Friday, September 30, 2011
Racing back at Kentucky after debacle
SPARTA, Ky. -- It would be fair to call the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway a debacle.
That description makes general manager Mark Simendinger wince.
But he doesn't deny there's little room to soften just how bad things were on July 9.
"The fact is, we blew it," Simendinger said Friday.
After waiting 10 years to land a coveted Sprint Cup race, the entire region eagerly anticipated what was supposed to be a spectacular Saturday night debut at a facility new track owner Bruton Smith spent millions on to make it a worthy host to one of NASCAR's premier events.
But as the 107,000-plus fans approached speedway property, officials quickly realized there wasn't enough parking and the access roads couldn't adequately handle the crush. The result was a traffic jam that stretched for miles and lasted so long, many fans never even made it to the speedway.
Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns the track, went to work in the days after the race to fix the issues and Kentucky Speedway gets its first chance to redeem itself since this weekend. NASCAR's Trucks Series races Saturday night at the speedway, and the IndyCar Series runs Sunday.
The crowds will be a fraction of what descended on the speedway in July, and temperatures expected to hover in the 50s all weekend will likely discourage much of a walk-up crowd. But Simendinger and his Kentucky staff are determined to prove at every chance possible that there will never be a repeat of what happened 2½ months ago.
"We had a bunch of disaffected and disappointed customers, and that's a major, major problem," Simendinger said. "There are a lot of ways to fix that, but the reality is the only remedy that would satisfy many people is if I could go back and get them out of traffic. I can't do that, so the job now is to convince people to come back and to trust us that we can handle the kind of crowds this place is built for.
"I want everyone to come back and see that we are making it better."
Two days after the traffic jam, SMI offered a ticket exchange to anyone who missed the Cup race. The unused Kentucky tickets could be used for entry into any events at SMI tracks this season, or swapped for entry into the 2012 race at Kentucky.
That was just the beginning, though, as the real work began in earnest behind the scenes. Smith and his SMI group had to negotiate with state and local officials for road improvements, while Simendinger had to find remedies in and around the speedway.
Within six weeks, an estimated $11 million in improvements were announced.
SMI began by acquiring a 143-acre parcel of land surrounding the speedway that will be converted into parking for more than 10,000 cars. The company also pledged to convert all grass-covered lots to gravel, and painting guidelines to maximize the spaces. Simendinger said the speedway has replaced the parking company it used with a new contractor that has experience at NASCAR tracks Daytona, Pocono and Watkins Glen.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet promised its own $3.6 million worth of enhancements to avoid another disastrous situation.
The exit ramp off of Interstate 71 that feeds into the speedway will be widened to three lanes, and the road outside the speedway will be widened to five lanes -- plus two shoulders -- to give it seven full lanes on race day. The state will also pay for an underground pedestrian tunnel beneath Highway 35 to transport fans from the new parking lot to the speedway gates.
SMI president Marcus Smith said the company was "overkilling it" to prove to fans Kentucky will be what many had expected for their inaugural race.
"This weekend is certainly our chance to roll out a red carpet and show people that Kentucky is a great facility," Smith said. "But we know most of that really comes next year when we prove that a Cup event at Kentucky can be successful. The people who came to the inaugural race will see the improvements, tremendous improvements, and see that we can do this right."