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American Royal barbecue contest moves to Kansas Speedway

American Royal barbecue contest moves to Kansas

The American Royal Association announced Thursday that the contest will be held at the Kansas Speedway from Oct. 26-30. It's the first time the event, which started 36 years ago, will be in Kansas.
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The American Royal Association announced Thursday that the contest will be held at the Kansas Speedway from Oct. 26-30. It's the first time the event, which started 36 years ago, will be in Kansas.

The annual American Royal World Series of Barbecue is moving again — this time to Kansas — and the reason has to do with the World Series of baseball.

The American Royal Association announced Thursday that the contest will be held at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 26-30.

It’s the second location shift in two years for the stalwart event and the first time it will be in Kansas. The contest began 36 years ago in the West Bottoms and last year was held for the first time at Arrowhead Stadium.

The American Royal Association said in a news release the move to the speedway was necessary “due to the American Royal’s fall dates and scheduling conflicts at the Truman Sports Complex.” Last year the contest was Oct. 1-4, but the later dates will allow it to be the “finale of the competitive barbecue season.”

But the Chiefs will be in Indianapolis on the weekend the barbecue contest is scheduled, and Arrowhead has no other events on its schedule. So what is the conflict?

The World Series could go into November this year. After all, it did last year, when the Kansas City Royals took the crown over the New York Mets. It was the Royals’ second trip to the series in as many years. Who’s to say it can’t happen again?

Combining a barbecue contest that drew nearly 50,000 people and more than 600 teams last year with the excitement of a World Series game or two at Kauffman Stadium would just be too much. Each event used all of the parking areas.

“You couldn’t do both events,” said Jim Rowland, director of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority.

But there is another dimension to moving the barbecue contest, the most profitable event on the American Royal calendar, to Kansas. It comes against the backdrop of the American Royal looking for a new home, possibly in Wyandotte County near the speedway.

The Kansas Legislature sparred with Gov. Sam Brownback earlier this year over the possibility of using sales tax revenue bonds to help the American Royal move to Kansas. STAR bonds allow Kansas communities to issue bonds for some developments and use sales taxes generated by them to pay off the bonds.

Brownback vetoed legislation that would have curtailed the use of STAR bonds and the House failed to override the veto, meaning an American Royal project in Kansas remains possible. American Royal president and CEO Lynn Parman did not return messages, and the public relations company hired to publicize the barbecue move was not authorized to discuss the matter.

There also remains the fact that the American Royal has a lease with Kansas City that runs to 2045.

Tensions arose between the American Royal and the city over the future of underused Kemper Arena. Royal officials wanted the building razed and replaced with a smaller venue for horse shows and other events. That would free up more space for the cramped barbecue contest. But city officials balked at the cost of building a new arena and preferred to seek a reuse for Kemper while still hoping the American Royal, a tradition since 1899, would remain in the West Bottoms.

News that the barbecue contest, a one-weekend-a-year event, is now moving across the state line was met with shrugs at City Hall on Thursday.

“Whatever they think is in their best interest, I’m fine with,” Mayor Sly James said. “I wish them good luck.”

Brownback was pleased that the barbecue contest is coming to Kansas Speedway.

“We are pleased to welcome the world’s largest barbecue competition … to one of the best venues in the region,” the governor said in a statement. “Competitors and guests will enjoy the hospitality of our state as the 2016 American Royal Barbecue competition comes to the Kansas Speedway in October.”

The move to Arrowhead last year was prompted by lack of space at the American Royal Complex in the West Bottoms. In 2014, the contest had 560 teams, but 40 others had to be turned away.

Last year the annual American Royal Parade, which used to be held downtown, was also moved to Arrowhead. It was not clear Thursday where this year’s parade will be. The livestock and horse events are expected to remain in the West Bottoms.

The barbecue contest is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Carolyn Wells, the society’s executive director, said she was “delighted” to have a date and she expects the speedway to be a good venue.

“We’re happy it’s at the speedway. There’s lots of room there,” Wells said over the phone from Memphis, Tenn., where she was attending the Memphis in May barbecue contest. “Our goal is to accommodate as many teams as possible in the best way possible. It worked great at Arrowhead, and I think it will work great at the speedway.”

Todd Johns, owner of Plowboys Barbeque and an American Royal contest winner in 2008 and 2009, said there are good and bad things about the changes announced Thursday.

“Because the contest got moved last year, we’ve already been through the ‘it’s not in the West Bottoms anymore,’ ” he said. “As a competitor and speaking for some of my friends, we all thought it went over pretty well.”

Johns said the barbecue community is very large but tightly knit and the important thing is just to get together. This year’s date will put the Royal contest one week after the Jack Daniel’s contest in Lynchburg, Tenn., instead of three weeks before. That means some competitors from the East may decide to just stay in the Midwest for both contests.

But weather in late October is a concern.

“It could be snowing or sleeting or freezing rain,” Johns said. “It definitely will be cold. And it’s a concern for whether the public will come out and support it. For the Royal that’s a big thing, for their scholarships.”

The American Royal awarded 10 scholarships to college students last year “to advocate the food and fiber industry, leadership and the American Royal.”

Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren said in a statement that he welcomes the barbecue event: “We’re looking forward to showing all the contestants and fans a great time at our unique venue.”

Kansas City Chiefs president Mark Donovan said in a statement that he would be open to hosting the event again.

“We will continue to partner and support the event with the hope of bringing it back to Arrowhead in the near future,” Donovan said.

Rowland said he was not part of the conversation between the American Royal and Arrowhead about scheduling in future years. But he acknowledged that if the World Series of Barbecue continues to be held at the end of October, then there will be a potential conflict with the World Series of baseball.

“It’s a new problem,” he said, “and a nice problem to have.”