SPARTA, Ky. - The sky was cloudy, but smiles created their own sunshine Monday at Kentucky Speedway. Optimism was in the air as well.
Bruton Smith, Chairman of track-owner Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI), Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger cut the ribbon on millions of dollars worth of traffic and parking improvements around the Gallatin County race track.
Then, they climbed into the Ford Escape pace car, which was assembled at the Ford plant in Louisville.
"We claim that we are fan-friendly and that's what we are," Smith said. "It's awesome. I'm very proud of it."
The improvements have been completed three weeks ahead of the second Quaker State 400 at the track on June 30. They're the result of the major traffic and parking problems experienced during the inaugural race on July 9, 2011.
Traffic was backed up for miles on Interstate 71. There weren't enough parking spaces available. Many fans never got to the track at all. Thousands only saw parts of the race.
"It was probably upwards of 150,000 people that tried to get into the speedway and we couldn't handle it," said Smith.
Kentucky Speedway officials knew they had to quickly make significant changes. Kentucky leaders knew it as well. Both stepped up to the plate.
"What we are looking forward to is to get the focus on this race weekend back to where it belongs and that's on this race track," said Gov. Beshear.
The track spent $8 million on improvements. The Commonwealth contributed $3.5 million.
"After that race we got together and said, 'What do we have to do to make sure that never happens again?'' Simendinger recalled.
Since then, work has gone on non-stop.
Gov. Beshear said that if things become too congested, southbound I-71 traffic not headed to the speedway can be routed to the shoulder of the northbound lanes, giving race traffic another outlet.
Smith said the improvements will greatly enhance the fan experience.
"Our goal constantly at the speedway is to make it a happy time for all the race fans," he said. "That's very important."
After the 2011 race, the speedway offered tickets to fans who didn't get to see the race -- either to other SMI tracks or to the 2012 race. About 10,000 people were identified and 8,000 are planning to give the speedway another chance this year.
"We're very confident things are going to be good," Simendinger said. "We're going to have a very, very good crowd. It's going to be approaching a sellout of 107,000 tickets. I hope we get there."
Simendinger said his confidence is based on the changes made, the hiring of a new parking firm and extensive computer modeling that's been done on various traffic scenarios.
Gov. Beshear said he's confident as well, but cautioned that there will be some delays in getting to the track.
"NASCAR fans expect that, but they want it to be within a reasonable period of time," he said. "I think what we have done here will move any kinds of delays and traffic situations down in that category where it's an expected kind of small delay instead, of course, the huge problems that we had."
The estimated economic impact from the race is expected to be around $100 million, according to the Governor. He said the Commonwealth's small investment in road improvements is offset by that very big return.
Fans are still urged to head to the track early on June 30 to experience the NASCAR atmosphere and fun. Gates will open at noon, instead of 2 p.m. as they did last year.
"There's tons of stuff going on," said Simendinger. "We've got a pre-race concert (with country star Chris Young). We've got concerts up on the concourse stage before we even open the gates.
For the first time in speedway history, customers can carry snacks and non-alcoholic beverages to their seats in coolers. The maximum allowable size is 14 inches by 14 inches by 14 inches.
Kentucky State Police (KSP) and local law enforcement agencies will be providing frequent traffic updates via a local-range radio station at 1620 AM. That's in addition to the Kentucky Speedway Facebook page and Twitter feed.
More details on the traffic plan are expected to be released on June 21 during a KSP briefing.