It Took A While, But Kentucky Is Now Full-Bore NASCAR
When Kentucky Speedway stages its inaugural Sprint Cup race this weekend it will mark the beginning of its new association with the highest level of stock car racing.
The Commonwealth of Kentucky will, at long last, take its place as part of the nation’s most popular form of motorsports and the speedway will be a welcome new venue – which many think it should have long since been.
Even though NASCAR was born in the Southeast and for years flourished there, as hard at it might be to believe, Kentucky wasn’t part of it. The state didn’t take its place alongside Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas.
When NASCAR began to expand, tracks located in such unlikely places as Chicago, Kansas City, Las Vegas, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Sonoma and Watkins Glen came on board while Kentucky remained absent.
But some enterprising people refused to stand idly by. In 2001, Kentucky Speedway, a handsome 1.5-mile track built in Sparta (30 miles from Cincinnati) staged its first NASCAR event.
It was a Nationwide Series race won by Kevin Harvick. The track has been part of the Nationwide tour ever since but it has always sought to move up to NASCAR’s elite circuit.
Now it has done so. But for so long Kentucky and NASCAR were never partners when it seemed, logically, they should have been.
Looking back into NASCAR’s record books, until this weekend, there was only one major race held in Kentucky since the sanctioning body was formed in 1947. And by “major” it is meant an event held on the Grand National circuit that evolved into today’s Sprint Cup tour.
It was held at Corbin Speedway, a half-mile dirt track located in Corbin, Ky., on Aug. 29, 1954. The race was a 200-lapper, or 100 miles.
It was put on the schedule during a time when Bill France, Sr., NASCAR’s founder, was staging races just about anytime and anywhere he could, coast-to-coast.
France was anxious to have his sport of professional stock car racing somehow find the attention of, and an eventual foothold with, the American public.
The Corbin event was one of 37 held in 1954. In later years the schedule for the Grand National circuit would sometimes consist of 50 races or more.
Lee Petty drove his Chrysler to victory in Kentucky in ’54 to earn one of his seven victories of the season. He went on to compete in 34 races and, at age 40, win the first of his three Grand National championships.
Interestingly, the driver who finished second, and was the only other one to complete all 200 laps, was Hershel McGriff in an Oldsmobile. He was 27 years old and won four races in ’54, his best Grand National season.
McGriff is a remarkable athlete who has raced over the course of six decades. At age 83, he has already competed in two NASCAR K&N Pro Series West races this year.
Other NASCAR notables who were part of the 21-car field in Corbin included Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Marvin Panch and Jim Paschal.
After 1954, Kentucky was never again a part of NASCAR’s top circuit – at least through research done here. If anyone can show otherwise please enlighten us all.
When it comes to Kentucky, remember all of this is about NASCAR and its top circuit. It has nothing to do with motorsports overall in the Bluegrass State, which certainly has had its share of drivers, tracks and fans over the years.
And Kentucky has never needed NASCAR to take the podium in the sports world. When it comes to thoroughbred horse racing, it stands head and shoulders above all other states.
It’s fair to say that the Kentucky Derby, in Louisville, is one of the world’s major sporting events and receives perhaps even more international attention than the Daytona 500.
In 1972, Kentucky began its slowly forged link with NASCAR through the ambition, achievements and personality of a single driver.
This is an opinion shared by a multitude of motorsports historians and journalists.
Darrell Waltrip, from Owensboro, Ky., broke into NASCAR in ’72. I always have thought he was the right man for the sport at the right time.
While NASCAR did receive a huge boost from the financial participation of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston brand of cigarettes, that created the Winston Cup circuit, it was devoid of personalities that could lure, and even polarize, fans new and old.
Waltrip was the man who did so. With long hair and sideburns, a sense of humor, a brash attitude and the gift of gab, he made it clear he was going to beat the big boys.
In an upstart operation with his own car and noted crew chief Jake Elder few paid Waltrip particular notice – at first. That changed when he began to compete regularly with the stars of the day.
It also changed when fans began to listen to what Waltrip had to say and either approved or disapproved. Either way he drew attention.
The media began to court the “mouthy” kid from Tennessee – Waltrip had moved to Franklin, Tenn., so he could race regularly at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
The Kentucky native had a way with the press. He was opinionated, of course, but he was also witty and very open. He knew what he was doing.
He didn’t mind telling one writer about his misadventures in Owensboro. One of them was his ultimate conviction for something called “attempted drag racing,” which might not have happened if a buddy, who, while on the stand, hadn’t been forcefully told the punishments for perjury.
Scared, he turned on Waltrip, who subsequently spent a year riding around Owensboro in a moped.
While he kept on talking, Waltrip kept racing competitively and finally won his first career Winston Cup event at, of course, Nashville, on May 10, 1975. It took him 50 races.
“I wish I could have won at some track other than the one where I grew up,” Waltrip said. “But it’s good to finally win, though.”
Waltrip won again in ’75, at Richmond. This time it was with DiGard Racing Co., which had hired him to replace Donnie Allison.
It was with DiGard that Waltrip began his surge to superstardom, which was later intensified by his long association with Junior Johnson & Associates.
Kentucky racing fans gleefully and appreciatively went along with the ride. After all, Waltrip was one of the best in NASCAR and a Kentuckian to boot.
Kentucky’s representation in NASCAR grew. In time NASCAR had a small army of Owensboro competitors.
It included Waltrip’s brother Michael, of course, along with the Green siblings – David, Jeff and Mark. Also a member was Jeremy Mayfield.
Their presence certainly solidified Kentucky’s position in NASCAR.
But nothing will do so better than what will happen on what should be a more than well-attended weekend. It was a long time coming for several reasons, but Kentucky and the speedway are now welcome parts of NASCAR’s highest level.
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