It’s an incredible feat for a single NASCAR track to stand the test of time, and the iconic Kentucky Speedway is one of the finest examples of a track that has not only withstood the test of time but has thrived at it.
Opened in 1961, the speedway is located in Louisville, Kentucky, a mere 30 miles from the capital city of Frankfort. The track measures a jaw-dropping 4.99 miles in length – that’s nearly 100 yards longer than a football field – and over the years as the sport has evolved, so has the track. While the straightaways, corners, and the way the racetrack is designed remain unchanged, the way the sport is governed also changed. And it’s the governing bodies that have changed the most that the track has had to adapt to.
The Early Years
Before the Kentucky Speedway re-opened in 2011 after a four-year absence due to the 2007–2008 financial crisis, it was a very different place. Opened as a replacement for the departed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the track was an immediate hit. That year, the track saw its first 500-mile race, which was won by Richard Petty, and attendance soared to its all-time high of over 263,000 fans.
The early years of the track were indeed unforgettable, and even today, people will have fond memories of those wonderful years. Though the track is considerably different today, it has not lost its charm, and it still hosts some memorable races.
Modernizing The Sport
Back in those days, the way racing was presented on TV was vastly different from what it is today. There was no green screen, no digital effects, and there were certainly no fly-overs. And because there were no restrictions on what could be broadcast, local TV stations could choose which events to show and when. And if a TV station showed nothing but NASCAR races, then obviously the track would have an incredible amount of exposure. Back then, it was the perfect storm – the track, the sport, and the TV stations – and it helped grow the sport in a big way.
So, what happened? As the years went by, the TV stations stopped airing NASCAR events, and the fans began to lose interest. Attendance at the track declined precipitously, and in 1975, the Kentucky Speedway stopped holding NASCAR events. The track was a year-round competitor in the World 600, but it wasn’t until the advent of the Busch Series that it regained some popularity. In 1979, it hosted the prestigious Winston 500, which is now one of NASCAR’s biggest events. And in 1980, the track hosted its first 500-mile race, which was won by Jacky Jones.
The following year, the track held the legendary Southern 500. Dale Earnhardt was not only the defending race winner but also the defending series champion. More people came out to see him make it a hat trick, as it was his last race in NASCAR – though he would come back for some midget car races – and even more people came out to see Earnhardt dominate the track and the sport as a whole. In 1983, the track saw its best attendance ever, with 269,000 fans in attendance. Unfortunately, the following year the track saw its worst attendance ever, with only 182,000 fans.
The Busch Series
The track began to experience a revival in the early 1990s when the Busch Series was introduced. Unlike the more prestigious Winston Cup Series, the Busch Series was designed to be a more grassroots racing series, and it attracted many drivers who had either fallen by the wayside or were just getting their career off the ground. The first Busch Series race at the track was in 1991 and was won by Greg Biffle. In 1992, the track hosted its first ever 500-mile race, which was won by Geoff Bodine. That same year, the track experienced its best attendance ever, with 266,000 fans in attendance.
The following year was a legendary one for the track. Not only did it see its best ever attendance – with 269,000 fans in attendance – but it also saw the track record for most wins in a season, with 6, won by Ricky Craven. That year, the track also saw the debut of its most famous and historic event, the Aaron’s 499. The 500-mile race, named after the track’s founder, is now an annual tradition at the track.
The Attracting Big Names
The list of big names who have driven or are driving for Harvick, who will be taking over as CEO of the track in January, is quite impressive. Among them are Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick. The track has also seen the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman park and drive. It’s only a matter of time before they too are associated with the track.
So, what makes the track so special? The short answer is tradition. The way the track is designed, the way the track plays, and the fact that it’s witnessed some incredible moments of racing lore all contribute to making the track special. And since some of the biggest names in NASCAR are associated with it, it only makes sense that the track would become a gathering place for fans and drivers alike. It doesn’t hurt that the track offers a fantastic view of the Louisville skyline, either.
Since the track opened, it has always been a place where the community would come together, and that continues today. Back in the day, people would travel from all over the country to be here. And even if they didn’t actually attend a NASCAR race, this was a place they would come to see and be a part of. Now, with so many drivers and teams traveling these days to compete, the community aspect has taken a backseat.
That being said, there are still plenty of opportunities for the community to get involved. Many of the tracks biggest events are here to help promote the local businesses. And since the economic impact of a sporting event can be tremendous, the local governments have worked hard to ensure these events are profitable for the community. Some of the events can even be used to fund local projects, like the YMCA and the Louisville Zoo. The opportunities to engage the community are still here, it’s just a matter of finding them.
A Classic Track Design
Though the four corners, straightaways, and capacity have all increased over the years, the design of the track itself has stayed largely the same. That is, it still has the classic three-lane pattern, with the outside lanes forming a slight incline that leads to the high-speed turn at the end. The unique thing about this design is that it places emphasis on driving skill rather than mechanical advantage. As a result, even though the track is over 50 years old, it still manages to feel fresh, and that is a testament to the unique designers who worked there back in the day.
Even now, as the NASCAR community has grown and changed, the track still feels fresh and new. It holds a special place in the hearts of all its fans, and it will be interesting to see how the next generation embraces this amazing track as it heads into its golden anniversary in 2021.