Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Saturday night's Sprint Cup Series debut at Kentucky Speedway was a travesty. Not because Kyle Busch picked up his third win of the season, and not because the field strung out and we saw a lot of single-file racing.
Because as many as 20,000 fans -- with tickets -- never saw a lap.
Seeing as how I follow most of the NASCAR media contingent on Twitter, it became clear to me early on Saturday that traffic surrounding Kentucky Speedway would be a problem. Tales of back-ups on Interstate 71 -- the main road leading to the track -- were rampant, and driver Denny Hamlin even tweeted that he might miss the drivers' meeting because of the traffic.
Ultimately, many fans (who left as many as six or seven hours prior) got to the track and parked after the green flag dropped around 7:45 p.m. Even more fans never found a place to park, and were turned away by track security and Kentucky State Police around halfway as the track started planning exit routes for the post-race traffic.
Still more fans became so frustrated while sitting in traffic that they turned around and went home, giving up on seeing the first Cup race at a track that had clamored for one since it opened in 2000.
Think about that: you pour an untold amount of money into buying tickets for a Cup race (which may or may not include hotel room, meal money and gas fare). Then you spend the day on the road, nervous with anticipation for the race ... only to turn around and head home without ever seeing a lap.
Imagine if that was to be your first-ever Cup race, too. My first Cup race was to be the fall race at Martinsville in 2001, but it rained and I couldn't go back on Monday. So I missed my first Cup race, but that pales in comparison to this. You can't control Mother Nature; the debacle at Kentucky was avoidable.
Track owner Bruton Smith added 40,000 seats to bump the track's capacity to 107,000, then he took a date away from Atlanta Motor Speedway. But Smith and his Kentucky Speedway employees never once thought about accounting for the heavy traffic, or the port-a-potties in the parking lots, or the bathrooms and concession stands in the grandstands.
Oh, fans couldn't bring coolers into the stands, either.
I-71 backups stretching more than 10 miles in length three hours before the start of the race are unacceptable -- but not nearly as unacceptable as the track's response. The track released two statements -- one during Saturday night's race and another on Sunday -- but neither one offered an apology.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is expected to announce on Monday a deal for fans turned away at Kentucky. Talladega Superspeedway issued a scathing statement on Sunday reminding fans that the Alabama track "knows how to put on a race weekend."
Look, I've attended anywhere from three to five races a year for the last 10 years; I understand that, to some degree, traffic is always going to be an issue. When you have anywhere from 60,000-150,000 people entering and leaving a place at the same time, there are going to be backups.
But in my experiences at Richmond, Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona and Dover, I've never found traffic so bad that I got to the track late ... or turned around to come home ... or got turned away with ticket in-hand because of a lack of parking. And every time there was an issue of any sort at the tracks I mentioned, it was almost always resolved the next time I visited.
Those tracks listen to their fans; will Kentucky? More importantly, will NASCAR make Kentucky listen? If I'm NASCAR, I make it abundantly clear to Smith and his track that if things aren't improved dramatically for the 2012 race, the track will no longer host a Cup Series race.
Heck, I'd threaten to take away the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, too. Call it punishing the fans if you want, but if the track can't handle that influx of people, if it can't take care of the fans, then the track doesn't deserve to be hosting nationally-sanctioned NASCAR races.
This whole episode was pathetic. Inexcusable. Unacceptable.
The fans are the life-blood of racing. Without the fans, there are no races. People accuse NASCAR of a lot of things, but I've never bought the fact that NASCAR -- and the tracks -- doesn't care about the fans.
I've heard of fans who have already decided to never attend another race at Kentucky. That's not something to be dismissed or taken lightly. Kentucky Speedway has to make it right to the 20,000 fans who paid for a ticket but never saw a lap -- I say a full refund and/or a free ticket to next year's race.
Hell, I'd throw in a $25 gas card for all the gas fans burned sitting in traffic.
I'd also make it right to the fans who did show: more port-a-potties in the parking lots, more parking spaces, more camping spaces, better concession stands, better in-track bathrooms. In conjunction with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I'd make the traffic situation more bearable by adding roads leading into and out of the facility.
Don't tell me the track's rural location makes that a challenge, either; both Bristol and Martinsville are "middle-of-nowhere" tracks, and they don't have nearly the traffic issues Kentucky experienced.
This debacle was a black eye, both for Kentucky Speedway and for NASCAR. Even if NASCAR ultimately had nothing to do with this (the tracks handle logistical things like traffic and facilities, not NASCAR), this episode still reflects poorly on the sanctioning body and the sport. To this point, the 2011 season has been fantastic, and this sort of black eye is the last thing NASCAR needs.
The sport is trying to get fans to come back in a shaky economy; something like this will not do the sport any favors.
Ultimately, single-file racing doesn't really bug me; not every race is going to be a three-wide crashfest, and I can always find something about a race that I enjoy. Simply starting the engines is enough to get me riled up for a NASCAR race, no matter where it is. Hearing fans constantly bitch about how boring it all is pisses me off to no end.
But you know what pisses me off more? Fans who bought tickets never getting to the track or seeing a lap of racing, because the track didn't have the foresight or the common sense to realize the situation in which they'd found themselves. I wasn't even one of the fans ticketed to go to the race, and this whole thing pisses me off.
Smith obviously knew a Cup race at Kentucky would be huge -- he wouldn't have added 40,000 seats otherwise. But to do nothing about the traffic or the facilities for the fans who did manage to get there? There's no excuse.
If I were in charge, I'd give Kentucky Speedway one more chance. If this happens again in 2012, then the track loses its date. The sad part is, a lot of fans probably won't give Kentucky that second chance.