SPARTA — As a ticket scalper made his way up Ky. 35 selling tickets to Saturday’s Quaker State 400, a man shouted, “I’ll buy those tickets if you can guarantee that I get to the race on time.”
The race wouldn’t start for five more hours, and the track was just 3 miles away, but the scalper was quick to reply: “I don’t know if I can.”
The comment was made in jest, but the traffic jam getting to Kentucky Speedway left many less than lighthearted as they sat in traffic for several hours. The nearly never-ending stream of cars finally began to clear up close to 9 p.m., well after the race began, but that didn’t mean the problem was solved. Some drivers tweeted that they were turned away at the gate because no more parking was available.
From his owner’s suite, Bruton Smith told the Kentucky Enquirer that as many as 20,000 fans didn’t get in because “traffic is horrendous.”
Kentucky Speedway general manager Mark Simen dinger said track officials did not expect such traffic congestion.
“We’re learning a lot today,” he said. “I know that’s probably not a lot of consolation for somebody who was stuck in all the traffic for hours, but we have gone to school on this.”
Simendinger said the bottleneck was at Interstate 71’s Exit 57 onto Ky. 35, the road that runs by the Speedway.
“I think we’ve got to take a hard look at that and how we deal with that and alleviate some of that” traffic, he said. “Because the amount of traffic that we generated tonight, that spot certainly can’t handle.”
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, who finished third in Saturday night’s race, suggested Kentucky Speedway put aside talk of improving the racetrack and pay more attention to the fans.
“Leave the surface alone on the racetrack and make sure that the fans have the experience they deserve to have,” Johnson said.
It got to the point that some fans pulled off the road miles before the track, parked their vehicles and walked. Property owners along Ky. 35 offered their land for parking, charging $20. Some people then had to walk nearly 2 miles to the track.
“I’ve been to many, many races here, and this is the worst one I’ve been to for getting in the track,” Ryan Vaughn of Cincinnati said.
NASCAR fans took to social media to show their frustration, dubbing the mass traffic jam “Carmageddon.”
Many said the origin of the problem was parking; they thought track officials lacked a solid plan to help move cars into the lots. Some drivers were even turned away from lots where they were supposed to park and forced to search for spots elsewhere.
“They weren’t flagging people in and parking them right,” Vaughn said. “There was no direction getting them in there. Everyone was just standing.”
Vaughn was caught in traffic on Interstate 71 for nearly 6 miles before he made it to the track, he said.
NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin tweeted at 3 p.m. that he, too, was stuck in traffic and worried he wouldn’t make the drivers’ meeting at 5:30.
Sen. David Williams, the Republican gubernatorial hopeful, never did make it to the track, the Kentucky Enquirer reported, even though he left Frankfort at 2 p.m. The trip normally takes 45 minutes.
John Hamilton of Louisville finally got off the interstate with 94 laps to go but opted to go to a nearby Indiana casino instead.
Even those coming from closer distances had issues. Greg Young of Lebanon camped in neighboring Sanders, which is typically a 10-minute drive from the Speedway. On Saturday, it took him two hours.
“They need to make the road in front of the track a one-way road that just takes people into the parking lots,” Young said.
That road, Speedway Boulevard, is two lanes with a center turn lane. All of the parking lots are on one side. Because of the setup, drivers on the other side of the road couldn’t turn into those lots.
Many speculated that track officials’ inexperience was a factor, noting it was the first time a Sprint Cup race was held at Kentucky Speedway. Earlier in the week, Si mendinger said the track had hired people with plenty of experience.
“Even though we might not have done a Sprint Cup Series race here, we’ve got a lot of Sprint Cup Series veterans helping with traffic management and just about every aspect,” he said Thursday. “We got a group who has done all those things at Atlanta Motor Speedway. They came here and coordinated our entire traffic effort.”
But as Saturday came and went, Simendinger acknowledged things didn’t go according to plan.
“Clearly it was beyond what we expected,” he said.
This article was originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader