CONCORD, N.C. — Kentucky Speedway moved a step closer to landing a coveted Sprint Cup Series race when Speedway Motorsports Inc. on Thursday added it to its growing portfolio of tracks.
Kentucky's previous owners have fought for a Cup race, and SMI owner Bruton Smith said he wants a date for his new track by 2009. Just how he gets one at his eighth facility remains to be seen.
"We will continue to wonder about that," Smith teased. "We'll certainly be working on that."
Smith has battled for years with NASCAR over the awarding of Cup races, and Kentucky already has unsuccessfully sued to get its own date.
Track officials filed an antitrust lawsuit in 2005 against NASCAR and Smith rival International Speedway Inc., but it was dismissed in January. It's now in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
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."
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.
Smith last year spent US$340-million to buy New Hampshire from Bahre, and 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 that cost $152 million to build.
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."
The previous unsuccessful efforts to get a date led track ownership to sue, alleging NASCAR and ISC worked together to create an unfair monopoly and prevent Kentucky from securing a Cup race.
Carroll, part of the original ownership group, said the suit will continue. Carroll has accepted a position to stay with the speedway after the sale,
"The litigation will continue on as long as we think that there is an opportunity to do something right, get an even playing field," Carroll said.
Smith can not be part of the appeal under a settlement in a Texas-related antitrust lawsuit previously filed by an SMI shareholder against NASCAR and ISC.
Not everyone is so sure Kentucky is the right place for another Cup race. The Southeast is already saturated with races, and there's four tracks with a total of six Cup races already located within a five-hour drive of Kentucky Speedway.
"In my eyes, the question becomes, if we're going to go to Kentucky, where are we going to leave?" Jeff Burton asked. "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."
But Kentucky native Michael Waltrip was thrilled about the potential for his homestate.
"Every time I go to Kentucky I always hear, 'When are we gonna get a Cup race?' So those questions will certainly speed up now," Waltrip said. "I'm real proud that that track has a future now. They know their direction."