What Happened To The Kentucky Speedway? [Ultimate Guide!]

You might be thinking about making the move to the Bluegrass State soon, but you’d better hurry. Kentucky is about to close the doors on one of the most storied sports venues of all time. We’re not talking about the Kentucky Derby or the Kentucky Concert Hall. We’re talking about the iconic, original Kentucky Speedway, which is set to close its doors for the final time on October 31st.

The reasons for the closure are numerous. The construction of I-75 in the area has made it nearly impossible for the average car to even make it up the entrance of the speedway. Those that do make it up there are usually forced to take a sharp right into the infield, which essentially becomes a dead end. The team at the Speedway has also found the transition from motorsport to NASCAR difficult, and they want to avoid any further litigation with the city. The bottom line is that the Kentucky Speedway simply doesn’t have the lucrative National Football League (NFL) or Major League Baseball (MLB) games that it used to.

So, what happened? Let’s take a look back at the evolution of the speedway, which started in 1934 and was one of the first paved oval tracks in American sports.

The Early Years

The Kentucky Speedway started out inauspiciously enough as a military field. The United States Army purchased 238 acres of land in Shelbyville, Kentucky, just outside of Louisville, in order to build a training facility for its officer candidates. The base was originally called Camp Shelby, but when the war ended, the Army turned the camp into a regular public park and named it after its most famous resident, Joe Richard’s Auto Racing Park.

Richard was one of the founding partners of the speedway along with George Buckhanan and Jimmy Angel. The three of them pooled their resources and bought the land, which back then consisted mostly of woods and fields, for the then-enormous sum of $25,000. The trio started laying out the track in the summer of 1934 and opened their first speedway the following year.

They named the track after themselves, which is how the nickname ‘Speedway’ came about. The site that the three men settled on was chosen because it was close to a peach orchard. At the time, the area was pretty rural and the only other major landmarks were Frankfort’s Union Station and the Louisville & Nashville Railroad line. Between the two of them, the Army’s Camp Shelby and the Kentucky Speedway have combined to form what is now known as the Cardinal Richey Center for Motorsports Medicine. The center was officially opened in 2006 and is named in honor of Dr. Bob Richey, who passed away in 2005.

The Pre-War Years

In the 1930s, the Louisville region was mostly quiet (with the exception of varsity football games), and that helped make for some fantastic evenings at the track. People would show up for football games in small crowds, but the race was always a sellout. The Cardinals were one of the most prestigious football teams in the country, and their games were always a bit of a rivalry with the Kentucky Wildcats.

It wasn’t just about the football, either. The men’s and women’s swimming pools were some of the best in the region, and people came from all over to take a dip. In fact, it was once said that the water at the Kentucky Speedway was so good that you could eat off the bottoms of the pool lounges. The speedway has hosted numerous famous races throughout the years, including the 1938 Kentucky Derby and the famous 1956 Battle of Kentucky, which pitted Bill Elliott (in his #9 car) against Fred Lorenzen (in his #2 Ferrari).

With World War II looming, Army officials decided that the field was no longer needed for training and would be more suitable for public use. The speedway opened its gates to the public once more in the 1940s and became a magnet for drivers and fans from all over the country. The infield now houses the Cardinal Richey Center for Motorsports Medicine and the track’s museum. Several of the old structures, including the grandstand and the pits, have been preserved and are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Post-War Years

After the war, the Louisville region experienced an economic boom and the population increased by about 30%, reaching an all-time high of 563,600 residents in 1950. The region’s main industries at the time, aside from automobile manufacturing, were coal mining and steel production. Because of its proximity to a large city and an international airport, the region became a hub for military and commercial aviation. The airport was originally named for Jimmy Angel, the driver who set the land speed record at the time – 100 miles per hour – but was later renamed to honor the region’s favorite son, Henry Clay Frick.

In 1953, a fire broke out in the grandstand and destroyed much of the original structure. The wooden grandstand was replaced with a steel and concrete stand, and it was here that Richard started the tradition of having a burning tire on the track at the end of every racing night.

The Modern Day

In the decades that followed, the region’s economy shifted from primarily based in industry to one that heavily relied on service jobs. In recent years, the construction of Interstate 75, which runs along the northern border of the state, has made it easier for cars to get in and out of the area.

The introduction of the energy drink into the U.S. market in the early 1980s also helped fuel a rise in interest in motorsport. More and more people wanted to experience what it was like to sit in the drivers’ seat, and the Kentucky Speedway, with its 0.533-mile paved tri-oval track, was a perfect place for them to do so. In 2007, the speedway was the site of a massive earthquake, and though the track itself narrowly escaped damage, countless trees around it were felled. The trees were planted the following year, and today they provide some welcome shade and color to the track’s spectator area.

The Final Months

With just a few months left to go, the transition to NASCAR has not been easy for the track. They’ve had to make several adjustments and have streamlined their operations in order to remain profitable. The team has stopped catering to NASCAR fans and instead focuses on attracting casual and lapsed attendees from all over the region. As the economy has shifted and changed, so has the audience at the speedway. The average attendee today is a lot more diverse than in the past, with people coming from all over the U.S. as well as Canada, Mexico, and even one each from China and Singapore. For years, the speedway had the reputation of being ‘old-school’ – the place where you went to see iconic racing cars and hear the roar of engines. That image is slowly but surely being replaced by one of a modern-day motorsport venue.

There are several different reasons why you might be considering a move to the Bluegrass state. Whether it’s for school, work, or just to live life in the ‘burbs, there’s something for everyone. Just remember that, as much as you might want to stay and fight for the rights to the name Kentucky Speedway, those may be impossible. The future of the speedway looks grim, and the last time we checked in with the city of Shelbyville, there were no immediate plans to change the name of the park. For now, at least, you’ll have to settle for the Louisville Motor Speedway – though we’d bet money that even that will eventually change as well.

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