SPARTA — For Carol Auck, the decision on whether to return to Kentucky Speedway for this year's second Sprint Cup race at the Sparta track hangs on the human capacity to forgive.
Last year, the inaugural Quaker State 400 was going to be Auck's reward to herself after a grueling stretch. In 2011, the Lexington woman had been laid off. She'd been diagnosed with cancer. She'd undergone chemotherapy. Her hair had started to fall out.
Through it all, the beacon of light at the end of a harrowing tunnel was the chance for the rabid Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan to see Junior and the other Sprint Cup stars race at Kentucky Speedway for the first time.
"It just meant a lot to me," she said. "I had not been able to do a lot, going through chemo, losing my hair. This event was real special to me, very special to me."
Once the Speedway put individual race tickets on sale, Carol snapped one up. She signed up with a charter bus company for a ride to the race. She bought new clothes to wear. Auck even boarded her two dogs so she'd be free to go.
"Then I got up there," she says, "and they took it away from me."
As you might recall, the first Cup race at Kentucky Speedway last July 9 turned into the father of all traffic jams. A sellout crowd in excess of 107,000 fans overwhelmed the Speedway's traffic plan and parking infrastructure.
By the time the charter bus Auck was on waded through hours of traffic delays and reached the Kentucky Speedway gates, the race was almost over. The bus was turned away.
"They said the parking lots were full," Auck said. "There were a lot of angry people (on the bus). I just sat there the whole way home with my arms across my chest. I was pissed."
This Saturday, when NASCAR's major league returns to Sparta, we will finally get the answer to a crucial question: Will the fans angered by last season's traffic mess give Kentucky Speedway another chance?
"When something bad like last year happens," says Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger, "your biggest fear is people won't give you a second shot."
So far, the numbers suggest the forgiveness quotient is mixed. A year ago — buoyed by the enthusiasm for an inaugural Cup event — Kentucky Speedway announced nine days before the race that all 107,000 grandstand seats had been sold out.
Last week, Simendinger said the track had yet to sell 100,000 seats for this year's race.
After last year's Car- mageddon, Kentucky Speedway created a ticket exchange in which patrons who did not get to use their tickets could trade them for free entry to other Cup races at tracks owned by Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc.
Simendinger says of the roughly "10,000, 11,000" patrons who participated in the ticket exchange, "over 8,000" chose to come back to Kentucky. "I'm encouraged by that number," he said.
Attempting to correct last year's issues, Kentucky Speedway owner Smith and the state government of the commonwealth have combined to spend some $11 million to widen roads into the track (the state), install a pedestrian tunnel (the state) and buy 143 acres of land (Smith) for a vast expansion of new parking (Smith).
Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations, said the sanctioning body is satisfied with the steps taken at Kentucky Speedway.
"We are, yes. We want people to have a good experience when they come to one of our events," he said. "Mark (Simendinger) and the staff at Kentucky Speedway do, too. With the new parking (capacity), a different parking plan and the fact the (Kentucky) State Police are going to be much more involved, we feel good about what they've done for this year's race."
Still, the success of Saturday's event at the gate will hinge on thousands of individual decisions on whether to give the Speedway another try.
Will Bledsoe is giving Kentucky Speedway a second chance.
A year ago, the 35-year-old Scott County social studies teacher, his brother and a friend, left around 2:30 p.m. for the 7:30 race. They headed up U.S. 127 from Frankfort then took Ky. 35, the road that runs directly by Kentucky Speedway.
When they got just outside Sparta, "we just sat still in traffic," Bledsoe said. "We were just parked there in the road for hours. We're out there waiting, and the race started. We couldn't even turn around. It got to the point, 'Let's see what kind of train wreck this turns into?'"
Through the ticket exchange, Bledsoe and his brother have the same seats again this year. "They did keep their word on that," Bledsoe said of Kentucky Speedway. "So we're trying it again."
Stephen Skidmore is giving Kentucky Speedway a second chance.
A year ago, the Stanton man, his wife, brother and sister-in-law were camping just across the Ohio River from Kentucky Speedway in Indiana. When they crossed the Ohio River on race day, they were only 4.8 miles from the racetrack.
It took them more than four hours to travel that distance.
"I guess we were luckier than some, we did finally get to our seats," Skidmore said. "But when we did, there were already 100 laps (out of 267) run."
Because they did see part of the race, the Skidmores were not eligible for the ticket exchange. They bought seats again this year.
"We're all going back," Skidmore, 59, says. "We believe they'll have the problems fixed. We're looking forward to it."
Even after her extreme disappointment last year, Carol Auck is giving Kentucky Speedway a second chance.
Through the ticket exchange, Auck has her seat back. "I would not be going back, I would not be giving them any more of my money if I were not getting what I paid for (last year)," Auck said.
This has been a happier year for Auck. Her health is better. She's found a new job. Now, to top it off, she may finally get to see Dale Junior race in person.
"For a lot of reasons, this is not the same (in excitement) to me as last year," she said. "But I am getting more excited about it as it gets closer."
Given a second chance to get things right, Kentucky Speedway needs lots of people to feel that same way.