Kentucky Cup debut marred by traffic nightmare

Flashbulbs popped as pole sitter Kyle Busch led the 43-car

Sprint Cup field to the green flag at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday

night to kick off the long-awaited debut by NASCAR’s top series at

the 1.5-mile oval.

Yet the real story of the inaugural race at the track tucked

among the hills in northern Kentucky was unfolding over the wall

behind Turns 3 and 4 as Busch roared to the start/finish line.

Cars, many of them stuck in gridlock for hours on nearby

Interstate 71, continued to inch along the overstuffed access

roads. The maddening parade continued as the laps ticked off, with

some fans eventually being asked to turn around after the race

passed its halfway point so the track could start allowing those

that did manage to make it in to leave.

Kentucky Speedway general manager Mark Simendinger put out a

statement late Sunday saying the track ”regrets” the traffic

conditions and is working on a way to make amends with fans who

never made it through the gates.

”We’re committed to working with NASCAR, state and local

officials and traffic experts to assure that this never happens

again,” Simendinger said.

NASCAR chairman Brian France said in a statement he was

”thrilled” by the fan interest but also ”extremely

disappointed” with the numerous logistical issues that hampered

the event and pledged the series will work with the track operator

Speedway Motorsports Inc., to get it corrected.

”This situation cannot happen again,” France said.

The 15-mile backups put a damper on the memorable show SMI

chairman Bruton Smith promised to deliver when he received

permission from NASCAR to move a date from Atlanta Motor Speedway

to Kentucky last summer.

The track’s first night on the series’ biggest stage was

memorable all right, but for all the wrong reasons.

Though more than 100,000 packed the revitalized grandstand, the

race will be remembered more for the sea of brake lights along the

interstate than for Busch’s third win of the season.

Even the drivers weren’t spared. Denny Hamlin worried he would

miss the prerace driver’s meeting after getting parked for several

hours on overmatched I-71.

”It’s back to reality to see the other side of things,” said

Hamlin, who did make the meeting and finished 11th. ”Some guys

around us had some problems. It’s tough. Bruton and all those guys

know it’s an issue … You’ve got a lot of fans that want to watch

the race but you can’t do anything about a two-lane road.”

Heavy traffic at NASCAR events is nothing new, and Kentucky

officials spent weeks assuring NASCAR folks they had a plan that

would make the drive in bearable.

The state spent millions of dollars over the last decade to

improve the infrastructure around the venue in hopes of one day

getting a Cup date. Yet widening the interstate to three lanes for

a couple of miles heading north to Cincinnati did little to

expedite things.

Smith warned fans in the days leading up to the race that there

would be some problems, calling I-71 the worst stretch of road in

the country. The octogenarian even spent a little bit of time

Saturday afternoon directing traffic.

A parting of the seas would have been more helpful.

Officials pledged to address the problem before the circuit

comes back next summer.

”I’d rather have 12 months to work on that type of an issue

than some of the other ones that you would possibly have,” said

track general manager Mark Simendinger. ”Not to make any excuses

but I do think that when it’s your first time through you learn a

lot of stuff and we certainly learned tonight.”

The traffic headaches overshadowed the track’s coming out party.

In an era where long-time Cup staples have trouble filling the

stands, the speedway was packed to check out a race over a decade

in the making.

Yet the buzz on social media sites was overwhelmingly negative,

with fans posting pictures of long backups as the sun started to

duck over the horizon to the west.

The drivers could sense the frustration.

”It’s disappointing,” said five-time defending series champion

Jimmie Johnson, who finished third. ”I mean, the SMI group knows

racetracks and does a very good job at all the racetracks they own.

It’s unfortunate we were unable to look ahead and see where these

potential problems were.”

A compelling race would have helped take away some of the sting,

but the track’s signature bumps provided little drama. Busch led

125 of the 267 laps and there were no green flag passes for the

lead.

Drivers worried about the lack of SAFER barriers in certain

areas before the race, but they never came into play. There were

few dust-ups and only a handful of cautions as the 400-mile race

resembled a parade more than the three-wide fireworks Smith

promised.

”This place is so wide and you carry so much momentum, you’re

on the throttle for so long that there’s really not much time for

you to gain on the next guy in front of you,” said Busch, who

moved into the points lead after winning his 99th career NASCAR

series event. ”Whatever grind they did up top seemed to hurt it, I

think, rather than help it.”

Smith hasn’t ruled out repaving the track in the near future,

but he’d prefer a different kind of paving, one that helps

alleviate the problems that marred what he hoped to be a special

night.

It’s unclear what the state can do. In addition to the road

widening, it also pledged millions in tax incentives if Smith was

able to bring a Cup race to the Bluegrass.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who watched a portion of the race from

Smith’s luxury suite, is in the middle of a re-election bid.

Kentucky is in the midst of a financial crisis, and it’s unclear

whether spending millions to accommodate one night of racing is a

viable idea.

Simendinger said better preparation and a little more patience

next time could go a long way toward solving the problem.

”Did we know traffic was going to be heavy? Yeah,” he said.

”Did we know traffic was going to be distributed like that? I

think we thought more people might take alternate routes

anticipating heavy traffic. Is some of that on us? Yeah for not

educating people the way we should have.”