a pair of dates that are often afflicted by poor weather. And, Smith has already offered to swap dates with ISC-owned California Speedway to help both tracks overcome weather handicaps.

But, Smith has so far steadfastly refused to take dates from his tracks to secure races at his other facilities. That makes Pocono the most likely scenario for Smith to secure a date for Kentucky.

NASCAR already has started lining up the 2009 calendar, and spokesman Ramsey Poston said "it's getting fairly late in the year" to open talks with a new speedway. Pocono is owned by Joseph and Rose Mattioli, and is one of just three tracks on the Cup circuit not owned by either ISC or SMI.

"I wouldn't speculate on [Pocono] having a date or not having a date," Poston said. "It's certainly been a very good track; it's been part of NASCAR's history and heritage. It certainly has served that region of the country very well."

Mattioli was not immediately available for comment.

One way or another, it's clear Smith will find a Cup date to give to Kentucky. The track, about halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville in northern Kentucky, regularly hosts NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series, Indy Racing League and ARCA events, but has lobbied unsuccessfully since it opened in 2000 to bring a Cup event to the 1.5-mile oval.

With crowds of more than 70,000, the track is currently the largest venue that hosts a Nationwide event but doesn't have a Cup race. Smith said he immediately plans to add 50,000 more seats to make it more suitable for a Cup race. In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, SMI has already agreed to pay $78.3 million for the speedway.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear hoped the sale would lead to a Cup date for the track.

"Jerry Carroll and others built this into a world-class track and their long-held dream of having a permanent home for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race may finally come true," said Beshear, who will attend his first race Sunday as a guest of Smith's at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"As Speedway Motorsports and Bruton Smith take the wheel, I look forward to working with him to bring a coveted Sprint Cup event to Kentucky Speedway."

Marty Smith covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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