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Rockfest’s move to Kansas Speedway is a hit with fans, critics

Rockfest held at the Kansas Speedway for the first time

Rockfest fans listened to their favorite bands on Saturday at the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. This marks the debut of the rock festival at the Speedway after years in downtown Kansas City.
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Rockfest fans listened to their favorite bands on Saturday at the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. This marks the debut of the rock festival at the Speedway after years in downtown Kansas City.

As 50,000 hard-rock fans cranked it at Kansas Speedway on Saturday for the 26th annual ear-splitting bacchanal that is Rockfest, John David DiCapo was across town, idling in quiet celebration near the site of the festival’s former home.

“I spent two years getting them to move,” DiCapo said. “I feel great about it!”

For 13 straight years, from 2004 to 2016, the daylong festival was held across the street from DiCapo’s Santa Fe Place condominium. There on a hillside in Kansas City’s Penn Valley Park, home to the Liberty Memorial, the headbanging multitudes partied hearty to the likes of Buckcherry, Staind and Five Finger Death Punch.

Hair bands. Biker bands. Heavy metal thrashers. Scores of the biggest names in heavy-duty rock attracted multitudes each spring.

And for much of that time, DiCapo fumed. He fretted about the noise, the drinking, the drugs, the trash, the nudity and the far-too-many concertgoers who, he says, relieved themselves in the bushes or along the curb rather than find a toilet.

Rockfest, he thought, had no business on Penn Valley’s rolling acres within close proximity to the downtown skyline. Two years ago his indignation had him posting protest signs in the neighborhoods around Crown Center.

He started an online petition.

“Move Rockfest from Penn Valley Park,” read the headline above a photo of the mud pit the park became whenever it rained on or right before Rockfest weekend.

But all that passion produced tepid results.

The petition garnered only a few hundred signatures. The park board sighed at his requests for a Rockfest ban, then gladly accepted promoter AEG’s $60,000 rent payment and promise to clean up the mess.

Nor were his complaints shared by the National World War I Museum, which his father, Carl DiCapo, helped found, and which had to close each year on the day of the festival.

Only two of 20 board members even bothered to write him back.

AEG also pays the museum $60,000 each year to offset any losses, which is more that it might normally garner in ticket sales on that day.

But that cash isn’t the only factor behind the museum’s support of having Rockfest take over Penn Valley year after year, spokesman Mike Vietti said. The fest is good exposure.

Besides, the museum sees Rockfest as being not all that much different than the crowd that occupies the north lawn on Memorial Day weekend for the symphony concert and fireworks.

“We really see the museum grounds as communal space for the greater Kansas City area,” Vietti said.

But DiCapo was not without allies.

Midtown resident Nadja Karpilow encouraged him and made her protests known to local officials. Even though the park’s turf is repaired and reseeded each year after Rockfest, ruts from the heavy trucks that carry in the equipment remain, she said

“Rockfest had a huge impact on the quality of the park,” she said. “I just don’t think it can withstand 50,000 people at once.”

Parks director Mark McHenry was out of the office Friday afternoon and did not respond to a request for comment. But he and the board have have voiced their support in the past for keeping the festival in the park.

After heavy rain turned the grounds into a muddy mess in 2010, the parks department conducted a poll and found the public supportive, as well.

But this year, Rockfest unrolled in Kansas City, Kan. Organizers say they decided to push the festival into June because the May dates had too often tended to be cold and rainy.

But Penn Valley Park wasn’t available this weekend because the Hospital Hill Run shut off access.

“We wanted to move it to a weekend when the weather was a little warmer,” KQRC program director Bob Edwards told the Star’s Tim Finn in February. “We wanted to get it back to T-shirt weather.”

Fans in tees and tank tops arriving at the festival grounds outside the Kansas Speedway appreciated the warmer temps and the more spacious setting.

“Easier parking, way easier,” said Lawrence resident William Helsel. “It’s not all hilly. It’s nice and flat.”

The speedway grounds also allowed for two full-size stages; in years past, the fest made do with one main stage and a smaller one.

One benefit of all that concrete: “It’s not muddy,” Ray Agbunab of St. Joseph said.

As for where Rockfest will be next year, there’s been no announcement. Could easily be back at Penn Valley. Might not. In the early years it was staged at Smithville Lake, Longview Lake and Sandstone Amphitheater before it took on a series of corporate labels.

Providence Medical Center now holds the naming rights.

Wherever it ends up, DiCapo’s flat assessment is this: “It doesn’t belong in the middle of the city.”

And this year, it was far from the city’s center: 19.3 miles by the fastest route, according to Google.

The Star’s Allison Long also contributed to this article.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks

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