SPARTA, Ky. — 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.
The 15-mile backups getting put a damper on the memorable show Speedway Motorsports Inc. 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 brakelights 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.”