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Kentucky: Where sports win, place and show!

By John Nation, courtesy Louisville CVB

Kentuckians are serious about their sports. Whether it’s the pageantry and tradition of the Kentucky Derby or the fanatical devotion to high school and college basketball teams statewide, citizens of the Bluegrass state reserve a special place in their hearts for their favorite sports.

For a state without a major league sports franchise, Kentucky enjoys an abundance of athletic events. College basketball arenas in Louisville and Lexington hold more attendees than the homes of some NBA teams, and the Kentucky Speedway will welcome one of NASCAR’s newest races this summer.

For some sports events, tickets are hard to get; but others make great stops for group tours of Kentucky. Although it’s probably not feasible to get a group into a marquee college basketball game, groups can enjoy special perks at big events like the Derby or NASCAR races.

And other interesting options abound throughout the state, from Corvette races in Bowling Green to minor league baseball games in several Kentucky cities.

Whatever you choose, a taste of Kentucky’s sports legacy will surely score with your group.

Churchill Downs

The first Saturday in May brings well over 100,000 fans to Churchill Downs for Kentucky’s premier sporting event: the Kentucky Derby.

Crowds of that magnitude can be intimidating for tour planners, but if your group wants to attend the Derby, there are ways of getting them there. The Kentucky Derby Museum has a block of tickets available to groups, and a number of tour operators offer Derby packages as well.

The Derby isn’t the only chance to watch thoroughbred racing at Churchill Downs, though. Long spring and fall race meets give groups ample opportunities to take in an afternoon of racing. Adding a morning track tour affords even more options.

“We have a barn-and-backside tour that allows visitors to experience the morning workouts,” said Wendy Treinen, director of communications at the Kentucky Derby Museum. “You go to the infield, the chapel and to the rail on the racetrack for a great photo op, and then through the barns. The group portion includes a Southern breakfast in the track kitchen.”

Groups can also opt for a behind-the-scenes tour, which includes a visit to the jockeys’ locker room, the media center, millionaire’s row and the announcer’s booth, which is the highest point on the track.

If your tour takes you to town when racing is not in session, your group can still learn about the sport and the traditions of the Derby at the Kentucky Derby Museum, which recently reopened with new exhibits after significant renovation.

Kentucky Speedway
The biggest news in Kentucky sports this year is the Quaker State 400, a NASCAR Sprint Cup race that will be making its debut at the Kentucky Speedway.

“This will be the largest sporting event we’ve ever hosted in northern Kentucky,” said Tim Bray, the speedway’s director of communications. “There are some 40,000 new seats going in right now. We’ll have well over 100,000 fans here.”

Although the Speedway has hosted other lower-level NASCAR races for some time now, this marks the first time fans in the area will see all of their favorite drivers in a high-stakes Sprint Cup race. The race will take place on Saturday, July 9, and will be preceded by a NASCAR truck race on Thursday and a NASCAR National Series race on Friday.

The big race, along with other race weekends that take place at the track, will bring a slew of related entertainment and merchandise opportunities.

“There will be interactive games and displays out in our display village,” Bray said. “Speed TV comes and does their prerace show from our hospitality village. And there’s a merchandise mall that people love with every knickknack that you could think of with the different car numbers and the faces of the drivers.”

Special ticket and hospitality packages are available for groups that want to attend the race. Fans can also attend a truck race and an Indy car race in October or go on a track tour during times of year when no racing takes place.

National Corvette Museum
Bowling Green
Not all racing in Kentucky involves large crowds. In Bowling Green, home of General Motors’ Corvette factory, the National Corvette Museum hosts a number of events that feature homegrown racing.

Owners of various generations of Corvettes gather several times a year at the museum for conventions that feature education and amateur competitions. One of the most popular events, called autocross, takes place in front of the museum and is free for anyone to watch.

“In autocross, you drive really fast around a series of orange cones,” said Katie Frassinelli, marketing and communications manager at the National Corvette Museum. “It’s a safe, timed competition where the drivers navigate one at a time on a temporary track. It’s more focused on car handling and driver skill than horsepower. It’s slower, more precision-based.”

On the other end of the spectrum are Corvette drag races, which take place at a drag strip in Bowling Green. Both autocross and drag racing will soon have a permanent home near the museum when the organization constructs its new motorsports park on the opposite side of the highway from the existing museum building.

For now, visitors can enjoy racing during Corvette events that take place at the museum in April, May and September. In addition to the races, those events feature previews of upcoming Corvette models and ladies’ “garage parties,” which introduce women to the basics of auto service and maintenance.

More on Kentucky:

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Paducah named best of the best
Where sports win, place and show!
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WEB EXCLUSIVE! Kentucky Hot Brown Recipe

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.