Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Kentucky's traffic woes

Inaugural NASCAR events are fun. Whenever you add a track, everything is so new and the unknown adds a level of excitement to the routine that fans, teams, media and even officials have come to know week in and week out.

I had the pleasure of working with Mansfield Motorsports Park during 2003 and 2004 as the track prepared for its first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event. My job was to handle the media and public relations, so I wasn't involved in all of the logistical planning meetings with NASCAR and state and local governments, but I can say the track spent countless hours working on ingress and egress plans for the 25,000 people we expected.

Despite all of those hours, traffic backed up. Part of it was outside our control: construction on the nearest highway. Part was just the sheer volume of cars coming in on roads that had never seen that amount of traffic before. Another part was we had hundreds of acres of parking that were rendered useless due to several inches of rain in the preceeding three days. All of it added up to stopped cars and rising tempers.

Just like our neighbors to the south in Kentucky would learn seven years later, we had angry fans due to something we spent a lot of time working on.

To the best of my knowledge, everyone who had a ticket made it in to the track before the green flag that day in May 2004. While fans were upset, most of the anger was the "blowing off steam" variety. Who hasn't needed to vent after spending two hours in traffic?

After getting to the track at 5:30 that morning, I went to the back gate and helped get teams and drivers in, then spent some time helping get cars parked in one of the usable grassy lots. I did hear lots of frustration from a lot of people, but it was actually very easy to deflect it. All I had to do was offer an immediate and sincere apology and tell them I we were glad they were here and we all hope they enjoy the race.

It's beyond my imagination that SMI, a company that has prides itself on the facilities it builds and its relationship with its customers, missed out on that final piece of the puzzle.

Traffic backups are part of life in NASCAR. Sure, the problems in Kentucky are now legendary, but having customer service reps there (or your parking attendants and security agents) apologize immediately would have defrayed a large part of the frustration. For those stuck in traffic on the highway, surely they were listening to the radio, so why not have track officials (if not Bruton Smith or Marcus Smith) on every radio station from Cincinnati to Louisville apologizing to them as they sat still on I-71?

I've been to Kentucky Speedway a dozen times since that first Truck race there in 2000. Their traffic issues then were well known and they addressed them and made significant changes. But the changes they made weren't ready for another 40,000 people thrown in the mix.

Now, since no one apologized to them until it was way too late, those who were seriously inconvenienced don't want to hear empty promises of how things will be different next year. They want someone to blame and take all of the anger and frustration they can dish out. Bruton Smith would have you believe it's the Commonwealth of Kentucky to blame since "I-71 is a horrible, terrible highway." But did Kentucky officials tell him to add the 40,000 seats before infrastructure was in place to handle 40,000 more people? Not likely.

So the fans will continue to vent their anger at SMI. The ticket exchange program announced on Monday may help deflect some of that anger, but the likelihood that it makes it all go away is very slim.

Will fans once again risk sitting in traffic for six hours or more to go to Kentucky Speedway? I hope they do because it's a great place to watch a race. But realistically, there's a significant portion of that audience that won't be back. Are there enough people who didn't go this year but are willing to take the chance in the future to do so?

It seems the answer will be no, based on what we've seen and heard in the past four days.

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