SPARTA, Ky. – Simmering drivers in overheating cars, all vying for an open lane and struggling to get out of heavy traffic – and that was just the fans on the way to Kentucky Speedway a year ago.
Designed to be a showcase of big-time racing in the commonwealth, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race instead was a fiasco. Some might remember that Kyle Busch won. But almost everybody recalls the long lines of angry drivers who sat for hours in traffic, many forced to turn around and go home.
Call it the Bluegrass black eye.
It was so bad that track general manager Mark Simendinger issued an apology to fans a day later.
“The plan looked great on a piece of paper,” he said of the prerace preparations. “It just didn’t work.”
Now the stock cars have returned this weekend. Track officials have taken major steps to make sure most of the problems won’t.
Last year’s problems touched the drivers, too.
“It was almost like I was sitting in traffic like I was in Richmond years ago as a race fan driving in,” said Denny Hamlin, who barely made the drivers’ meeting because of the congestion.
Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who won the pole Friday for today’s race, said he hoped that the traffic problems had been remedied.
“It was unfortunate to hear that everybody that bought a ticket wasn’t able to get here and people were turned away. You never want that to happen,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got a chance to make it right – well not ‘we’, but whoever is in charge of what the issues were.”
That means Simendinger and others who had thought they had anticipated everything a year ago but still watched it all turn sour.
“For all of us who had worked so hard to do all the other things … to have the takeaway be a negative story about traffic was a bitter pill,” Simendinger said.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner Bruton Smith, who also owns Las Vegas Motor Speedway, has dug deep into his own pockets. The commonwealth has made dramatic improvements at and near the raceway located midway between Cincinnati and Louisville.
Track and government officials built wider highway ramps and stretched the state highway leading to the track from five to seven lanes. A new infield tunnel road overpass was built, as was another tunnel linked to new parking. An additional 20,000 vehicles can be accommodated on or near the grounds this year.
During qualifying, Johnson took advantage of wind gusts to edge Kyle Busch for the top spot. But first Johnson had a scary moment.
“I was sitting in my motorhome, watching qualifying on television and the bus started shaking real bad,” he said. “TV was a little behind and they weren’t talking about the winds, so for a minute I thought somebody backed into us.”
He soon found out that it wasn’t an errant driver, but rather the powerful wind that briefly suspended qualifying.
“I opened the door to look out and when I did the wind almost took the door off of the hinges,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, I see what’s going on now.’ “
It was Johnson’s first pole-winning run since September 2010 at Dover.