News & Media

Kentucky GM confident traffic 'won't be issue'

June 29, 2012, Joe Menzer,

Speedway's second race is chance to make fans forget issues of inaugural race

SPARTA, Ky. -- Mark Simendinger, general manager of Kentucky Speedway, was in one of his many parking and traffic planning meetings last year when the name of his boss, Bruton Smith, was brought up.

"You know that area right outside of the tunnel ... the area where Bruton was directing traffic? Are you going to fix that area?" an inquiring mind wanted to know.

"I really hope [the traffic issues are fixed] because there is a huge market here with a lot of race fans. And we can't give them two black eyes; we've already given them one."


"I guarantee you that's the first area that gets fixed -- because that's the first guy we want off the parking detail," Simendinger replied. "When you're in my position, that's the last guy you want pressed into duty."

Yet Smith, the chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., was forced into action at 80-plus years of age last year when Kentucky Speedway hosted its first Sprint Cup race. Along with his son, fellow SMI official Marcus, Bruton Smith was out in front of the track trying to direct cars into parking spots and ease what had by mid-afternoon become an obvious problem.

Traffic wasn't moving much. Cars weren't getting parked quickly or efficiently enough. It was, in fact, a disaster in the making and it was too late by that point for Bruton Smith or anyone else to do much about it.

By many measures, it was a glorious night. An estimated crowd of 120,000 watched as Kyle Busch won the inaugural Cup race at the 1.5-mile track. But Simendinger knew there were fans that had been stuck outside the track on Interstate-71 and other roads leading in for hours. Some didn't even make it in for the race.

And that, he knew, was unacceptable. He also knew it needed to be fixed -- and he believes that it has been corrected heading into this Saturday's Quaker State 400 at the facility.

"Before the traffic became the major issue, the prevailing story coming out of Kentucky Speedway -- if we hadn't had the traffic problems -- would have been what a great market we have, what a great response everyone had to Kentucky Speedway's inaugural race, and the fact that everybody sold a lot of stuff, set records -- that sort of thing," Simendinger said. "For that story to get overshadowed by the traffic, as you might imagine, was quite a disappointment to all of us. For us to get dragged down by that was a very bitter pill for us to swallow.

"We've had a huge task in front of us to communicate to all our fans just how important they are to us, despite the fact that they just waited a long time in traffic -- and some of them didn't even make it. So we had to get back to them and communicate with them and try to make it right by them. So, let's just say that phase one was dealing with a lot of disaffected customers."

After and even while he was trying to appease those disgruntled fans, Simendinger had to put in motion a plan to get the traffic and parking problems fixed. He did so with the backing of Bruton Smith, as well as cooperation from the Kentucky State Police, the state itself and even its governor.

"Phase two was, to us, to make sure this never, ever happens again," Simendinger said. "So, we laid out a plan in August of last year that included the widening of the major Interstate ramp that comes from Cincinnati [and] the widening of Kentucky [Route] 35, which is right in front of the speedway and is where we had the majority of our problems. We oversaw the creation of a pedestrian tunnel to allow all the people who are going to be in a new parking field across the street to come into the speedway without stopping traffic or risking injury. The state was doing all those improvements.

"Part of our deal was that we were buying a 143-acre farm across the street from the speedway, and we were going to convert that to parking -- which we've done. ... And, in addition to the 143 acres we purchased in August, we came back in January and we purchased an adjacent 30 acres to get the total up to 173 acres across the street that have been added for additional parking."

The bottom line: Simendinger said 15,000 to 20,000 parking spots have been added, and the flow of pedestrian traffic from the parking areas to the track itself have been greatly improved, as well as access to the parking areas from access roads. Simendinger said his staff didn't stop there, either.

"In addition, we needed to go back and look at what and where our shortcomings were -- what we did wrong. There were a lot of things we were dissatisfied with. It wasn't all capacity issues," he said. "There were other problems related to operations -- whether it was not enough parking personnel, whether it was not efficient parking in the lots that we had.

"We went through existing lots and we put gravel-drive aisles in every single one of them for over 100 acres of previously all-grass parking -- to make for more efficient parking. We cut a deal with the Kentucky State Police to increase their presence, so that they will take over not only all traffic, but all parking as well -- which includes a Kentucky State Police officer in every lot while it is being parked. That's just to ensure that people do what the rules say they're supposed to do, and so that they don't take advantage of a parking attendant who may not have their authority."

Joie Chitwood, president at Daytona International Speedway, once presided over the opening of Chicagoland Speedway and said he could relate to some of the problems facing Simendinger at Kentucky last year.

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"I remember how frantic I was about traffic and trying to make sure you have a good plan," Chitwood said. "It's something where when you see it, you don't wish that on anyone. That's not good for the sport, so you sympathize and hope that they figure it out."

Chitwood said the biggest difficulty in hosting a Cup event for the first time at a facility is that what looks and sounds good in a board room may not play out that way in real life.

"There is a significant difference between theory and reality," Chitwood said. "And, boy, what you think sounds good in the conference room with all the right people around the table, well, sometimes that's not the way the real world works. The biggest challenge, I think, is educating the customer for the first time on what the plan is, and how it's going to work. There are snafus along the way.

"The thing I always remind my staff is that we can plan, plan, plan all we want -- but it's how we react to adversity that's really going to make us successful. And that's what it is about putting on an event. It's always about putting out the fires -- whether it's a traffic issue, transportation on property, a fan situation. You can plan for every day of the year leading up to it, and there will still be things that happen that are a surprise. It's how you react to those that really matter."

Simendinger said he believes that the track's SMI parent company, headed by Smith, has helped him and his staff -- and the state of Kentucky -- react to last year's problems in a manner that will eliminate them this year. And, no, Bruton Smith will not be back in the front lot, directing traffic.

"It's one thing to say, 'This is what we need to do.' A lot of the stuff I pretty much knew we needed to do," Simendinger said. "People came to me, whether it was the governor or Bruton or whomever, and said, 'What do we need to do?' Well, it's one thing to say it -- but somebody's got to write those checks. There are easily $10 million or more in improvements that have been done between what we've done and what the state has done over what we had last year, and probably even significantly more than that.

"Well, that money had to come from somewhere. I can sit here and say, 'Hey, we need a lot more parking.' But if you don't buy the extra 173 acres and you don't flatten it all out and gravel it all out, and if somebody doesn't build all the road infrastructure, it wouldn't matter."

Those things have been completed, and now it's nearing the time to put them to the ultimate test. Simendinger said failure this year is not an option.

"It became pretty obvious halfway through that day that we had traffic problems. You didn't have to be a grad student or genius to figure that out," Simendinger said. "I'm proud of the fact that so many people wanted to come, that it was the place to be. I'm not proud of the fact that we didn't manage it. But I'm proud of how the fans reacted to the Sprint Cup Series coming to Kentucky -- and that's something we want to build on. It's up to us to be able to handle such an enthusiastic response. The answer is to embrace it and make sure we can handle it."

Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said he hopes they can and they will.

"I really hope so because there is a huge market here with a lot of race fans. And we can't give them two black eyes; we've already given them one," Johnson said.