Gov. Steve Beshear toured the Kentucky Motor Speedway on Monday to view new infrastructure improvements designed to ease traffic problems that marred the track's debut race of NASCAR's top series last year.
The state contracted $3.7 million for road improvements to expand Kentucky 35 and Interstate 71, and Speedway general manager Mark Simendinger estimates the track has spent $8 million to $10 million focused on parking an additional 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles. The track's signature event, the Quaker State 400, is set for June 30.
Traffic backed up as much as 15 miles last year after nearby parking filled hours before the race. Some fans were asked to turn around after the race passed its halfway point to allow those who made it in to leave.
"The improvements that were made will make your life easier," Beshear vowed to race fans planning to return to the 107,000-seat venue for the NASCAR events June 28-30.
More than 100,000 attended last year's Quaker State 400, but Speedway Motor Sports Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith estimates nearly 50,000 fans never made it.
Discussions to fix last year's debacle for future events began the day after the race between Smith and state officials. Smith received permission from NASCAR in 2010 to move a date from the Atlanta Motor Speedway to the Kentucky track built in 2000.
"I think we made a lot of promises to all of you," said Smith, 85, who spent part of last year's race directing traffic. "We're going to prove to you today that we've fulfilled all those promises."
Kentucky 35, the main road leading to the Speedway, is striped for five lanes but can now accommodate seven lanes of traffic during events. The I-71 ramp to Kentucky 35 has been widened to four lanes.
The track has acquired 170 new acres for parking and converted another 50 previously unusable acres for that purpose in the last year.
One of the worst chokepoints came as fans coming from parking areas tried to cross Kentucky 35 to enter the facility. The state has also built a 170-foot-long, 42-foot-wide pedestrian tunnel under the highway that connects to the track's new parking areas.
"It's a very small investment that the commonwealth is making for a very large return," Beshear said, estimating the weeklong festivities pour more than $100 million into the state each year, though no economic impact studies have been conducted.
Even with the changes, Beshear said with any big event, there would be traffic problems and that NASCAR fans expect some but want them to be reasonable. He said he feels good about what's been done to remedy last year's issues.
The track has also added gravel aisles to previously all-grass parking areas and brought on a new parking management group. Engineering firm Stantec has modeled a new traffic management plan that includes a contingency to add another lane of southbound I-71 traffic using the northbound left shoulder if needed.
Kentucky State Police are working more closely with the track to provide frequent traffic updates to race fans through Facebook and Twitter and radio station 1620 AM within a five-mile radius of the track.
More than 10,000 of the fans turned away last year took Speedway Motorsports Inc. up on its offer of a free ticket to one of its eight tracks. Simendinger said it's encouraging that 8,000 of those chose to come back to Kentucky.
The Quaker State 400 anchors a weekend that opens June 28 with the Camping World Truck Series event and continues June 29 with the Nationwide Series "Feed The Children 300."