According to legend, Japan's Admiral Yamamoto said after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant." Northern Kentucky knows what he was talking about.

For years, Northern Kentucky has scored when Cincinnati fumbled. Restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, even the Newport Aquarium, were first proposed on the north bank of the Ohio. But Cincinnati couldn't tie its own shoes.

Then Cincinnati woke up. Now, almost in spite of itself, it's getting a $400 million casino and work has begun on a $600 million remodeling of the riverfront. And Northern Kentucky is thinking, "Oh, snap."

But not entirely.

Once again, developer Jerry Carroll has hit the jackpot for the commonwealth. Although he sold the speedway for $78 million in 2005, owner Bruton Smith credits Carroll with the latest trophy: a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

"It will be the biggest sporting event in Kentucky since the Kentucky Derby," Carroll says. "It's bigger than a Super Bowl."

Carroll, the man who tried to bring a casino to Turfway, settled on a Speedway in Sparta instead.

Carroll wanted Kentucky to finish first in the casino race. He was making plans with Harrah's as far back as 1993, before Cincinnati even had an inkling of plans for new stadiums. Carroll had drawings to show his casino at Turfway Raceway, with plenty of parking and freeway access. He had a deal with country star Waylon Jennings to build a soundstage for entertainers.

But he didn't have the votes.

"We could have beaten Indiana and Ohio out of the gate. If Kentucky could have been done in 1993 or 1994, we would have been ahead of the riverboats in Indiana. I told them the riverboats were coming. They said I was talking about an invisible armada."

So Carroll, who started out in Memphis as a real estate developer, bought the old Latonia Race Track in 1986 and turned it into Turfway. Then he switched his dream from roulette wheels to steering wheels. He opened Kentucky Speedway in Sparta in 1999.

"Banging my head against the wall made me get the vision for a speedway in the farmlands of Gallatin County," he says.

The 400-mile race next July 9 will be a two-day event, drawing 120,000 people, he says.

As many as 30,000 NASCAR fans in campers will arrive a week early to stake claims on the former farmland and enjoy the weekend.

"Sparta, which used to be cornfields, will be the third largest city in Kentucky," Carroll says.

That means restaurant meals, hotel rooms, and all the cash associated with travel.

Smith plans to add 50,000 seats and spend $100 million on improvements. And all that could fuel-inject the regional economy with $150 million.

Friends, critics and observers describe Carroll with words like "vindication," "character," "perseverance" and "visionary."

He was the longshot at the back of the pack who somehow made it through the pileups, blown tires and caution flags to cross the finish line with a victory. He realized NASCAR was not going to let him run with the big boys, no matter how many thousands he brought to the track, because Indianapolis Motor Speedway was just 100 miles away. In frustration, he and the Kentucky Speedway directors filed an antitrust suit. It was thrown out of court, and only made NASCAR more rigid in its oppiositon.

So Carroll found another way to win. He contacted Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns eight NASCAR tracks with nearly a dozen Sprint Cup events. Smith, the ultimate NASCAR insider, had the horsepower to bring a Sprint Cup race to Kentucky. Carroll had to give up his dream to someone else to make it come true.

NASCAR blogger David Caraviello wrote, "It was Carroll who saw what no one else did, this sprawling, Cup-ready facility in what was once a Gallatin County farm. It was Carroll who put in motion the process that drew sold-out Nationwide and Truck events to this venue between Cincinnati and Louisville, who bore the frustration of not being able to secure a Cup event, who took the blame when heavy rains bogged down that first NASCAR race in 2000 or when the track's ownership group decided to try and strong-arm the sanctioning body with a lawsuit.

"Two years ago he sold to Smith for roughly $78 million, realizing the only way his creation was going to reach NASCAR's big time was to turn it over to someone with more chess pieces on the scheduling board. Ultimately that's what happened, with Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. company taking an underperforming spring date from sister facility Atlanta Motor Speedway and turning it into a Saturday night event in the Bluegrass State beginning in July 2011."

On the issue of casinos, Carroll is no sore loser. "I applaud Dan Gilbert and Rock Ventures," he says of the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loans, who won voter approval for casinos in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo. "They had the guts to go for it and their timing was right. It's all about the jobs."

And with a Cincinnati casino drawing crowds, Kentucky is out of the race, he says. "The state of Kentucky has been losing at least $600 million a year on casino revenue for 16 years. What I regret most is that now Kentucky is out of the picture."

Carroll wishes Cincinnati well. But he also wishes the sleeping giant was still tripping on its own shoelaces.


Gretchen Keen stands in front of the drivers
being announced before the race.

I admit that in the past, I scoffed at car racing. Sports should involve running, physical contact, or at least a ball, I thought.


Heck, I didn't even like driving my own car that much. Why would I pay to watch someone else drive?


But on Sept. 4, I made my first foray into the world of racing at the Kentucky Indy 300, the last race of the season. I must confess, I was impressed. The Speedway itself is colossal, the energy is undeniable, and the speed is like none other.


I had the opportunity to walk on the track before the race among some familiar faces. Danica Patrick, Helio Castroneves "” I had seen them scantily clad on magazine covers and strutting on Dancing with the Stars commercials, but I'd be hard-pressed to spit off their stats. I marveled at the racers' calm demeanor and nonchalant kisses to significant others as they stepped in their vehicles.


Then, with the words all of us (even non-racing fans) recognize, "Start your engines!" the sound was suddenly mind-numbing. I clamored for earplugs and settled in to watch the action. While the laps were dizzying to follow, my jaw dropped during the lightening-speed pit stops and some fiery but injury-free crashes.


In the end, I found the race a lot like any other sport: Fans scramble to snap photos; the winner (Castroneves) celebrates with family members; excited kids high-five the mascot (in this case, the speeding stallion Horsepower).


Driving my Honda the next day, speedometer creeping up ever so slightly, I thought maybe, just maybe, I wouldn't mind returning next year when the track welcomes NASCAR.


"” Gretchen Keen



"” Gretchen Keen

Taking stock

"” Peter Bronson