SPARTA — It was the ultimate good news, bad news scenario at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday.
A year after the inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the Sparta racetrack was marred by a traffic quagmire that kept thousands from getting in to see the event, the Speedway in year two appeared to get all cars parked with ease.
The bad news is there were not nearly as many cars as in 2011 to park.
Though Speedway owner Bruton Smith said Saturday afternoon that there would be a crowd in excess of 100,000 for the 2012 Quaker State 400, there were numerous empty seats when the green flag dropped Saturday night. That was especially true in the corners of both the original grandstands and the two new towers that Smith built after moving a Cup race here two years ago.
At the time this column was written, a Kentucky Speedway publicist said he did not know whether the track would announce an official attendance figure. As someone who has attended races here every year since the facility opened in 2000, it looked like a crowd in the neighborhood of 75,000 to 80,000 to me.
Whatever the actual attendance, it was far smaller than the complete sellout in excess of 106,000 people a year ago.
The good news is those who did come seemed to be parked promptly and efficiently.
I ran unofficial surveys throughout the pre-race hours, asking patrons as they entered the Kentucky Speedway gates to give a letter grade to their parking experience.
At 2:40 p.m. the traffic grades fell like this:
Chris Adams, Elizabethtown: A
Brad Medlin, Dublin, Ohio: A+
Jim Roller, Lexington: A
Karen Johnson, New Albany, Ind.: A
John Lee, Louisville: A-
Midway through the afternoon, Smith declared victory over the traffic/parking problems that plagued last year's race.
"I think we accomplished it," he said of the fix. "We've spent millions and millions of dollars, the state of Kentucky has spent millions. What used to be a two-lane road out here at (State Route) 35 is basically operating now as seven lanes. So that's a huge advantage. ... We've done a lot of things here to accommodate the race fans and make it much nicer and fan friendly."
Around 4 p.m., the traffic grades remained strong:
Brad Ellis, Lawrenceburg, Ind.: A
Ernie Cook, Dry Ridge: A
Greg Spencer, Santa Clarita, Calif.: A
Brett Adkins, Louisville: A
Deonna Dotson, Prestonsburg: B
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear flew in for the race by helicopter.
"Just from flying all around, there's a very good flow to the traffic, none of the problems we saw last year," Beshear said. "I feel confident that we've got it fixed so that we can make this an even better event in future years."
Around 6:40 p.m., the traffic grades dropped some, though the problems turned out not to be with entering the track.
Jason Withorn, Edgewood: C
Tim Lyons, Crestview: A
Bob Lasters, Dry Ridge: C+
David Wunderlich, Aurora, Ind.: A
Bill Randle, Louisville: C.
Of those assigning C's, Lasters and Randle were unhappy with some issues in the handicapped-parking lots. Withorn was upset about the mandated flow of traffic after Friday night's Nationwide Series race because he was forced to exit in a direction opposite the one he wanted to go.
The bad news, of course, was that there weren't more cars to park.
It's hard to imagine, even with the record-breaking heat of this past week, that the predominant reason for the smaller crowd was anything other than last year's traffic mess.
Mid-afternoon, Smith was asked his opinion of why attendance might be down.
"Anything we would do would be speculation," he said. "We could blame the heat wave. I believe when you are new and different and you are first, a lot of times fans want to be part of the inaugural, and last year that was the inaugural."
For Kentucky Speedway, the best thing that can happen going forward is the patrons who did attend Saturday night go forth and tell stories of how much more parking capacity there is at Kentucky Speedway than before and how much more organized the parking plan was in year two as compared to year one.
The good news: Based on Saturday's performance, and even allowing for the smaller crowd, the traffic situation for Cup races in Sparta seems basically fixed.
The bad news: Based on the empty seats, it seems apparent that, in the marketplace, Kentucky Speedway still has work to do to recover from "Carmageddon, 2011."