SPARTA, Ky. -- It began as a dream.
Jerry Carroll, the real-estate mogul and businessman who once owned Turfway Park, saw the promise of a racetrack in Northern Kentucky. He first thought of it while on a track in Texas in the mid '90s.
"The only thing he knew about auto racing was its incredible up-curve popularity, the unlikely mainstreaming of a pastime that had started on the back roads and found the exits blocked for generations," wrote former Kentucky Post columnist Lonnie Wheeler. "Knowing that Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties were too built-up and expensive for such a parcel, (he) concentrated on Grant and Carroll counties."
Carroll ended up finding three family farms in Gallatin County -- close to Cincinnati and just an hour from Lexington, Louisville and Frankfort. It was perfect for his new racetrack.
On July 10, 1998, Carroll, along with Dick Duchossois of Chamberlain Industries, Richard Farmer of Cintas Corp., and John Lindahl of State Industries and Outback Steakhouse Inc., broke ground on the 66,089-capacity Kentucky Speedway. It was the "largest excavation project in Kentucky history, displacing 7.2 million cubic yards of earth," The Enquirer reported. "The facility was constructed with 48,000 cubic yards of concrete, the equivalent of a 50-story building."
''My goals for this place are, one, to make money; two, to get a NASCAR Busch race; and three, to get a Winston Cup race,'' Carroll told Wheeler. ''That's when you know you've got a grand slam. That would be like getting the Masters on your course.''
Kevin Kelly, who authored the book "Kentucky Speedway" in 2015, was covering auto racing for a newspaper in Florida at the time.
"NASCAR was riding a tidal wave of popularity when Kentucky Speedway opened its gates," he said. "There were some bumps in the road at first, but Kentucky Speedway quickly gained a reputation within the industry for drawing massive crowds for races that drew far smaller crowds elsewhere."
Press coverage of the groundbreaking painted an optimistic view that the track could land a Series race sooner rather than later.
"To hear NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip tell it, there's no way a Winston race can avoid Carroll's speedway," The Enquirer's Tom Groeschen wrote just after the groundbreaking in 1998. "The Owensboro, Kentucky, native, headliner of a group of NASCAR drivers who attended Saturday's event, stirred the crowd with talk of big-league races in Kentucky, even though the track won't open until June 2000."
"I'm gonna grab old Billy France by the ear and tell him we need to be racing here," the outspoken Waltrip said, referring to the NASCAR president. "I've been around. He listens to me. I want to come home to a Winston Cup race here."
Kelly said that as event after event drew larger crowds, it was clear the track could support a NASCAR race, just as Carroll hoped.
"But NASCAR didn't want to expand the schedule, and tracks that had a race didn't want to hand over a date to an independently owned track," Kelly said. "I thought Kentucky Speedway deserved a Cup race based on its performance, but it became clear as the years went on that it would not just be handed one."
That founding ownership continued to try to land a NASCAR race, including suing the company and International Speedway Corp.
"The case was defeated at every turn and that left the original owners with no other option but to sell to Speedway Motorsports Inc.," Kelly said. "SMI would not have bought the track had it not intended to bring a Cup Series race to Sparta, and that's exactly what it did. It took more than a decade, but it happened. And when it did, it verified what a lot of people knew in their minds: Kentucky Speedway deserved a spot at the table."
By 2000, the track held its first NASCAR truck race, and by 2011 it landed a newly named Sprint Cup race, its first major-league event. But it did not go well.
"A sellout crowd of 107,000 converged on Sparta for the speedway's first Sprint Cup race, but officials said more than 10,000 fans never got in because of massive traffic and parking problems," The Enquirer reported. "Some of those fans, enraged, vowed to never return."
But by the next year, improvements were made, and the experience became a memorable one.
"What happened on the day of the inaugural Cup Series race certainly left its mark, and I think the track continues to work hard to convince fans that things are fixed," Kelly said. "Without question, there are people who haven't returned since that day because of what they experienced. I completely understand, but I also think it's unfortunate. I would say to them to give it another chance. The roads are better. There's more parking and a better parking plan in place. Kentucky State Police handles the ingress and egress and does an amazing job with it. There were growing pains but I think the speedway has it figured out and the racing is better than ever."
The stats don't lie: 86 out of 96 reviews on Trip Advisor say the track experience is "excellent" or "very good."
Fans have seen Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in the prime of their careers. They've watched David Gilliland and Stephen Leicht pull off huge upsets. Joey Logano picked up his first XFINITY Series victory at Kentucky and followed it up with two more.
And in Kelly's favorite moment, Ed Carpenter won his first IndyCar race in the last one held at the track.
"Carpenter had finished second two years in a row and was driving a car owned by Sarah Fisher, who earlier in her Indy-car driving career made history at Kentucky Speedway," Kelly said. "So the race starts, and at some point bolts holding one side of Carpenter’s visor fell out and he had to drive one-handed, holding his visor down and steering a car going over 200 mph with the other. He won the race, beating Dario Franchitti by .0098 of a second -- the closest finish for an IndyCar race at Kentucky Speedway -- after they raced side-by-side over the final 20 laps."
What began as a dream has become a lasting reality.
"Whether you're camping for the race weekend or just visiting on race day, it's a great place to take the family," Kelly said. "Families have formed lifelong friendships with other families they met at the track. Race weekends become reunions. For kids, there's plenty of room to roam and lots to see and do. You stand a good chance of seeing your favorite driver up close. And now it's more affordable and kid friendly as ever. That's a fantastic deal."