Proposed: Roger Penske’s Denver International Raceway

Proposed is a series focused on tracks and ideas proposed for various racing series around the world. From indoor race tracks, proposed tracks, new series, we’re going to deep dive into a new one each week. The plan is to post a YouTube video (like and subscribe) and also post the text version of the story here. With each one, the editing will get better and things will improve.

Way back in 1997 when Jeff Gordon was on a tear, the Denver Broncos were Super Bowl champs, Hey Arnold was on TV and Bill Clinton was in the White House, Roger Penske was working to capitalize on NASCAR’s booming popularity. He was looking to do it in a city that would soon see its own boom. 

In 1972 Penske bought Michigan International Speedway and apparently fell in love with D-shaped 2-mile oval considering he built another one in Fontana, California. In 1997 Penske opened California Speedway outside of Los Angeles. Another D-shaped 2-mile oval much like his track in Michigan. It was a perfect track for IndyCar and it landed a NASCAR Cup date.

After the success of California, Penske turned his attention to another large metropolitan market that was sitting in an auto racing desert. 

Denver, Colorado. 

The growing city which wouldn’t hit its true boom for another decade and a half was home to a large population that was underserved by the racing community. Before Pikes Peak Raceway was built the next closest track to catch some IndyCar or NASCAR action was Texas Motor Speedway 12 hours away in Fort Worth, Texas.

If you’ve ever been to Denver you know outside of the city especially on the eastern side there are swaths of unused land. When people say “we’re running out of space in this country” point them to the eastern side of Colorado, tons of space. The city had just opened its brand new airport to the northeast of the city, the one riddled with conspiracies look it up.

With all that land Penske thought this is the perfect spot for a race track. Not just any race track a 2-mile D-shaped oval that would seat 120,000 spectators and cost $110M in 1990s money. Say what you want about Penske but the man likes what he likes. D-shaped 2-mile ovals, white shirts, black pants, and corporate paint schemes.

A 640-acre plot of land 3 miles south of runway 34 at Denver International was calling Roger’s name. It was the perfect spot for a race track. Located literally right next to a major airport. Within 20 minutes to a downtown metropolis. A light rail system that could be expanded to service the track. It was a dream scenario. 

The track was far enough away from homes that the noise wouldn’t be an issue. Which led to an interesting design feature of the track. Essentially the race track would have been built below ground level. Instead of digging a lake to use the dirt for the banking they would dig into the ground to create the banking. Basically just digging a 2-mile oval into the ground. The stands would then be at ground level and would contain the noise into the track. “Deafening” sound levels were used to describe the noise.

Weirdly enough fellow NASCAR team owner Richard Childress was in the market to build a track in the Denver area as well. Childress also said he was approached to buy Pikes Peak. Childress put those plans on hold when the Penske deal looked to be done. Childress went as far as to criticize Penske saying “ Why build another track when there’s such a nice facility (pikes peak) and hour away from Denver.” Keep in mind Childress turned down the opportunity to buy that same track soooo was it that nice? Pikes Peak hosted the NASCAR Busch Series from 1998-2005 before the series left along with the IndyCar Series. 

Back to the Penske group though. Roger planned to have his track open for the 1999 NASCAR Cup season. It seemed like a done deal all that needed to be done was put pen to paper.

You know what happens, there was a snag in the plans.

Well the FAA had some other ideas. With the track being located 3 miles from the runway planes would be at 900-600 feet over the track. Pretty damn close. “It’s just a matter of common sense, in my mind, that there might be better places to build the dang thing,” said Ted Melland, an FAA airspace specialist. A number of concerns were cited. Among other concerns were planes coming up short to the runway, noise, and the attraction of birds to the speedway thus in the firing line of planes. Seemingly because everyone likes planes to remain planes in March of 1999 Penske scrapped the plans to build on that site. That whole host a cup race in ’99 was a little ambitious but who could blame him? People thought the world was going to end in 2000, had to get at least one in.

But that wasn’t the last we’d hear of Penske and Denver.

In April of 1999 Penske was joined by Peter Coors, you know, Chief Executive of Coors Brewing Co. to make another run at bringing a track to Denver. This time located south of the original site at Interstate 70 and 470. 

Here’s where things get even more interesting. After bringing on Peter Coors Penske Motorsports Incorporated merged with the International Speedway Corporation (ISC) aka NASCAR. When this happened it was almost certain the Denver track would go ahead. At the same time, NASCAR/ISC was developing tracks in Kansas and Chicago. Denver would have been the perfect feather in the cap to a series that was absolutely BOOMING.

In August of 1999 and ISC spokesperson said the deal was “100% done.” Barring a complete disaster, the track would definitely be built and a Cup date would be held at the track in 2001. Advice for any PR professionals, never say 100% done when the deal hasn’t been signed yet. Can’t stress that enough.

But by January of 2000 the option to purchase land at the I-70/470 site expired, it actually expired in November of 1999 except no one knew about that. The 100% done deal did a complete 180 and was now 100% not happening. ISC state that their plate was full with the Kansas and Chicago developments. Not to mention they were exploring the possibility of building a track at the Meadowlands. We’ll get to that debacle in the future. Part of the reason ISC lapsed on their option was was do in part to an opposition group CRASH. The Concerned Residents Against Speedway Havoc. Such a preposterous name you almost have to respect it. Like most opposition groups they were bankrolled by someone with an interest that would be hurt by the proposed idea, in this case, that bankroller was Pikes Peak International. An initiative was placed on the November ballot by CRASH that would make it impossible for the city to subsidize racetrack infrastructure. Basically they didn’t want public funds used to widen the roads, build intersections, interstate ramps, sewers, etc. for the race track. Hence why ISC lets the option expire in November.

That wasn’t the end of this deal though. 

No no later in 2000 ISC said it planned to be a tenant at WorldPark. A proposed 5,500-acre motorsports park near I-70 and Watkins road. Even further out than their two previous sites. And once again concerns were raised over who would pay for the infrastructure and Aurora voters once again defeated the measure.

From that point on the idea of having a track in the Denver Metro area was pretty much dead. Penske failed, ISC failed, hell even the Coors guy failed and he owns the Rocky Mountains. 

But like any good story, there’s always one more thing. In 2005 ISC bought Pikes Peak International for $11M and immediately closed the facility.

In 2006 ISC said they were still interested in building in Denver. This time in Commerce City, a northern suburb of Denver. But by May of 2007, that idea was dead as residents elected an anti-track Mayor all but killing ISC’s hopes.

But the dream still wasn’t dead. ISC teamed up with George Gillette, co-owner of Gillette Evernham Motorsports joined the bid to bring racing to Denver. Nearly a decade after starting this project they were still working on it. This time with a guy who was about to be in and out of NASCAR faster than the grandpa Simpson gif.

With Commerce City out of the running and in a strange twist of fate ISC turned their attention to Aurora and the second proposed site along I-70 and E-470. This time a 1,000-acre plot was in play. A race track in the summer months, and a facility to host the stock show in the winter. It was a win-win. The stock show in Denver is no joke.

But by 2009 ISC had lost interest in the project stating “we have no one on the ground there anymore” thus killing the project. Right? 

No no, you deceptive fools this project will never die. That same year the state house approved a bill that would OK spending public money on a race track or the Winter Olympics.

In May of 2009 a businessman named Bill Schuck announced he was building a motorsports facility. A 1-mile oval with a 4-mile road course that would cost $200M and hopefully attract NASCAR. Apparently he didn’t consult Jerry Carrol first.

But finally and mercifully this story will come to an end. In 2010 Schuck said he expected to break ground soon but the economy had made it difficult. As the housing market collapsed and the country entered a recession the never-ending saga that would be a Denver track died with it.

Over the course of nearly 15 years, the proposed Denver track had Roger Penske, ISC, Coors, and then Bill Schuck. It was proposed at no less than 5 locations. We had people saying it was a done deal multiple times. An opposition group was formed. And finally, after all, that the economy sank the project. Maybe, just maybe Denver isn’t a place for NASCAR.

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