Sparta begins its road to redemption

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 29, 2012 

SPARTA — Almost from the moment the last fan got unjammed from Kentucky Speedway's 2011 "Carmageddon," track general manager Mark Simendinger has said one thing.

"I just wish we didn't have to wait a year to show the fans we've got this thing fixed," Simendinger said. "We want people to see what we've done."

For Kentucky Speedway, at last redemption day is here.

The green flag is slated to drop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The major story of the evening is not whether Kyle Busch can repeat as race winner, whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. can produce a second win in three weeks or even what impact the expected 100-degree-plus weather will have on the race.

Nope, for I believe the only time in any major sports event I've ever covered, the main story line involves whether the host venue can successfully get the cars of its patrons parked in a timely manner.

"This is a huge market with a lot of race fans," said five-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. "We can't give them two black eyes; we've already given them one."

Last year, at the inaugural Sprint Cup race in Sparta, a flawed parking plan and an overwhelmed track infrastructure/roads system combined to produce a massive snarl after well over 100,000 fans tried to come to Kentucky Speedway.

The resulting logjam kept thousands of fans with tickets from even making it to the race and caused thousands more who did get in to miss part of the action.

It understandably left a lot of paying customers with steam rolling from their ears.

"Even I got caught in the traffic last year," said NASCAR star Brad Keselowski. "I didn't like it. I certainly understand why the fans didn't."

On Saturday, we finally see if the millions of dollars spent by Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith and the state government of Kentucky to add parking spaces, widen roads and create a more efficient parking plan will pay off.

"We stubbed our toes on the traffic (last year) and that has been the prevailing story (since)," Simendinger said. "We don't like it, but we created it and we've got to live with it. To move on from that, you've got to plan so it never happens again and then you've got to do it."

NASCAR has given its approval to the changes designed to assure a better fan experience at Kentucky Speedway in 2012.

"Pretty much from the week after (last year's race), we have been in pretty much weekly contact with Mark and the staff at Kentucky," says Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. "Last month, our operations staff flew in and toured all the things that have been done. We are satisfied, yes."

From a perception standpoint, this is the most important race day at Kentucky Speedway since the track opened in 2000. It might be the most important that ever will occur in Sparta. What Kentucky Speedway needs to deliver Saturday is a normal "big-event" attendance scenario.

That doesn't mean you leave home two hours before the race and drive right into the parking lots without ever hitting the brakes. It does mean a reasonable entry into the track similar to what one experiences at any other major sporting contest.

The biggest shame of last year's traffic debacle is that it overshadowed what was a truly impressive fan response to Kentucky Speedway finally landing the long-elusive Cup race.

"There's more energy here than anywhere we go," said Cup star Carl Edwards.

Adds Denny Hamlin: "The fans love us here. I mean, any time you have a problem with (too much) traffic, that's a good thing in a way."

After last year's traffic troubles, whether the fans love coming to Kentucky Speedway as much as in the past is to be determined. Unlike 2011, this year's Quaker State 400 did not sell out beforehand.

On the track, the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky Speedway was boring for the first half, got better as it went along and finished with bad boy Kyle Busch holding off Johnson in a scintillating late duel for the win.

"I think we had a lot of excitement built around this race last year," Busch said. "Some of that was overshadowed a little bit (by the traffic snarl)."

Finally, Kentucky Speedway gets its chance to turn the page from traffic. "I can't wait for Saturday to come," Simendinger said. "I know how good it is going to be."

Come Sunday, if we're talking about racing and not parking, you'll know the second Cup race was very good for Kentucky Speedway.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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