The racing world was recently treated to the spectacle of drivers battling it out on American soil for the prestigious IndyCar-Champ Car double-header at the legendary Kentucky Speedway. With attendance hovering around the 100,000 mark and upwards of $20m (£16m) on the line, the fans travelled from near and far to catch a glimpse of their favourite drivers – and to support their local economy in the process. This article will explore the history of the famed speedway, and its unique place in motorsport.
Quick Facts About Kentucky Speedway
The inaugural running of the IndyCar-Champ Car double-header at Kentucky Speedway was on April 17th, 1961. The track was originally designed to host horse racing, and it still holds the standing record for the most wins (11) and the most consecutive wins (9) amongst American horse racing tracks.
The speedway’s permanent seating capacity is 107,000, which is achieved through a combination of temporary and permanent seating. The standing-room-only capacity is around 100,000, which is a significant portion of the total population of Lexington, Kentucky – the track’s host city. Since opening its doors for racing, Kentucky Speedway has welcomed racing fans from all over the world.
The track is currently owned and operated by the state of Kentucky, and it is classified as a 4/5 mile oval. It is one of the older and more historic motorsport venues in existence, and it is considered amongst the most scenic tracks in North America.
How Does It Stack Up?
It’s not often that we get to compare an American football stadium to a race track, but given the recent events, it’s an apt analogy. A 4/5 mile oval with a capacity of 107,000, is comparable in size to the football stadium in Indianapolis, known as Lucas Oil Stadium. While it is certainly a significant track, it’s not designed to the same level of capacity as the NFL’s biggest denizens.
Lucas Oil Stadium has a capacity of over 100,000 and it is considered one of the most glamorous and prestigious sports venues in the world. It was opened in 2008 and its official name is Indiana Pacers Stadium due to its status as the home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. For comparison’s sake, Lucas Oil Stadium holds 17,000 less people than Kentucky Speedway. Therefore, we can conclude that while it’s an incredible track, it’s certainly not the biggest or the most populous track in the world.
Why Did It Take So Long To Build?
The history of Kentucky Speedway begins in 1950 with the formation of the Sports and Exhibition Authority. This body was tasked with the construction and operation of what was originally going to be known as Midway Speedway, but the name was later changed to reflect its western setting in comparison to the more traditional eastern tracks. The first step towards building the speedway was taking land for what was originally going to be a military base, which is how Midway became a part of Kentucky. The base was closed in 1951 and the land was turned over to the state for what was then called the Kentucky Military Institute (KMI).
The KMI campus was opened in 1958 and the school itself closed in 1969. While the school’s main focus was on educating students, the track was also constructed without any educational purposes in mind. In fact, the track was built so that the Army could use it as a training ground for their soldiers.
The first speedway was not actually constructed until a decade after the school had closed. The track was initially built as a 3/5 mile dirt track before the asphalt covering was added in 1974. In the meantime, the track was plagued by poor attendance and economic problems, and the State of Kentucky considered shutting it down – until the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation in 1976 classifying the track as a historic site.
The track has been host to numerous historic races over the years, and it was finally decided that the asphalt surface needed to be replaced. Over the next few years, the entire track was resurfaced and had its name changed to Kentucky Speedway. In 1991, the track became a certified historical landmark.
The Making Of The Modern Classic
The history of the modern classic at Kentucky Speedway is tied to that of the facility itself. While a lot has changed over the years, the track has remained relatively untouched. It still has the same basic design as it did 50 years ago, and it still hosts a variety of races from all over the world. Since opening its doors, the speedway has welcomed motor-sports enthusiasts from near and far.
The first two IndyCar-Champ Car races were held in 1961. However, it was not until 1970 that the double header began to take shape. In fact, the first IndyCar-endorsed race at the track was held in 1970, and Jack Arute scored a win in the 500-mile race. It was not until 1975 that the double header was inaugurated, and it was not until 1982 that it became an annual affair. The track’s second major renovation project was complete in 1985, and it would not be until 2006 that it would see its third major overhaul.
The three renovations were funded by the sale of tickets for the 2006 IndyCar-Champ Car double-header. The first 50,000 fans that attended that year’s race were given front row seats, and for the first time since 1962, the track had three different configurations of seating – something it has not seen since.
The renovations were aimed at increasing attendance and turnstile revenue, and they worked. Despite its considerable size, Kentucky Speedway is still one of the most visited motorsport venues in North America. It regularly hosts over 20K people in attendance per day, which is a considerable number given its size.
How Has It Evolved?
When original construction on the track began in the 1950s, the plan was to have a 1.25 mile paved oval with a 10 foot wide lane. However, the design of the track changed multiple times before its first race. In particular, the track was expanded to a 4/5 mile oval in 1968, and it gained a second deck in 1974.
The most recent renovation project at the track was completed in 2015 and it saw an additional 5,000 seats added, along with a jumbotron and new signage. This renovation was funded by NASCAR and the track’s owner, Chip Ganassi. For the first time since it began, the speedway underwent a redesign aimed at increasing attendance and revenue.
What Does It All Mean?
When the history of a sport or venue is told, important moments are usually highlighted. The first running of the IndyCar-Champ Car double-header marks a significant milestone in the storied history of the track. As a venue that began as a military installation and was later used as a school for educating future leaders, the track has seen its share of historic moments and famous alumni. With the double-header now an annual event, and attendance regularly hitting capacity, it is clear that the history of Kentucky Speedway will continue to be told for many years to come.