Kentucky Speedway is one of the biggest race tracks in the United States, having held several large-scale events, including the legendary World Classic. The speedway has also been the site of many memorable sporting events, from the Kentucky Derby to Monster Jam. The track was even the backdrop for one of the most iconic scenes in movie history: John Wick’s “comeback” moment, where he races against a group of thugs in a classic BMW.
While the venue itself remains, the landscape has changed a lot in the past 75 years. Construction of the nearby Rickenbacker International Airport, which opened in 1962, has directly affected the speedway. The airport was built on a swamp and is surrounded by several lakes, including one that was previously connected to the Grand River. A proposal to connect the lakes through a chain of dams failed in the 1950s and 1960s, causing the lakes to rise and the existing racetrack and airport to be affected. The rise of air travel and the subsequent decline of rail travel saw the racing tradition at the track become less important. The airport effectively severed the connection between the racetrack and the Grand River, and today, the only remaining trace of the connection is a small canal that winds through the airport property.
While much of Kentucky Speedway has remained relatively unchanged since it first opened in 1940, parts of the complex have seen a lot of evolution. The track, which was originally a dirt surface, was paved in 1960 and has remained so ever since. The most recent expansion, which added a tri-oval in 2009, was only the latest in a long line of improvements that have made the track more user-friendly and competitive. In fact, the oval track is now one of the smallest in the NFL. The tri-oval has also been a big part of popularizing the sport of stock car racing in the United States.
The airport, which was built on a swamp and surrounded by lakes, has also seen a lot of change. In its early days, the airport was a military airfield, with concrete runways and a tarmac that could support a military aircraft. The airfield, which was once part of the War Department and is now known as the Louisville Air Force Base, was directly connected to the Grand River via a bridge that still exists today. In 1962, when the airport opened, it consisted of two runways and several small buildings, including a control tower. With the opening of the nearby Rickenbacker International Airport in 1962, many of the aircraft that previously used the Kentucky Air Force Base were redirected to the new airport. The control tower at the old airport was also relocated to the new location.
In 1969, the air force base was given the responsibility of administering the airport. The next year, the airport saw its first FBO, the Foreflight Aviation Company, establish a base at the airport. The airfield continued to expand and evolve, with the addition of a third runway in 1978 and a fourth runway in 1981. In 1998, the airport was renamed after the famous aviator who was born in the area: Louis Armstrong International Airport. There are now six active runways at the airport, which is overseen by the Louisville Metro Airport Authority.
The advent of the automobile led to the decline of the racetrack at Kentucky Speedway. The number of people who attended sporting events, especially automobile races, declined significantly after the Second World War. The airport effectively took over the role that the speedway had served for years, as the airport became a hub for corporate aircraft and private jets, as well as a focus for recreational aviation. The number of professional races held at the track also declined after the war, as sports car racing became less popular and several venues changed the format of their events to attract more spectators.
Rivalry With Indianapolis Motor Speedway
During the 1960s, as aviation and air travel became more popular, along with the number of people who could attend sporting events, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, then the greatest racing venue in the world, was effectively shut out of business. The speedway had held a variety of car races, including the Indianapolis 500, but had begun to lose interest in the sport as air travel took off and more people sought other forms of entertainment. In order to fill the void left by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the track at Kentucky Speedway became a rival of sorts.
The first documented race at the track, which was founded by Eddie Sachs and Lou Gehrig, took place on April 9, 1940. The race, which was held that year in order to promote the newly opened venue, was a 20-lap event for modified cars and was contested between several drivers, including a pair of brothers, George and Eddie Sachs. The pace of the race was so slow at times that spectators watched the cars more like a display of automotive artwork than a real-life race. The track would go on to become a hub for sprint car racing in the United States, as the 1940s and 1950s were notable for their popularity of this style of racing. The track also became known as an impromptu testing ground for upcoming Indianapolis 500 participants.
The most significant alteration to the racetrack at Kentucky Speedway, and one that has significantly altered the entire landscape, is the significant shift in demographics that it has seen since its inception. In the 1940s and 1950s, when the airport was under the control of the United States Military, many of the spectators and participants at the track were members of the military, as well as their families. The proximity to the airport, the fact that it was fully funded by the government, and the flat land around it made the track a natural fit for the troops stationed there. Today, the demographics at the track are significantly different, with an estimated 86% of the attendees being spectators rather than participants. While the military still maintains a significant presence at the airport, it no longer runs the racetrack.
Another significant shift occurred at the end of the 2012 season, when the airport underwent a massive expansion and renovation project, with the opening of a brand new terminal in January 2014. One of the biggest impacts of the renovation is that it completely changed the layout and design of the airport. The new control tower, designed by renowned architect Helmut Dorfmann, effectively severed the connection between the airport and the Grand River, as well as shifted the entire flow and layout of the airport. While much of the airport has remained unchanged, what was once the taxiway has become an arrivals plaza, while what was once the departures area has become a new, large terminal building.
On the topic of the airport and its effects on the adjacent speedway, Paul Helliwell, a spokesperson for the Louis Armstrong Metro Airport Authority, stated, “The construction of the new Louis Armstrong International Airport terminal has required the realignment of the runways and taxiways in order to improve the movement of incoming and outgoing planes as well as to provide more convenient access to the terminal. In turn, this has impacted the way we can use the surrounding land, not just at the airport but also at the nearby Raceway Park.
Rivalry With The Past
While the track at Kentucky Speedway has changed significantly, it has not always been for the better. The site has seen several iterations of itself, with numerous plans and proposals for the track leading up to World War II. One of the earliest plans for the track came from New York City mobster Louis “Little Man” Campagna in the early 1930s. At the time, Campagna was a part of the Genovese crime family and wanted to build a racing track in Kentucky that would host the Alabama 500 race each year. Construction began in earnest in 1933 and continued for three years, with the last race, the Alabama 500, taking place on June 30, 1936. The track was open for business that same year and was used for a variety of stock car races, including the Cotton Bowl, with many greats of the sport, including Richard Petty and Donny Briggs, running there. During the war, the track was used as a military airfield until it was shut down in 1945. The airfield was given the rights to the track in 1947 and continued to host various auto races until 1993.
The rise of air travel during the following decades saw the track host fewer and fewer races, with only eight being held between 1946 and 1967. In 1968, the track was purchased by the newly formed Wood Brothers Racing Company and remained in their ownership through to the present day. The 1970s and 1980s were relatively quiet years at the track, with only two significant races held there between 1974 and 1988, along with a handful of midget car races. The lull was broken in 1992, when the NASCAR Busch Series made its debut at the track, with over 30 events being held there throughout the decade.