Officials at Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns and operates the track, said Tuesday they have acquired a 143-acre tract that will boost available parking by 35 percent to accommodate huge crowds that surpassed 100,000 for last month’s long-awaited Sprint Cup race.
Work was under way during the track’s announcement, as a weathered barn was leveled on the property and earth-moving equipment chugged to begin converting the farmland into a parking lot.
“We didn’t do things as well as we had hoped on race day,” said Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger. “But now you can see the commitment that we have to make sure that this never happens again.”
The state will assist with an estimated $3.6 million in road improvements aimed at improving traffic flow.
The projects include widening a southbound ramp shoulder off nearby Interstate 71 to allow three lanes of traffic to exit onto a state highway that winds past the speedway. The state also will widen more than a half-mile of that state highway to five lanes and will construct a pedestrian tunnel beneath the highway.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear predicted the improvements “will take care of a big part of the logjam.”
Beshear, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, has boasted of Kentucky landing the coveted Sprint Cup race on his watch. The race attracted more than 107,000 visitors and state officials have estimated an economic impact of up to $150 million.
“We will speed up and help solve the challenge of getting fans into the speedway and make the races in 2012 and beyond a much smoother experience,” Beshear said in joining track officials at the announcement.
The investments by the track and state drew an all-important nod of approval from a top NASCAR official.
“We believe improvements like these are necessary in order to ensure that our fans have the opportunity for an enjoyable race experience,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said in a statement. “We appreciate these efforts and will continue to monitor the progress that is being made.”
Kerry Tharp, a NASCAR spokesman who attended the announcement, said afterward that NASCAR “made it very clear” to Kentucky Speedway officials that the traffic woes needed to be resolved. He said the announcement, coming about seven weeks after the race, “bodes well for the future here, for future events in NASCAR racing.”
“What has to happen now is a successful execution of all of these plans,” Tharp said in an interview. “And we have confidence that that’s going to happen.”
The Kentucky track gets another shot this season in October when it holds Truck Series and IndyCar races.
The track has hired a professional parking service with experience managing parking at prominent motorsports venues. The track also plans to hire a traffic engineering service to help design traffic management plans
In all, the track said it expects to spend about $7.5 million to expand parking, improve existing lots and improve traffic services. Simendinger said the extra parking will be ready before next year’s big race.
“We have been completely focused on making sure that that traffic issue does not happen again,” Simendinger said.
Kentucky Speedway had held Truck Series and Nationwide Series races in the past without massive congestion on I-71. The state spent millions of dollars over the last decade to improve the infrastructure around the venue in hopes of one day getting a Cup date.
But the specter of brake lights stretching for miles spoiled the track’s coming out party as host of the Sprint Cup event. Vehicles were stuck in gridlock for hours on I-71, then inched along overstuffed access roads.
Many fans said that once they got to the gate, they were turned away because the track had run out of parking.
Speedway officials had blamed part of the problem on parking lots reaching capacity faster than anticipated when more than 107,000 fans converged on the venue. The speedway has 10 parking lots that hold 33,000 cars.
Frustrated ticketholders lit up social network sites to vent their anger at missing all or part of the race.
Kentucky Speedway officials tried to make it up by offering a ticket exchange to fans who missed the race.
Speedway Motorsports said fans can swap unused Kentucky tickets for entry into events at any 2011 race at an SMI track. The tickets also can be swapped for entry into the 2012 race at Kentucky.
Bruton Smith, chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, said there have been some exchanges “but not to the degree that we anticipated.” When asked what he would say to fans who vowed not to return, Smith replied, “I have not met the first person yet that said that.”
Considering the huge crowds flocking to the track, Beshear said, fans will never “zoom in and out” but will have to deal with some waits.
“It was way too much delay the first go-around,” the governor said. “And what we want to do ... is get it down to a situation that people experience at other NASCAR races.”