Mark Story: Kentucky Speedway trying to make amends

Track says 60% of ticket-exchange users coming back to Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 2, 2011 

Traffic heading north on Ky. 35 to Kentucky Speedway to watch the state's first Sprint Cup race on July 8 was restricted to three lanes that narrowed to two. Motorists said traffic was backed up more than 10 miles on southbound Interstate 71.

For Kentucky Speedway, the issue going forward is simple: Will the fans who spent hours mired in the mother of all traffic jams before the first Sprint Cup race at the Sparta track give the Speedway another chance?

Will the fans forgive Kentucky Speedway?

"I think they will, I really do," said Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger last week. "And I can tell you why specifically I think that."

After the commonwealth's version of "Carmageddon" kept many ticket-buying patrons from making it to the Quaker State 400 on July 9th, Kentucky Speedway and its parent company, Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc., offered those impacted a ticket exchange good for a free entry at any other Cup race held at an SMI track.

"That included the Bristol night race, which is an iconic race," said Simendinger. "It included Charlotte, Atlanta on Labor Day weekend, some really good events. Yet we've had over 60 percent of the people in the ticket exchange say they want to come back to Kentucky Speedway.

"Remember, you are talking about a subset of people who basically had a bad experience. Of those, 60 percent of them say 'I want to come back to Kentucky.' That's pretty encouraging to me."

This is Kentucky Speedway's second weekend of major racing for 2011. Saturday night's NASCAR truck series event and Sunday's IndyCar Series race will not, however, draw large enough crowds to provide a stress test for the Speedway traffic and parking infrastructure.

Both, obviously, turned out to be lacking when a crowd estimated at more than 120,000 people descended on Sparta in July.

So it will be next June 30, when the Cup Series returns to Kentucky, before we see if the parking problems that defined the first major-league stock-car racing event at the Speedway are fixed.

"The only thing I get down about, I don't want to wait till next June 30, I want to show people now what we've done," Simendinger said. "I'm an old baseball player. If I make an error in a game, I hope it's a doubleheader so I can get back out there and redeem myself."

When the Sprint Cup Series ran at Bristol Motor Speedway on the final weekend of August, Simendinger traveled south to present Kentucky Speedway's revamped traffic plan to NASCAR President Mike Helton.

"Obviously, they want to make sure their fans have a good experience," Simendinger said of NASCAR. "So I went down to Bristol, I laid all our plans out to Mike Helton. I said 'Mike, this is what we are going to do.'"

What the Speedway is doing is buying 143 acres of nearby land to add some 10,000 new parking spaces. Gravel aisle ways are being laid in all of Kentucky Speedway's grass parking lots, which should help regulate parking spots and mitigate any impact of rain.

The commonwealth of Kentucky has committed $3.6 million to pay for 1.) expanding the southbound ramp off I-71 at Exit 57 to allow three lanes of traffic to exit; 2.) widening Ky. 35 to five lanes in front of the track; 3.) building a pedestrian tunnel underneath Ky. 35 that will connect the newly purchased parking lots to the Speedway.

"We're going to have much more sophisticated traffic modeling," Simendinger said. "We're going to have more personnel (parking the cars). We're going to load more (parking) lots at the same time. We're going to do it all in a more organized fashion. We're improving all the way across the board."

Simendinger, who was former Kentucky Speedway owner Jerry Carroll's right-hand man at horse racing's Turfway Park before they moved into motorsports, is philosophical about the torrent of media criticism that followed the traffic snarls at the first Sparta Cup race.

"Look, you can't have it both ways with the media," he said. "You can't go around and proclaim yourself to be a big deal, you are a significant event, you are a huge, major-league international event and then, if you have a problem, you hope nobody notices. It just doesn't work that way."

In the run-up to the 2012 Cup race in Sparta, the dominant media narrative won't be 'Can Kyle Busch repeat?' Or 'Will Jeff Gordon like the bumpy racing surface any better?'

It will be 'Is the Kentucky Speedway traffic plan ready for prime time the second time around?'

Says Simendinger: "My number one choice, if I could, would be to go back and get all those people out of traffic so that nobody had to wait in (traffic) jams. I can't do that. So based on what I've got left, I can make sure they don't ever have to deal with that again. And that's what I've been focused on."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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