If there’s a lasting image from last year’s inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway, it doesn’t involve the streams of headlights inching toward the racetrack long after the event had started.
It doesn’t involve the streams of red brake lights inching away from the track after the race’s midpoint, when the state police and speedway officials had no choice but to reverse the traffic pattern and turn away fans who had spent hours in traffic but had fallen short of their destination.
The indelible memory from last year’s Cup date was octogenarian track owner Bruton Smith, chairman of parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc., standing in the middle of an clogged intersection, directing traffic at the bottleneck leading to the infield tunnel.
Thankfully, Smith’s services won’t be required when the Cup series makes its next visit to the Bluegrass state for its June 30 date. An overpass for tram traffic has eliminated the funnel at the tunnel. Within 45 days after last year’s race, Smith had acquired a 143-acre farm across Highway 35 from the speedway, all to be used for additional parking.
With the cooperation of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and the state legislature, Highway 35 has been widened to seven lanes, an extra lane has been added to the primary off-ramp from Interstate 75, and a 42-foot-wide tunnel has been built under Highway 35 to bring fans from the new parking areas to the speedway without snarling traffic with pedestrian crossings.
The improvements, tested extensively with computer simulations, prompts speedway general manager Mark Simendinger to say, “I am as confident as you can possibly be, short of having it already over,” that the traffic issues that plagued the race last year have been solved.
Roughly 15,000 fans whose tickets were not scanned last year took advantage of a ticket exchange for this year’s race. Ostensibly, those fans never arrived at the track, but it’s hard to place an exact number on those who didn’t make it, given that the speedway stopped scanning tickets after the race started to facilitate getting fans into the stands.
At an industry average of three passengers per car, those 15,000 fans will come to the track in 5,000 cars. According to Simendinger, the extra parking areas will accommodate 15,000-20,000 more vehicles.
Smith didn’t stop with the acquisition of the 143-acre tract. On Jan. 2 he flew to Kentucky in hopes of buying an adjacent property.
“If you had a normal job, and you didn’t work with Bruton, you’d take that week off and ease into your job,” Simendinger said. “There wasn’t any easing in. He shows up, and said, ‘Let’s call that guy; see if he’s there.’
“So we go down there, and Bruton says, ‘I want to buy your property, I’m going to give you this much money, and let’s do this thing right now.’ Boom. He flies in, commits to buying it, so now we’ve got another 30 acres that connect with the 143.”
Extra parking spaces don’t mean much, however, if you can’t fill them quickly. That’s where the computer simulations figured in.
“We needed to get some engineers and do a really sophisticated modeling program on this thing, because we had so many new lanes and all these different lots, and we really needed to figure out how this was all going to fit together and what the strategy ought to be,” Simendinger said. “It helps the people that are putting the traffic management plan together. It helps the parking people. We have 20 different lots, and we have to decide which lots are we going to have for which lanes, which ones are getting loaded first.
“So we plugged all that into this model, and then we ran a bunch of different scenarios with it. We said, ‘OK, what do we think is the most expected case?’ So we ran that. That came back really, really good — probably better than we thought it was going to come back. So then we’re like, ‘Let’s make it harder. What if we’ve got people concerned and they all come really, really early?’ So we moved a lot of the distribution back and bunched it up. In that scenario, it still came back very good. So we said, ‘What if one of the lanes breaks down on (Interstate) 75 for 30 minutes?'”
Though all the permutations, the models produced satisfactory results.
“When you had happen to you what happened to us that first year, you’re getting into to a lot of detail,” Simendinger said. “We’ve got to make sure that everything’s going to go good. Everything has come back very, very positive, so I’m really confident that those types of issues are not going to occur.”
Simendinger knows the track can’t afford another traffic problem this year.
“It was very disappointing, because we were so elated with the response, and we had prepared so much,” he said. “It was a very interesting lesson, because people say, ‘Why weren’t you prepared?’ We were prepared. We just weren’t prepared properly.
“There’s a difference. It’s not like we didn’t know we were going to have a lot of people. It’s not like we didn’t know there was going to be a lot of traffic. It’s not like we hadn’t done it before, and it’s not like we didn’t bring people in who had done Cup races before, and it’s not like we didn’t have a traffic plan. We had all those things. Guess what? It wasn’t very good.”
According to the computer models, the plan in place this year — not to mention the upgrades and additions to the facilities — is a vast improvement.
Thankfully, one variable missing from the computer simulation is Smith directing traffic, and he won’t be an active part of the 2012 parking plan either. Nevertheless, he’ll remain a prominent part of the speedway’s history.
“I hope somewhere in our archives we have a photo of that,” Simendinger said. “Someday, we’ll look back and laugh. I don’t know if it’ll be this year — it’s too soon. But someday we will.”