News & Media

France: Kentucky gridlock can't happen again

July 11, 2011, David Caraviello,

SPARTA, Ky. -- The mammoth traffic tie-up that marred Saturday night's inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway -- gridlock so bad that some fans never reached the event -- cannot happen again, NASCAR chairman Brian France said.

The sanctioning body's chief executive released a statement Sunday night that contained the strongest wording yet in relation to the debacle, in which fans trying to reach the sold-out event became mired in a traffic jam that reached 20 miles long on Interstate 71, the primary artery leading to the speedway.

Triumph, travails

The first Cup race at Kentucky was a huge deal. But as David Caraviello writes, it's too bad so many people endured so much misery trying to see it.

"While NASCAR was thrilled by the incredible response to our inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Kentucky," France said, "we also are extremely disappointed by the traffic problems and inconveniences endured by fans who wanted to be part of our races at Kentucky Speedway. NASCAR will be in close communications with Kentucky Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc. to see that they work to resolve the issues. This situation cannot happen again."

Although the vast majority of the crowd of 107,000 was in its seats at the green flag, many fans endured a slog of four or five hours to get there. Some grew frustrated and turned around; others made it, only to discover that there was nowhere to park. The lots owned by the speedway and surrounding properties were simply overwhelmed with a mass of cars that track officials did not expect.

"We clearly got ton of people in, and yet they were still coming," Kentucky general manager Mark Simendinger said after the race. "We'll have to look at all the facts and the data and try to figure out exactly where our planning went wrong. But we didn't foresee that. We've got a lot of things we can work on, and we're already staring to think about those things."

Bruton Smith, chairman of the track's parent company, SMI, estimated to the Cincinnati Enquirer that between 15,000 and 20,000 people couldn't get in, a number that seemed inflated given how the grandstands gradually filled in. Simendinger didn't agree with that figure. "Did you see the stands?" he asked. "Twenty thousand? Where would those 20,000 have sat, in somebody's lap?"

Served by only two exchanges off I-71 and hampered by a dearth of back roads, Kentucky has had traffic issues since its first NASCAR national-series event, a 2000 Truck Series race in which crowds overwhelmed the highways and faced rain-swamped parking lots. The speedway held 66,000 then, and Smith expanded to 107,000 after the track was finally awarded a long-sought-after Sprint Cup date last summer. In the immediate aftermath of Saturday, Smith said that area municipalities would have to be part of any solution.

"I cannot do this as a private company," he told the Cincinnati paper. "Anything this large, you need the state, the county. You've got to have the involvement."

The traffic issue stole some of the spotlight from a tripleheader NASCAR weekend that fans greeted enthusiastically, and a crowd that was loud and energetic for Saturday night's main event. Simendinger was still able to find positives.

"There are so many positives coming out of this weekend," he said. "Every single day was a great day. We did a lot of great business each and every day. I thought our Truck race crowd was excellent for a Thursday night Truck race. I thought our Friday night Nationwide race was pretty good. Clearly we had a large and enthusiastic group here [Saturday]. It doesn't get much larger and more enthusiastic. If the worst thing that happens out of this thing is that we even underestimated, if that's the worst thing that came out of the weekend ... I don't necessarily love that, but I know that's something that we can correct. This is the first year of a long haul for us. We're just starting now, and we're going to be getting a lot better here."