FLORENCE — The NASCAR Sprint Cup season that begins with Sunday's Daytona 500 will again feature 36 points-paying races.
At 35 of them, the dominant pre-race story lines will involve Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Co. and what magic they might make on the racetrack.
Before the second Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on June 30, however, the pre-race focus will be on the parking lots.
A year ago, the inaugural Cup race at the Sparta facility epitomized the phrase mixed results.
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The good: In a tough economy, the event sold out all 106,000 grandstand seats well before the race.
The bad: On race day, the Speedway's parking plan and the traffic infrastructure were overwhelmed, resulting in a massive traffic snarl that kept some fans with tickets from even getting to the race.
This year, the pressure is on Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger and staff to ensure that there is no Car-mageddon II.
"Well, I'm going to be looking at how the traffic is coming in, let's put it that way," Simendinger said with a rueful smile Tuesday while sitting in a Florence eatery. "But I guess if you are really confident in what you are doing, you don't feel that much pressure. The hardest thing for me in this whole thing isn't that we had a rough day; it's that we've got to wait 365 days for the next chance to show people we've got this thing fixed."
To prevent another traffic debacle, Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith and Kentucky state government are spending more than $11 million combined.
The state is kicking in some $3.6 million to widen the road (Highway 35) that runs parallel to the Speedway and to build a pedestrian tunnel to run beneath that road. The tunnel will connect Kentucky Speedway with 143 acres of land across Highway 35 that Smith has purchased to create new parking lots.
"Between the new parking we've bought and that (which) is going to be installed (on existing Speedway property), we've probably added 120 acres of actual parking lots," Simendinger said. "That's a lot of cars we can park. That's 15,000 cars or more additional than what we had. At three people a car, that's 45,000 people. I got a lot of complaint letters, but I ain't got 45,000 of them."
Early indications, Simendinger said, are that the ticket-buying public is willing to give Cup racing at Kentucky Speedway another chance.
Without supplying specific figures, the track GM said "ticket sales are going pretty well. When you have an inaugural year, there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. So coming off an inaugural year, then coming off a situation where we had a lot of traffic issues, you kind of wonder what things are going to be like?
"But so far, so good. We're pretty much even with last year right now. Now, we still have lots of good seats available. So we'll see what the next few months hold."
As Jerry Carroll's longtime, right-hand man at horse racing's Turfway Park and then at Kentucky Speedway, Simendinger is a holdover from the Speedway's original management. I wondered if he feared for his job after the traffic snarl marred the current ownership's inaugural Cup race.
"Probably, I should have been worried about my job, in all honesty, but I wasn't," Simendinger said. "Because I was more focused on what we had to do to get it fixed. I was totally consumed with making sure we did what we needed to do to fix what was a pretty unpleasant situation. And Bruton Smith, to this day, has never raised his voice to me. He's been nothing but helpful."
In retrospect, Simendinger said last year's Cup race traffic plan was far too focused on parking fans in such a way as to get them out after the race and not nearly as attuned to the issue of getting people in quickly as it needed to be.
"It was just a bad plan," Simendinger said. "And even as bad as the plan was, we didn't execute it all that great."
The new infrastructure improvements and parking lots should make this year different, Simendinger said. So should a new traffic plan designed to get people parked sooner.
"We needed more lanes off the interstate," Simendinger said. "We needed a wider Route 35. We needed a lot more places for people to come when they are on Route 35 to get them off Route 35. And we've succeeded there. We also need a much better traffic management plan. We think we've got that, too."
To test the new plan, the Speedway has purchased a traffic-simulation computer program that operates similar to a SimTown computer game.
The program "literally simulates the traffic on Cup (race) day," Simendinger said. "We spent months building it and tweaking it. Now, we've started to plug in all the 'What-if? scenarios.' 'What if everybody comes before 1 o'clock?' What if our parkers can't park as many as we have?'"
How is the new Kentucky Speedway Cup-race traffic plan faring in the simulations?
"Our results are very, very good right now," Simendinger said. "We just have to translate what we're seeing on the (computer) screens to the real world."