Traffic nightmare spoils NASCAR's party
SPARTA, Ky. -- For those unfortunate fans who never made it through gridlock disaster, Kyle Busch won the Not Ready For Prime Time Quaker State 400.
This should have been a great day for NASCAR, a new Cup event for the first time in 10 years and a sellout crowd at Kentucky Speedway.
Instead, the entire day was a horrible black eye for the sport at a facility that was completely unprepared for an event of this size and stature.
Traffic jams are normal for a Sprint Cup race. This was not a traffic jam. It was a traffic catastrophe.
Kentucky Speedway general manager Mark Simendinger released a statement before the event ended:
"We've had an overwhelming response to our inaugural Quaker State 400. We know we had challenges related to traffic. We're already planning improvements and looking forward to a much better situation for next year's event."
For some fans it's too little, too late. Thousands of fans never made it or were turned away when they did get here because no parking spots were available.
More than four hours before the race, the bumper-to-bumper madness was backed up more than 15 miles on Interstate 71 north of the track.
It couldn't have been worse if NASCAR were giving away $1,000 checks in the infield. The massive backup started more than eight hours before the race began.
Most of the drivers were aware of what was happening outside the track.
"I went home to Charlotte [Friday night]," Johnson said after the race. "It was my daughter's birthday. I was going to drive in this morning, but I heard there were problems, so I helicoptered in.
"I heard there were some upset fans and people were turned away and were not able get in. It's disappointing and unfortunate that officials did not look ahead and see these potential problems. But knowing [track owner] Bruton Smith, he won't let it happen again. He'll get it fixed."
Smith, the chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., knew they had a problem long before this weekend.
"I'm trying my best to get the governor [Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear] to understand Interstate 71 sucks," Smith said on Speed TV three hours before the race. "That is the worst interstate highway I've ever been on. I think it's a disgrace to the great state of Kentucky to have something like that."
That statement is a prime example of passing the buck. It's a cop-out. Everyone involved, from state officials to track officials, is to blame.
Smith moved a race from his track in Atlanta to have one in Kentucky. The ticket sales proved it was justified. But some of those people will not be back because of everything that went wrong. People were lined up 50 deep at some port-a-cans just to use the bathroom after sitting in their cars for hours.
Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark, the man who lost a race to Kentucky, was in the parking lot before the race doing all he could to get people into the facility as quickly as possible. It was an unwinnable effort.
I heard there were some upset fans and people were turned away and were not able get in. It's disappointing and unfortunate that officials did not look ahead and see these potential problems.” -- Jimmie Johnson
The only thing that possibly could rival this nightmare was the first Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997, when some motorists parked on I-35 after traffic stopped miles from the track. It took some people more than three hours just to get out of the parking lot.
But that was the first NASCAR weekend at TMS. The event had close to 200,000 people, and major thunderstorms made some of the grass parking lots unusable.
Kentucky has been staging races for 11 years. Surely they have learned something about traffic flow during that time, even for crowds half as large.
Even driver Denny Hamlin was concerned he might not get to the track on time for the drivers' meeting. He made it but had some interesting tweets sitting in traffic:
"I think everyone should lay on their horns at the same time. Ready Set Go!!!! 20 bucks to the first of my followers to find me in traffic. Will send pic to confirm."
Nice that he could joke about it, but this was no laughing matter.
It saddens me that I have written almost an entire column without saying much about the race. But the race wasn't the story on a night many people would like to forget.
Busch was a happy man, even if he had to crawl back to Charlotte. He took over the season points lead with his third victory of the season. He is the sport's most talented driver, and he finally may parlay that into a Cup title.
That is a story for another day, a day without chaos, confusion and disillusioned fans.
I spoke to one state trooper in the garage after the race, hurrying to head outside to help out: "It's terrible," he said. "We're doing all we can, but it's very bad out there."
As I sit here in the media center, I have no idea whether I will make it back to my hotel at the Cincinnati airport in time for an 8 a.m. flight. I'm not kidding.
But I didn't pay for my seat, while 107,000 people did.
Some of them were attending a Cup event for the first time. For some of those, it also will be their last Cup event.
NASCAR needed this race to showcase everything good about the sport. That's what should have happened. It didn't.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.