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What a traffic mess! Five hours to drive 60 miles to Kentucky Speedway? Horror stories abound, and memories of the great Texas jam of '97

  Texas promoter Eddie Gossage: When Eddie speaks, everyone listens. After all, he conquered the mother of all NASCAR traffic jams, back in 1997...which was just a distant memory until Saturday's traffic fiasco for the Sprint Cup debut at Kentucky Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   SPARTA, Ky.
   Eddie Gossage has been through this all before.
   And on a scale even larger than the traffic mess that has surrounded Kentucky Speedway most of Saturday, in the hours before NASCAR's Sprint Cup tour debut.

   Gossage runs Texas Motor Speedway for track mega-owner Bruton Smith. And Gossage is in charge of moving more traffic and dealing with more people than just about any other promoter in stock car racing. It is a daunting task, to be sure.
   And that very first day, wow! It was a doozy. Yes, Gossage was right at ground zero back in 1997 when Texas first opened….with the mother of all traffic jams, on that rain-soaked weekend. Traffic was so bad that Robert Yates' guys even hired horses to get them out of the track after the race. (Or at least that's what they claimed.) Team owner Jack Roush was so irate at traffic control that day that he nearly didn't make it to the track at all...for a race he would go on to win.
   The next few Texas races weren't quite that troublesome, but traffic was always in everyone's minds for several years.
   Now though Texas traffic moves quite smoothly, pre-race and post-race, not bad at all for a place that packs in 160,000-plus and that probably has more cars to deal with than any other track on the NASCAR tour. (And Texas Motor Speedway probably uses more traffic cones than any other event on the planet.)
   So what's Gossage's take on this Kentucky Speedway traffic fiasco?
    "Well, I appreciate you bringing all that back up….because I've spent thousands and thousands of dollars to try to fix it and forget it," Gossage says with a laugh, about Texas' spectacular 1997 launch.
   But even now, Gossage was saying, with a wry grimace Saturday afternoon, there are problems, even with all the preparation a promoter can muster:
   "Tony George (the former Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss) came to our Indy-car race the other day, and I hadn't seen Tony in years," Gossage said.
   "So I called Tony and said 'Come on over and see us.' He was staying just across the street from the track. But he said 'I don't have a car.'
   "I said 'No problem, I'll come over and get you.'
   "So I drove across the street to pick up Tony and bringing him over to Bruton's condo…..and the next thing I know I'm on Interstate-35 heading south (away from the track), past the cones and the cops. Had to go down a few exits and turnaround and come back.
   "I've been through it all too…."

     Kentucky Speedway, the newest track on the Sprint Cup circuit, packs 'em in....but getting 'em in first has been something of a problem (Photo: Kentucky Speedway)

    That of course was the very first race weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, and glitches could be expected.
    The difference here is that Kentucky Speedway has been hosting NASCAR races, though not Cup, since 2000. That should have been plenty of time to figure out traffic patterns and parking lots and all that.
    And it's been about a year since Kentucky officially got this Cup date.
   Some are saying if this track couldn't get everything worked out and lined up, with a year of planning and preparation, then maybe it shouldn't have tried to run this race weekend like this – take another year and make sure everything is right.
   Otherwise risk alienating many of the new fans this track should be attracting.
   To hear the Twitters from frustrated fans in the nine hours prior to the race, it's clear that the traffic mess is severe.
   Smith himself blamed the highway itself, I-71, a link interstate between Cincinnati and Louisville, and not really up to modern interstate standards.
   But part of the issues here were the parking lots – apparently not well designed – and the parking officials, who were simply overwhelmed by the deluge of cars.
   Fortunately Saturday was dry and sunny, because most parking lots here are grassy hillsides.
    Gossage listens to that argument and says "Well, yes and no.
   "You're talking about 110,000 people here for this race….and the most they've had here before was some 66,000. That's almost twice as many. That's the size of a baseball stadium-full of people more than ever here.
   "This a Major League Baseball size crowd difference in what they've had here before.
   "Now it's not about the operation. Our operation at Texas has hardly changed at all, just a little fine tuning.
   "The difference is people now have their 'special' way in, their 'special' place to park….and it works.
   "It will take any new facility --  and this is effectively a new facility, with this many more seats than it's ever had before – three, four or five years for everything to sort out and settle down…for everyone to get his 'routine' down.
   "I came in this morning and never stopped. Because I've been here before and knew what to do."

    All well and good. But for those first-time fans who will likely get turned off by the traffic mess….
    "That's the tough part," Gossage says. "While you're going through that teething process, it's tough on the fans.
   "I've been with Mark Simendinger (the Kentucky general manager) all day long…and it's been about nothing but traffic and port-a-jons…."
   Port-a-jons might seem like a small issue. But the gates didn't open Saturday until 2 p.m., and all the fans, as they slowly piled in before then, discovered that most of the bathroom facilities are on the other side of the gates.

    What to suggest here?
    Maybe an eight-lane 'Talladega Blvd.' to surround the speedway and link the two I-71 exits (57 and 55) that service this track?
    Maybe a much better parking plan. (And this article is being written as traffic is slowly pouring into the track, over a nine-hour span; what might happen after the race when all these people try to drive out of here, well, that's another story yet to come.)
   "Fortunately the governor is here, and he will see the need for improving these roads," Gossage says.
   "Hopefully the governor will see the benefit this track offers, and so will the legislature, and they will help out  by building some roads here."
   And this particular situation here in the beautiful rolling hills south of Cincinnati comes just as Texas politicians down in Austin have okayed $25 million to help promote the new Formula One track  being built there for the 2012 racing season.
    Gossage has followed the Austin, Tx., Formula 1 project, and he says he's been impressed that those promoters were able to wrangle $25 million in promotional sponsorship from the local politicians, for the tourism aspect. "I'd love for the Fort Worth city council to give us $25 million….heck, I'd love for them to give us $2500," Gossage said.
   "But once you've been there 15 years….."
    You lose leverage.
   "Maybe we could move the track to Concord, N.C.," Gossage quipped, with a reference to Smith's threat a couple years ago to move Charlotte Motor Speedway to South Carolina unless North Carolina politicos offered some promotional concessions.
    Politicians around the country, Gossage points out, offer promotional concessions to other big sports events, like the Super Bowl, the NBA All-Star game.
    "And we (NASCAR promoters) are talking about events that are much bigger than those," Gossage said. "And we are talking about auto racing facilities that are, by and large, privately financed….where most of your stadiums and arenas are publicly built.
    "Yes, I've met with the state comptroller of Texas, who handles this stuff, and I've asked 'Where's ours?'
    "I think if we were a brand new facility, it would be a whole new ball of wax.
   "So it's a bit frustrating – we've built something, proven it, made it incredibly successful bringing tourists to town, for 15 years now….
   "But once you're in, nobody pays attention."
   Got to strike while the iron is hot.
   And, you'd better believe the iron is hot here today….





Did you hear the Q & A with the General Manager? What a wet mess...obviously doesn't give a rat's about the fans. You've had your chance, Kentucky...let NASCAR go somewhere else where they actually apologize when they screw up.

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