Casino opens at Kansas Speedway

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Lesa France Kennedy strode through the Art Deco-inspired lobby, past rows of blinking slots machines and spinning roulette wheels, her eyes trying to take in the homage to old Hollywood.

The chief executive of International Speedway Corp., which owns and operates Kansas Speedway, could only marvel at the new casino overlooking Turn 2 of the race track -- a $411 million facility that has created 1,000 new jobs and is expected to attract 4 million visitors annually.

"All the different screens, all the colors," Kennedy said. "I'm blown away."

Kennedy is gambling on the Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway, which celebrated its grand opening on a rainy Friday morning, to generate interest, drive ticket sales and increase revenue for ISC during a sluggish time for motorsports.

It's a bet she's confident will pay off.

"Anything we can do to bring more entertainment to the area, and also for our fans, will help not only us but the overall region," Kennedy said. "The group here has been so supportive and so interested in bringing tourism that it's made it really easy."

Long lines of cars snaked out of the parking lots and along the access roads running parallel to the backstretch in anticipation of the opening. After a ribbon was cut and Sprint Cup drivers Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne threw the ceremonial first dice, people began streaming through the doors and taking up seats at slot machines and blackjack tables.

The casino, a partnership between ISC and Penn National Gaming, is the first to open in the Kansas City market in 15 years, and the first land-based, Las Vegas-style casino in the area.

All of the gaming is on a single, 95,000-square-foot floor, with a bar and restaurant that overlooks Turn 2 of the speedway, providing a unique vantage point for its two race weekends.

The first is in late-April, when the Truck Series and Sprint Cup Series visit the track. The second weekend, in mid-October, brings an ARCA race, the Nationwide Series and one of the Chase races that make up the Sprint Cup playoff system.

"I get to do this for a living and we'll open several new facilities this year, but you can imagine the creativity that comes with opening a venue like this," said Peter Carlino, the chief executive of Penn National Gaming, which owns and operates casinos across the country.

The casino is only the latest development on the Kansas side of Kansas City.

The speedway, which opened in 2001, served as the cornerstone of a building boom that took advantage of good economic times. Several outlet stores, theaters, a minor league ballpark and the new stadium for MLS team Sporting Kansas City have popped up around the facility.

But the economic downturn has hurt motorsports, and suddenly it's become tougher to sell the 80,000-plus seats at Kansas Speedway, along with a dozen other tracks that are owned and operated by International Speedway Corp.

Kennedy believes unique entertainment options like the casino can help bring people back to the track. In places where gambling may not work, it could mean shopping and restaurant projects, concert venues and general upgrades to facilities such as Phoenix that have seen better days.

"We have a certain amount of capital each year for all our tracks," she said, "and we'll take a look at those that are ready for the next step."

Kennedy said she couldn't have envisioned setting foot inside a casino at Kansas Speedway five years ago. The truth is that nobody could have.

It wasn't until 2007 that the legislature passed a bill authorizing the construction of casinos in four areas of Kansas to generate additional revenue, one of them near the speedway.

Under the bill, the games themselves are owned by the state.

There's more to the facility than just gambling, though. A steakhouse offers fine dining, a buffet on the casino floor caters to nearly 300 at a time, a coffee bar and VIP lounge offer more dining options, and the place to be on race weekends is the patio overlooking the track.

"It's truly brought Las Vegas to Turn 2 of this race track," said Bowyer, who grew up in Emporia and considers Kansas Speedway his home track. "Can you imagine what the atmosphere is going to be like on race weekend?"

Everything inside the facility is modeled after the golden age of Hollywood.

There are soaring columns with ornate scrollwork, video screens rolling historic clips of Grace Kelly and James Stewart, and vintage movie posters of Steve McQueen in "Le Mans" and James Garner in "Grand Prix," a nod to the motorsports element of the unique partnership.

"Any time we can bring more things to the race track area and offer more entertainment, we'd definitely look at that," Kennedy said. "The casino happens to work for this property. Obviously it's available here in the area. But we would look at this or any other types of things that would add an extra boost to the economy and to the experience."

There are more changes in the works at Kansas Speedway.

Officials received the final layout from their design team this week for a proposed road course through the infield, and construction is scheduled to begin after the April race.

Track president Pat Warren also said Friday he hopes one of the two Sprint Cup races at Kansas Speedway will be run at night in 2013. The track installed lights last year and drew about 25,000 fans last fall for an ARCA race run under the lights.

"I can tell you opportunities like this don't come along very often, but when they do you take advantage of them," Warren said. "We added lights to the track, last year we replaced 20,000 seats. We've done a number of things to the speedway itself."

The road course, which will be built in conjunction with a reconfiguration and repaving of the original 1½-mile tri-oval, begins after the front stretch. Drivers will make a hard left and meander down the backstretch before a hairpin turn brings them back to the main speedway.

There are also configurations that allow for the course to be run as a mile-long road course contained entirely in the infield, and part of it as a smaller go-kart track.

The work will be finished before the October race weekend, though there won't be competitive racing on the road course until next year, when a Grand-Am stop is planned for Kansas Speedway.

"We haven't announced the date yet and I'm sure we will in the near future, but that'll be the first Grand-Am race here and give us road racing, and that will even diversify the fan base even more than it already is," said Lesa France Kennedy, the chief executive of ISC.

The repaving project has generated mixed reactions.

Some drivers argued last fall that the new surface would hurt the quality of racing at the track, while others pointed to cracks and potholes as potential safety issues. Some also are upset that 15-degree banking will be replaced by variable banking designed to make passing easier.

"I liked the old surface, too, but you have to repave at certain times," Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne said. "To repave now, it might take a few races to get back to where we want it, but overall it'll be good."

Kahne also said he's in favor of a night race at Kansas Speedway, something that Warren has been pushing for since the lights were installed last year.

It won't happen this season, but the track president is optimistic about next year.

"One day race, one night race -- the tracks change," Kahne said. "They race differently at night, so it'll be good. I'd be looking forward to that."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.