NASCAR gridlock also a political issue

By The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s long-awaited entry into NASCAR’s top series veered into the fast lane of statewide politics Monday after a massive traffic jam during the weekend event left some irate fans stuck in their cars listening to the race on radio.

Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams referred to the gridlock that stretched for miles Saturday night as a “debacle” and a national embarrassment for the state.

Williams, president of the Kentucky Senate, called for legislative hearings to review the traffic predicament that put a big public relations dent in the race at Kentucky Speedway, near Interstate 71 between Louisville and Cincinnati in northern Kentucky.

“I sympathize with the angry people who didn’t get in; I was one of them,” Williams said in a statement.

Williams campaign adviser Scott Jennings said Williams was stuck in traffic for six hours trying to get to the race.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who traveled to the speedway by helicopter, has touted the coveted Sprint Cup race as an economic boon. Beshear’s support also connected him with a popular sport in Kentucky. Speedway officials and their supporters have been pushing for years to get a Sprint Cup race in Kentucky.

Beshear, a Democrat, said Monday that traffic flow was among significant issues to be resolved before next year’s race. Beshear said he was putting together a team of transportation, tourism and state police officials to meet with local and track leaders to make improvements. Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said the team will be convened in the next few days.

“I want to make sure local and track officials have what they need to best manage future events,” Beshear said in a statement.

Richardson said the governor traveled to and from the speedway by helicopter because he performed ceremonial roles during the day that required him to arrive several hours before the race.

More than 100,000 packed into the track’s grandstand for the race. But some fans never made it, getting stuck in the bottleneck stretching along I-71 and a state highway that serves as a main artery to the speedway. Frustrated ticketholders lit up social network sites to vent their anger at missing all or part of the event.

David Pryor, a fan from Middletown, Ohio, said he and his wife made it to their seats in time to watch the final 20 laps or so, after parking their vehicle on the road and walking about three miles to the track.

“Basically got to walk in, sit there for 15 minutes and then walk back out,” he said. “It was the worst experience I’ve ever had in my life as far as racing goes. It was just ridiculous.”

Pryor put the blame on insufficient parking at the track. He spent about $300 for two tickets that included a hospitality package for food and drinks at the track that he and his wife never got to enjoy.

The experience hasn’t soured him on NASCAR, but he vowed to bypass Kentucky Speedway from now on.

“I’ll pretty much drive to any track before I’ll drive back to Kentucky,” he said. “They were just so unprepared.”

The state said before the race that the speedway could accommodate about 33,000 vehicles in its parking lots.

Kentucky Speedway general manager Mark Simendinger on Monday apologized to fans who missed the race or endured “challenging conditions” to reach the track.

“We’re committed to working with NASCAR, state and local officials and traffic experts to address Saturday’s traffic issues to ensure that we never have this type of experience again,” he said in a statement.

Marcus Smith, president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns and operates Kentucky Speedway, said fans who missed the race will still have a chance to use their tickets. Speedway Motorsports will honor those tickets at any remaining 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at one of its facilities or at next year’s Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, he said.

“I feel terrible for the fans that had a bad experience at Kentucky Speedway and we are asking that they give us a chance to make it up to them,” Smith said in a statement.

Since 1998, the state has pumped $87.7 million in state and federal highway funds into transportation improvements near the speedway, said Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe. Projects included widening a stretch of I-71 near the track, building a new interchange and a new road leading fans to the track and expanding another major road near the track.

Leading up to the racing, state transportation officials temporarily suspended highway construction work along I-71 to enable northbound and southbound lanes to operate at full capacity.

Meanwhile, Williams said he was seeking legislative hearings in September, which he said would give state government and track officials time to reflect on what happened and to prepare to face questions from lawmakers.

“The most important thing is that we figure out what happened and make it better next time,” Williams said.