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Ky. track vows to avoid last year's traffic snafu

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Kentucky Speedway chalks up last year's race-day fiasco to rookie mistakes, when a massive traffic jam dented its reputation at the track's inaugural Sprint Cup Series race. Now, with more asphalt and parking, the track is vowing to redeem itself.

Teaming with highway crews, the speedway is nearing the checkered flag on a series of construction projects aimed at ensuring smoother traffic flow for the track's next Sprint Cup race in late June.

"I guarantee there won't be the traffic issues like there were last year," Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said this week in a phone interview. "I think our fans ... are going to be pleasantly surprised that it doesn't take them that long to get here."

Last year, idling on the roadways overshadowed the roaring racecars. It spoiled a moment that the region's race fans had been anticipating for years as the track in rural northern Kentucky maneuvered to land a coveted Sprint Cup race.

Many irate fans never made it to the race. Brake lights stretched for miles as 107,000-plus fans descended on the track. Afterward, speedway officials tried to make up for it by offering ticket exchanges for fans who missed the race.

For Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns and operates the track, the nightmarish logjam drove home some painful realities: the track lacked adequate parking and access roads were too clogged to handle the crush.

Almost as soon as the race ended, speedway officials were looking to fix the problem.

Late last year, the state awarded a nearly $4 million highway contract to widen an exit ramp coming off southbound Interstate 71 and widen a stretch of Kentucky 35 than runs past the track. Also, a new pedestrian tunnel has been built.

The project has run ahead of schedule, thanks to the mild winter, and should wrap up within a couple of weeks, said Robert Hans, a chief district engineer for the Kentucky Department of Highways.

Meanwhile, the speedway bought more than 150 acres of neighboring farmland to convert into parking. Chugging bulldozers are still shaping the hilly terrain into tens of thousands more smooth parking spaces.

He used a football analogy to sum up the track's confidence that there's ample parking: "We're not bringing out the chains when we're trying to figure out if we have enough car parking. We've got an easy first down on that one."

And there will be more parking attendants directing traffic, he said.

"We knew we needed more of everything -- we needed more ways in, needed more access, needed more (parking) capacity, needed more personnel," Simendinger said.

Overall, the speedway has spent more than $5 million to make sure traffic outside the track doesn't bog down.

From afar, NASCAR officials have been keeping close tabs on the improvements. So far, they are giving a thumbs-up.

"We are pleased and encouraged with the commitment and the work that has been done by the state and the speedway to help improve the traffic flow situation," said Kerry Tharp, a NASCAR spokesman. "We have had consistent dialogue with them about the need for improvement, and all of us look forward to a successful weekend of NASCAR racing in June."

The Quaker State 400 is set for June 30, preceded by the Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races. A second Nationwide race will be paired with a truck event on Sept. 21-22.

Besides the road work and parking additions, the track has contracted with a seasoned parking management company. Simendinger admits last year's traffic plan "just wasn't very good."

Speedway officials are also using traffic simulation models. The goal, he said, is to be nimble if any setbacks occur, from blocked traffic lanes to shifts in traffic patterns.

Simendinger expressed satisfaction with ticket sales for the upcoming Sprint Cup race, but acknowledged the track has something to prove to skeptical fans after last year's debacle.

"The only way that we can prove it to the fans is to show them," he said.

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