SPARTA, Ky - When the green flag was waved to begin Saturday's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, there was an amazing sight outside the Gallatin County track.
There were very few incoming vehicles on Kentucky Route 35. There were no traffic jams. Vehicles weren't parked on every available hilltop and roadside spot. No pedestrians scrambled along the shoulders of the road to try and get to their seats. All was well.
The track got a second chance to make a first impression.
Brian Messerschmitt and friends were among the last arrivals and parked about 100 yards from the track. He'd been caught for hours in last year's traffic congestion.
"This is unbelievable," he said as he gazed at the empty asphalt behind him. "Seriously, if you'd asked me this morning if this is what I expected to see, I would have said, 'Not at all.'"
It was quite a contrast to the 2011 race where massive congestion prompted a top-to-bottom overhaul of traffic and parking. The changes were needed, since there were calls for the track to lose its NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
However, Speedway Motorsports Chairman Bruton Smith, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger got together and promised the debacle would never happen again. The improvements they ordered cost $13 million. Kentucky paid over $3 million and the speedway $10 million.
Planning took a year. Kentucky State Police (KSP) took over traffic control. Kentucky 35 was widened from three lanes to five lanes with two paved shoulders. The speedway bought 140 acres of land across from the track and added 20,000 new parking spaces. Fifty other acres that the speedway owned were converted to parking. A new parking company was hired. The number of attendants on duty was doubled to 300.
"Yes, it did work," said KSP Trooper Brad Arterburn. "Everything came together."
Fans noticed -- especially the ones who didn't see last year's race and received a free ticket for 2012.
Alan Blume sat in the rear hatch of his vehicle after hardly touching the brakes during his trip from Clermont County's Miami Township to the track.
"There was no backup on the interstate. Drove right into the parking lot. It was a breeze," he said.
Last year, Blume was among those caught in traffic for hours and then was turned away from the track by Kentucky State Police because there weren't any parking spaces left. He requested and received a 2012 ticket, since the one for the 2011 race had been a birthday present from his wife.
"I think they did a great job. I'm pleased with it. I'd come back," he said.
Keith Franks of Forest Park came back as well.
"Smooth sailing all the way," he said. "We took a chance with the new traffic setup thinking we were going to get in nice and easy and we sure did."
However, the rest of his family members remained at home.
"I think they stayed away because of the heat and the traffic," he said.
Temperatures at the track soared past 100 degrees. Water trucks sprayed fans with a took spray. Misting tents were set up throughout the concourse. People huddled in the shade under the grandstands and in the new pedestrian tunnel under Route 35.
Were it not for the free ticket, Justin Petelle would have stayed home in West Chester instead of coming to the race. However, he was willing to give the speedway a second chance to win him over. It worked.
"That's really the only reason we came back is because we got free ones for this year, but if it's like this every year, I'll continue to come," he said.
Motorists heading south on Interstate 71 toward the speedway were directed to specific lanes by troopers as they exited on an expanded ramp toward Kentucky Route 35. Orange cones marked their route onto Route 35 toward the new Ford parking lots. The KSP and parking attendants kept things moving and made sure the vehicles were parked close together.
Ken Hines and his son, Brady, drove in from Indianapolis and marveled at the changes they witnessed. Hines called last year a nightmare, since he parked four miles away, walked to the track, but missed half the race.
"Difference between night and day," he said. "The trip today was amazing. No traffic problems at all. Didn't even have to stop one time."
Many people took the KSP's advice and left early for the track. Among them was Kathy Rack-Bauer of Bridgetown, who relaxed in a chair as she, her husband and friends tailgated in one of the new parking lots.
"We assumed that we would be sitting in traffic and ended up not having any problems at all," she said. "It was an hour from Green Township to here."
Tracy Stewart sat under a tent top nearby with Deb Hart after an easy trip from Albion, Indiana.
"We left about an hour earlier this year than we did last year and we arrived and parked about six hours earlier than we were last year," he said. "Do the math. It's much better."
Trooper Arterburn agreed. He said before the race that if Route 35 was empty