The first race I ever attended was an Indy Car race at Kentucky Speedway in 2005. My father scored two tickets through a Marlboro promotion, so all we had to worry about was food and drinks. I had just graduated from college, but this was my first race despite being a fan my whole life. Growing up in northern Kentucky, the nearest track for most of my childhood was Indianapolis. Unfortunately, my family was never in a position to justify spending the money it would take to attend the Brickyard 400, Indy 500, or any race for that matter.
So when Jerry Carroll, Kentucky Speedway’s original owner, broke ground on a new mile and a half race track in rural Sparta (Fun fact: the ceremonial groundbreaking was actually at Turfway Park Race Course in Florence, KY), young Jeff was ecstatic.
Present day Jeff is just sad.
When NASCAR unveils its 2021 Cup schedule on Wednesday, it will not include Kentucky Speedway. While I don’t want to jump to conclusions, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for the track. Reports suggest Kentucky is losing its date to give Atlanta a second Cup race. I won’t waste time debating the merits of swiping a track’s lone Cup race and giving it to a track that already has one. It doesn’t really matter where that date goes. I just know it won’t be at Kentucky.
I realize many fans, and even some in the NASCAR community (I’m looking at you, Brett Griffin), are happy to see Kentucky Speedway go. I get it. The inaugural Cup race, aka “Traffic-gate,” was an absolute disaster. More critical, aside from two fantastic green-white-checkered finishes, the racing at Kentucky simply has not been good. I expect we’ll learn the rationale behind NASCAR’s decision in the coming days, but I imagine the lackluster racing played a factor. Again, the reasons are irrelevant. I just know Kentucky lost its Cup race.
Carroll fought for years to get Kentucky Speedway on the Cup schedule. He even took NASCAR to court. It wasn’t until he sold the track to Bruton Smith when Cup racing finally came to the Bluegrass State in 2011. At the time, I was a sports anchor and reporter for the ABC affiliate in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Two days before the race, the track finally approved my request for media credentials. I was attending my first ever NASCAR race. And it was in my home state.
Fortunately, I arrived early enough that traffic was only a mild inconvenience. I can’t say the same for everybody else. I will never forget watching the race from the press box while rows of cars sat bumper to bumper behind turn three, still trying to park. Kyle Busch won the race, David Reutimann(!) finished second, and Jimmie Johnson was third. After the race, I took the opportunity to ask Jimmie Johnson a question in the media center. Words cannot express the thrill of that moment for me.
Since that inaugural race, I’ve covered NASCAR at Kentucky Speedway multiple times and attended several years as a fan. As a member of the media, I’m blessed to have covered some of the biggest events in sports. For me, NASCAR tops them all. And to this day, it is the only track in which I’ve watched a NASCAR race in person.
Today, I’m lucky I have the means to travel to a race if I want. But I feel for fans in Kentucky who can’t afford a trip to Indy, or Bristol, or Atlanta, or Talladega, and have lost their only chance to see NASCAR up close and personal. For most of my life, I was that fan. I’m sad I will no longer get to ask Ben Rhodes about racing at his home track.
I don’t know what the future holds for Kentucky Speedway, but my Magic 8-Ball says, “Outlook not so good.” Like many things in life, when you are no longer around, you are quickly forgotten. Maybe this track in Sparta will catch a break and find its way back to NASCAR like Nashville Superspeedway. Or does it become another Rockingham? Or Nazareth?
I pass Kentucky Speedway every time I drive north to visit my family in Ohio. And I see it again driving back home to Louisville. That next trip is going to sting.