News & Media

Retro: Traffic issues date back to early days of NASCAR

July 15, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Think Kentucky is unique? Gossage remembers the inaugural race at Texas

It was Benjamin Franklin who wrote, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

If Franklin was alive today, he might add "race traffic" to that list. If you go to enough races, chances are you'll wind up motionless in a traffic jam somewhere along the way.

Last weekend's situation at Kentucky Speedway, with reports of a 20-mile-long backup on the interstate, lack of parking and fans being turned around after hours of sitting in traffic, is an extreme example. But similar issues have plagued the sport right from the first time anybody got the idea of putting two or more cars on the same track.

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.

Trying to jam a small city's population into the confines of a racing facility in a short amount of time -- particularly when the track is situated in a remote location -- has always been a challenge for promoters and local law enforcements officials alike. And despite the best of plans, things do go awry, sometimes spectacularly.

Traffic tie-ups, it seems, are part of the experience. The combination of an overwhelming number of vehicles all headed in the same direction with a limited amount of access makes for more stopping than going at times. Ask a veteran NASCAR fan about his or her worst day at the track, and chances are good it'll usually revolve around traffic.

Tim Flock said organizers never expected 13,000 people to descend on Charlotte Speedway for NASCAR's first strictly stock race in 1949, resulting in a major traffic snarl. When Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, there were no interstate highways and for the nearly 42,000 who attended the inaugural Daytona 500 had two choices: either two-lane U.S. 92 east-west or two-lane U.S. 1 north-south.

It was still bad 20 years later, as many fans were still trying to find parking when the 1979 Daytona 500 began -- due to a combination of lousy weather and interstate traffic being diverted to Ormond Beach and New Smyrna because the main I-95 exit was shut down.

More than 50,000 Californians tried to get to what's now known as Infineon Raceway for the inaugural Cup race at Sonoma in 1989, and not all of them made it. Highway 37, the main access road from the east, was jam-packed more than five hours before the race was scheduled to begin and remained that way even after Ricky Rudd took the checkered flag.

Until the State Route 20 highway extension was completed in 2005, Atlanta Motor Speedway was renowned for its traffic snarls. That was also the case with Michigan International Speedway until a combination of a new traffic plan and smaller attendance helped ease congestion on U.S. 12 and State Route 50.

Pocono, New Hampshire, Las Vegas, Dover and Richmond still rank up there for tough traffic on race day. And unavoidable problems -- like traffic accidents away from the track -- have resulted in major snarls for places like Indianapolis and Talladega.

No track seems immune from the possibility of traffic jams. However, when it comes to a situation similar to Kentucky's, one only needs to look at the first race held at Texas Motor Speedway.

Everything is truly bigger in Texas, including traffic jams. Track president Eddie Gossage, in his motorsports blog this week for ESPN's website, Gossage recalled the 1997 Interstate Batteries 500 as a situation where if anything could go wrong, it most assuredly did, beginning with the weather.

"We called bus companies, city bus systems, school districts, churches, etc. You name somebody with a bus, I bet we called them."


"What I remember most about that weekend was the rain," Gossage said. "It started the Thursday night of the event weekend and poured steadily throughout Friday, which created a huge parking debacle for us considering the flat landscape and North Texas soil that made up the majority of the property."

With most of the facility's parking lots under water, Gossage scrambled for alternatives.

"We had to construct a plan to accommodate 300,000 people for Saturday and Sunday, and the result was finding hundreds of buses to shuttle people from remote parking lots," Gossage said. "We called bus companies, city bus systems, school districts, churches, etc. You name somebody with a bus, I bet we called them.

"Then we received a huge helping hand from the Texas Department of Transportation, which allowed us to close a large stretch of Highway 170 and turn it into a parking lot. Without [them], the race would have never happened."

Race day was sunny, but the issues continued to escalate. By 8 a.m., traffic on Interstate 35 West had come to a standstill 16 miles south of the speedway. Pianist Van Cliburn was supposed to perform the national anthem, but the helicopter scheduled to bring him to the track was delayed. He wound up watching the race on television.

"I became very angry and frustrated," Gossage said. "That was the final straw and I was about to blow a gasket. And then my old boss came to the rescue of my well-being."

Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler told Gossage, "You can work on the problems tomorrow. You got everyone in their seats an hour before the race."

Since then, Texas' traffic woes have subsided somewhat. New traffic patterns were implemented and refined. Traffic flow in and out of parking lots has been improved. And Gossage's blood pressure is back to normal.

The folks at Kentucky Motor Speedway certainly have nowhere to go but up based on the lessons learned last weekend. But they can take some solace in knowing that lousy traffic on race day is a given. It's now a matter of finding the solutions that will mitigate that situation in the future.