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Bruton Smith, on Kentucky Speedway: "We're Fixing It"


   Kentucky Speedway victory lane, 2011: Kyle Busch celebrates. But the real action was just outside the track, in those mammoth traffic jams (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



  Okay, let's be blunt:
  Bruton Smith has been running big NASCAR races since 1960, and he's one of the biggest racing promoters in the world.
  And Kentucky Speedway ran NASCAR Nationwide events for 10 years, to sellout crowds, before last summer's debut as the Sprint Cup tour's newest stop.
  We all know, all too well, how that first Cup 400 turned out – good racing, on a bumpy track 'with character;' a huge crowd, which track officials called some 135,000……and then one of the most horrendous traffic jams in NASCAR history.

   That doesn't include the really surprising problem with basic restroom facilities, apparently because gates didn't open early enough.
   It was embarrassing. And rather unexpected, for all the history and expertise Smith's Speedway Motorsports has under its belt.
   This deal last summer, to make it clear, was even worse than the infamous inaugural race at Texas Motor Speedway.

  Here's where the buck stops...and the bucks start: Bruton Smith (L), Kentucky governor Steve Beshear (C), and NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell (Photo: Kentucky Speedway)

  The race was over about 10 p.m., but some weren't even leaving the track until after 3 a.m., and many fans didn't get home till 4 a.m. or so.
   How many fans didn't actually get to see the race because they were caught in pre-race traffic is unclear; but the stands were packed for Kyle Busch's run to victory.
   The traffic mess was embarrassing not just for the track and the company but for the sport itself, with NASCAR president Mike Helton and CEO Brian France both having to weigh in last summer in the aftermath. The track offered tickets to other SMI races to anyone showing a ticket that hadn't been used; some 15,000 took advantage of that, though how many of those really didn't get to see the 400 is unclear, as overwhelmed as the ticket gates were that evening.

   So Mark Simendinger has been apologizing profusely ever since….and working to fix things. He's Kentucky's general manager and the boss of the track and the man in charge of fixing it all and ensuring the June 30th crowd, which Smith himself says he hopes will hit 150,000, has a better experience this time around. Simendinger laid out his 'Fix it' project in depth and detail here Wednesday morning, kicking off Day Three of the annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour.
   And Smith himself was on hand to check it all out…and to add a few zingers about government hold-ups of part of the project because of some creature called the Indiana bat.
   The 'Fix it' project itself (described in detail later on in this story) looks impressive, as Simendinger laid it, with charts and pictures.

    The Kentucky Speedway layout: the rolling hills make for a nice setting, but it's a difficult piece of land to develop (Photo: Kentucky Speedway)  


The money Smith has poured into Kentucky Speedway since purchasing it has been considerable, particularly for a track that has done NASCAR business for 10 years.
   And since the traffic debacle Smith has poured even more money into fixing things, by buying nearby property to increase and improve parking, adding pedestrian tunnels and bridges to improve the flow of people. Smith has also worked the statehouse beat too, prodding government officials to widen I-71, the major access to the track, which sits about 30 miles south of Cincinnati.
   The verdict, of course, will only come June 30th, when we all get to see if all the work has paid off. The Sprint Cup 400 isn't the only event on tap that weekend; the 400 will follow Friday's NASCAR Truck race and Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide race. (The track also hosts a second Nationwide race and Truck race in September.)
   Kentucky Speedway officially seats 107,000, and it's situated on rolling hills in northern Kentucky, a site that – like North Wilkesboro Speedway, for example – isn't easily developed.
   To improve parking Smith has bought two large pieces of land adjacent to the track, just across Highway 35, the feeder road off I-71. A large 42-foot pedestrian tunnel is currently being cut under Highway 35 to feed fans to the track itself.
   Simendinger has also improved current parking around the track, adding gravel roads and adding several acres of parking. He is also building a large infield tunnel overpass, to improve traffic flow.
   The state has "committed" to widening the I-71 exit ramp and to widening Highway 35 around the track.
   Simendinger has also hired a major traffic engineering firm to provide computer simulation programs.
   And campgrounds are being "enhanced."
  Smith was both angry and happy with the inaugural Cup race, happy with the size of the crowd, angry with traffic problems. So he's billing this summer's 400 "as our second inaugural race.
   "We want the chance to prove ourselves."
  Part of the problem, Smith said, was the track hired 300 parking attendants but only 84 showed up. He says all 300 will be on hand in June.
   Smith estimates he's spent $130 million since buying the track, $10 million since last summer's problems.
Bruton Smith bought 150 acres for new parking across from the track. But will Kentucky Speedway really be ready for 150,000 fans this summer? (Photo: Kentucky Speedway)

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