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Big-time racing, big-time crowd

DATE OF EVENT: Sunday, Oct. 30, 2001

DATE PUBLISHED: Monday, Oct. 1, 2001, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Construction of Kansas Speedway began in 1999. By 2000, 80 percent of the tickets for the opening season were already sold. The speedway’s inaugural race in 2001 attracted 100,000 fans. The speedway, along with major businesses such as Nebraska Furniture Mart and Cabela’s, would draw visitors and raise tax revenue for Wyandotte County.

Big-time racing, big-time crowd

Winston Cup debut draws thousands of smiles

By Rick Montgomery

Winston Cup racing thundered into Kansas Speedway on Sunday, introducing one of the biggest shows in sports to the quarter-billion-dollar track in Wyandotte County.

And the ears are still ringing around here.

With roughly 100,000 fans, Kansas dignitaries, media members and NASCAR’s top drivers basking under crystal-blue skies, the Winston series’ Protection One 400 was far and away the main event of the first racing season at the speedway.

“I’m the one with the great big smile,” said Carol Marinovich, mayor of the Unified Board of Commissioners of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan. She wasn’t the only one.

Tyler Moline, 8, of Prior Lake, Minn., was smiling because he saw a dozen wipeouts. Parkville’s Ron Petty, a first-time Winston Cup spectator despite his name, was glad to see so many Americans “getting back to living again” at the close of a month that brought such terror to their home soil.

NASCAR star Jeff Gordon? Dazzling smile. He won the thing, after all.

And the man in the Kodak trailer couldn’t have been happier after selling his fourth $250 black leather NASCAR jacket — 90 minutes before the race even started. …

All 75,000 seats in the grandstands were filled, all 68 luxury boxes were occupied, and more than 750 motor homes rose above the infield as well as along the track’s outer rim.

One of the larger sporting events in Kansas City area history enjoyed near-perfect weather. …

Welcome to NASCAR, Kansas City.

The first 20-ounce beer was sold at 7:30 a.m. at the Boulevard Brewing Co. booth in the concourse. In about an hour [vendor Kathy] Cirulis’ booth had sold out of more than 5,000 programs at $15 each. By 10 a.m. — two hours before the scheduled start of the race — shoppers weaved around each other in the speedway perimeter, where dozens of retail trailer trucks formed a crescent of in-your-face merchandising. Ricky Rudd fans buzzed around the trailer of his corporate sponsor, Havoline Motor Oil. Fifty bucks or so bought the starter package: a Ricky Rudd T-shirt and cap. From there, fans could pick from Ricky Rudd refrigerator magnets, shot glasses, baby booties, vanilla-scented air fresheners, dog tags, earrings, coffee mugs, golf balls, fanny packs and Ricky Rudd lawn chairs.

Binoculars were going for $160 in a trailer 30 paces down. Radio scanners and headsets, allowing fans to eavesdrop on racers and their crews, sold for as much as $200. …

Kansas City’s tailgaters brought their culinary traditions to a new venue. As chicken breasts wrapped in bacon and cheese sizzled in a Weber grill, Winston Cup fan Ray Sostarich of Kansas City, Kan., said: “The football game (Sunday) didn’t even enter my mind this morning. That’s a first.” He has owned Chiefs season tickets since the 1960s. …

Race fans are thought to have arrived from more than 40 states. …

As the race neared, four sections of the grandstand held up red, white and blue cards to form a giant American flag of fans. They sang “God Bless America” before singing duo Brooks and Dunn, backed by the NASCAR Kids choir, led the crowd in the national anthem.

At 12:11 p.m. Kansas Gov. Bill Graves joined Marinovich in commanding the drivers to “Start your engines.” A magnificent thunder, growl and sustained roar, the mother of all buzz saws, followed as 75,000 rose to their feet in the stands. With earplugs and headsets in place, they cheered again just seconds into the race, when No. 19 lost control in the first turn. …

Following the accident-riddled race, Gordon, whose victory here extended his lead in Winston Cup points, gave the new track a thumbs-up. Pristine as the surface was, Gordon said, it may take time for the track to develop reliable “grooves.” Drivers will have a surer feel for it next year, he said.

“It’s like a fine wine,” Gordon said, “that gets better with age.”

With the Winston Cup still echoing in the grandstands, sweeter words could not have been spoken at Kansas Speedway.

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