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After receiving national media attention for the traffic gridlock and parking shortage that cast an ugly shadow over its inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 last summer, the Kentucky Speedway worked hard since then to make sure that never happens again.
The speedway has coordinated with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Kentucky State Police to implement a multi-million dollar infrastructure project that includes work at both I-71 and the racetrack and has hired a professional design and consulting company to perfect their traffic flow and parking plan.
After evaluating what went wrong at last year’s event, the first thing that needed to be done was to widen both I-71 and Hwy. 35, providing more lanes for the traffic to filter off the highway, Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said at a news conference Wednesday, March 21. Next, the Speedway purchased 173 acres of farmland for additional parking. Officials also identified 50 additional acres of land that could not be used last year because it was too hilly and smoothed it out and graveled areas of grass-only parking so that it can be used in any weather condition, Simendinger said.
“All of those things added together are huge improvements, will make a world of difference and will make good on our pledge that something like what we experienced last July is never going to happen again,” he said.
Construction should be complete by mid-May at the latest, he said.
Now that there are more places to park, the Speedway needed to address its strategic planning operation. Enter Stantec, a worldwide engineering firm that uses a traffic simulation model to calculate a number of different “what if” scenarios.
Stantec Consulting Senior Associate Tom Creasey said the computer program microscopically simulates individual vehicles moving through the network, both pre-race inbound and post-race outbound. The company has used the model in a number of different studies, including the two-way conversion of First and Brook streets in Louisville and is currently being used around King’s Island in Cincinnati, Ohio, he said.
Simendinger said he heard about Stantec through the Department of Highways. He interviewed three companies with this kind of tool in August and ultimately selected Stantec.
Simendinger said it took months to build the model with every detail associated with the Kentucky Speedway, from the existing road network to the proposed road network to the proposed parking lots. The next step was to come up with a list of assumptions of the incoming fans’ activity, including which direction people will be coming from, what time they will arrive and what other factors, like weather, will affect them.
“There’s no such thing as one model,” he said. “This is a tool that we plug in a set of assumptions to see what’s going to happen under that, and generally what we’ll do is we’ll pick something such that we stress an area and see how much it can take, what it can take and then we try to figure those things out.”
The purpose of the model is to assess the traffic management plan and to help them tweak it and to help them idenfity a likely range of scenarios so they can bracket a very likely possibility of what to expect and to plan accordingly, Creasey said.
Simendinger said they first ran a base scenario using what they thought was the most likely traffic pattern people will use. Stantec ran the scenario and came back with “no queues or delays whatsoever.”
Then, they decided to compress the model, meaning people left earlier to come to the track. In this scenario, the model found backups on I-71 southbound of only two, five, nine and 14 minutes in the middle of the day. “All of which are very respectable times,” Simendinger said.
“For us to be able to achieve those times in a compressed scenario makes us feel pretty good.”
The model allows the speedway to determine how many lots need to be open at a time, how quickly each parking lot will fill up, the average speed on the different roadways, etc.
“We’ve got probably enough extra parking for probably closing in on 20,000 additional cars more than what we had last year, and they’re in various locations,” Simendinger said. As a result, they needed to figure out the new capacities for every parking lot, as well as the best way to manage the extra lanes of traffic coming off the interstate.
The model also gives them a number of cars parked per minute needed in order to eliminate backups. The model allows them to simulate the traffic and determine what needs to be done to achieve these goals, such as adding more parking attendants or creating a second entrance into a lot.
“Ultimately we don’t want cars backing out of the lot, back into the roadways and back out on I-71,” Creasey said. “So how efficiently we can process those parkers is one of the key concepts of one of the things we’re using the model to determine.”
According to the model, there is not an optimal time to arrive at the speedway. “You should have smooth sailing any time of day,” Simendinger said. The general manager said they so strongly believe in the model that they are anticipating people will have more time than they probably need to get there. Because of this, the gates will be open earlier and the Speedway will have entertainment, food and beverage stations, and restrooms available for guests when they arrive.
“As you saw in that compressed scenario model, there were very few queues,” he said. “There was just one small queue in the middle of the day on I-71 so according to the model, it should be pretty good all day long.”
Simendinger said another goal this year is to improve communication with fans to make them aware of any backups that may occur because of unforeseen circumstances, such as a flat tire. The Speedway will be using their information radio station, 1620AM, and social media to update fans more frequently on traffic conditions and entertainment information.
There are still tickets available, and Simendinger said he is encouraged by the sales so far and anticipates having as good a crowd as last year. He estimated that well over two-thirds of the fans that took advantage of the ticket exchange program last year chose to come back to Kentucky Speedway rather than another motor track.
Simendinger said his goal is for every person that showed up last year to come back this year.
“I wish we could do is go back in time and we could pull people out of their cars and not make them wait,” Simendinger said. “I feel terrible about that, (but) I can’t do that. There’s nothing I can do about that now. The only thing I can do, as I’ve said all along, is we can resolve ourselves that from this point forward we will do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen again. So we put together a plan, we’re executing that plan and we have taken a lot of steps to try to communicate that plan to the media and also to our fans because everybody that is a fan of this sport deserves to know we are giving it a 150 percent effort.
“… We have an area that is very, very enthusiastic about motor sports. They love it, and that’s a great thing and that’s why I love working at Kentucky Speedway … We’re building a world-class facility here, and in retrospect, we needed more lanes, we need more parking spaces, we needed more people, we needed more of everything and that was kind of the takeaway and that’s what we have taken forward to this year.”