SPARTA — With a flourish one could imagine from U.S. Grant outside Vicksburg, Mark Simendinger strides across his office and lays out a giant map on a conference table.
For the Kentucky Speedway General Manager, what's on display is in a sense a war plan: It is the new, hopefully improved, traffic strategy for the second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway.
In 2011, Simendinger and Co. sold out all 106,000 grandstand seats at the newly expanded Speedway for the inaugural Quaker State 400. The glow from that success dimmed on race day when the Kentucky Speedway traffic plan and the track's parking infrastructure were overwhelmed by arriving cars.
The result was a massive traffic jam that left many patrons stranded for hours. Some fans with tickets to see Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Co. never even got inside Kentucky Speedway due to the congestion.
In the aftermath, thousands of customers were understandably furious.
On June 30, when the Sprint Cup Series returns to Sparta, Simendinger and Co. at last get their shot at parking redemption.
"People ask me if I'm nervous," says Simendinger, Jerry Carroll's longtime right-hand man who stayed on at Kentucky Speedway after Bruton Smith purchased the track. "Well, I'm not nervous, I'm anxious. You know how long I've been waiting to show what we've done to fix this?"
Since last July 9th.
Below, Simendinger will explain what went wrong in 2011 and why he believes this year the traffic situation at the Cup race will be drastically better at Kentucky Speedway.
What went wrong
Almost by rote, Simendinger can recite what went awry with the parking at Kentucky Speedway on Cup race day a year ago.
The traffic plan in use in 2011 was designed to park patrons in specific lots based on which direction — toward Louisville; toward Cincinnati — they needed to exit after the race.
"We were entirely focused on the need to get people out after the race," Simendinger says. "We did not anticipate having the problems we had getting people parked."
Another of last year's strategies was to guide cars into lots until those lots were completely full. Then the people parking the cars would move to different lots and open them.
When race day came, however, the company being used by Kentucky Speedway to park cars could not get vehicles parked as fast as they were arriving.
On the Cincinnati side of the Speedway, traffic backed up down the road (Kentucky Route 35) that runs horizontal to the racetrack all the way to the exit off Interstate 71. Eventually, cars were stacked up to the top of that ramp (Exit 57) and then out onto I-71 itself.
Meanwhile, because the traffic coming from Cincinnati was jammed at Exit 57 and the cars stuck on Route 35 were immobile, people coming "the back way" from Lexington/Frankfort (up U.S. Hwy 127 to Route 35) literally had no place to go once they got to Sparta.
Trying to react to the problem and get cars off the roads, Simendinger said Speedway officials made the decision to open more parking lots.
"But when we did, there were not enough people to park the cars," Simendinger says. "So we lost control of some lots. We had people taking up like three and four spaces with tents, grills, tailgating stuff. ... That ate up a lot of our (parking) capacity."
In response to Carmageddon, the Speedway and Kentucky state government have poured in resources to fix the problems. Combined, the state and Bruton Smith have spent more than $11 million to improve infrastructure around the track.
The commonwealth of Kentucky widened the road (Route 35) that runs by the Speedway. It widened the exit (57) off I-71 on the Cincinnati side of the track. It built a pedestrian tunnel that runs underneath Route 35.
Smith bought 143 acres of land across the street from the racetrack. Most of that land has been paved and now forms a vast parking lot that was not available a year ago. The tunnel built by the state connects the new parking lots to the Speedway. It means fans can cross to the racetrack (either on foot or riding trams) without disrupting incoming traffic.
A new plan
This year's Cup race traffic plan emphasizes getting people off the road quickly once they arrive. "We don't care how you'll be exiting, we want to get you parked," Simendinger said.
The widened Exit 57 means more cars will be able to exit from I-71 at the same time, which should improve the flow for patrons coming from Cincinnati. The new parking lots on the right side of the road mean those cars can be parked far more quickly, Simendinger said.
A wider Route 35 and the additional parking capacity mean people who come up Highway 127 from Lexington and Frankfort will have two dedicated lanes open to them leading into the Speedway, eliminating the bottle neck they faced last year.
Meanwhile, in the parking fields themselves, Simendinger says there will be at least one Kentucky State Policeman in every lot this year.
"People may feel like they can ignore what a kid parking cars tells them," Simendinger said. "They can't ignore a state policeman. If he tells them to do something, they have to do it. That should fix a lot of the problems we had in the parking lots last year."
Fewer cars to park?
In what may pass for an irony, the vastly expanded Kentucky Speedway parking infrastructure may not have as many cars to park as there were at last year's Cup race.
Asked if this year's Quaker State 400 would sell more than 100,000 tickets again, Simendinger said "we're going to have to get going to do it."
However many people show up June 30th, after last year's traffic debacle Kentucky Speedway has to get the parking and traffic flow issues right this year.
Simendinger says the Speedway will do just that.
"What I'm excited about," he says, "is that when we show we've got this traffic thing fixed — and I think we do — then next year we can talk about Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart and Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. before the race, not traffic and parking."
That will be nice for every one involved.