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Pedley: The Journey Is Not Always The Best Part

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, July 20 2011

The grandstands were crowded at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago and so were the parking lots and roads outside the track. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

There is one good thing about the dip in the popularity of auto racing – it has made getting in and out of race tracks a lot easier.

Then again, maybe it was the type of traffic insanity that occurred at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago – the type of insanity which was virtually pro forma at some other tracks during the Golden Era of NASCAR – which accounts for some of the dip in popularity.

Because for the life of me, as I used to sit in traffic for hour upon hour before and after races, I could not understand why people would voluntarily put themselves though that kind of slow-burn aggravation and also pay for the privilege of doing so.

Well, actually, I could understand it. Sort of. I understand that back in the day, crawling along highways and back roads to get to the tracks were part of the package. Part of the charm of race day, even. And when I was merely a fan, it never really got to me. I was with good friends and we were going to, or coming from, car races and nothing could spoil that.

But “back in the day” racing has to be understood before today can be fully understood.

See back in the day, at most race tracks, a big crowd was, like, 30,000 people. For that reason, track builders could put their tracks in places only accessible by state highways

Darlington Raceway was a less-busy place when The King got started there. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

and back roads.

You could build a track 10 miles from an interstate highway in a place like Darlington, S.C. or Loudon, N.H. and not have to ask fans to slog through two-hour traffic jams on each side of the event.

But with the rise in the popularity of the sport came a grandstand building boom, and suddenly the external infrastructures at some existing, rural tracks were overwhelmed.

Of course that does not explain traffic problems at some newer tracks. Tracks which were built from, say, 1990 on. The folks who designed those tracks obviously knew that crowds of 100,000 fans or many, many more would descend on their facilities on race weekends – why else build a track with 120,000 grandstand seats?

So, with ignorance eliminated as an excuse for the access/egress madness which ensued, the likely suspects for ignoring potential infrastructure problems become poor planning, greed, or crossed fingers.

Of course there are more nefarious possibilities which in involve politics and conspiracies, but until direct evidence of such surfaces, they will be left to the realm of imagination.

Anyway, the following is a list of one person’s worst and best experiences with speedway

Texas Motor Speedway. Spent a week there one night. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

traffic. That person has not been to all of the big-time racing venues but certainly enough to squeeze out this piece.

It should be noted that virtually all trips to tracks and away from tracks were taken at off-peak hours. I am an early riser and often bring hotel pillows so I can sleep in the car before races. For that reason, I will not really comment about pre-race traffic.

The times and hassles listed were before experience allowed me to find back ways into some of the tracks. Secret back ways.

And, I always leave the tracks after press conference and writing duties are finished. That means, usually, two to four hours after the end of the race.

All of these experiences occurred during the height of NASCAR’s popularity.

And to be fair and very clear, construction projects and improved traffic plans have paved the way to easier, quicker access and egress in recent years for the “Worst” experiences below. Some of the tracks listed below have all but eliminated traffic insanity.

So…

The Worst

1. Texas Motor Speedway. It was the second Sprint Cup race to be held there. I was parked in the infield in the South Paddock. It was dark. Thousands of RVs were trying to squeeze out of their lots, onto the lone north-south road to the tunnels and it gridlocked. Nothing moved for what had to be an hour. Finally in line and moving, things appeared to be improving. Until reaching the outside of the track. More gridlock. Another hour to get to the highway and the next gridlock. Cops seemed unable or unwilling to help as they sat in and on their cars.

Estimated time between turning ignition key to start car and turning it again at home 15 miles away: Three hours.

2. Daytona International Speedway. Several occasions. About 10 years ago, I began

Daytona International Speedway. Bumper-to-bumper on the track on on the highways. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

staying in Lake Mary, which is about 30 miles southwest of Daytona on the interstate toward Orlando. It was easier and quicker than the beach for most of the two weeks spent down there. But after the Nationwide and Cup races, it was hell. Traffic on the interstate was not stop-and-go. It was stop-and-stop.

Estimated travel time for 35 miles: Three hours.

3. Talladega Superspeedway, numerous times. Cars, trucks and RVs converge on the main entrance/exit to Talladega from three sides. Along that, like, quarter-mile, multi-lane road to the state highway, there are what seems like a dozen or so exits from the parking lots which line the road. Traffic floods onto the road. The floods are greeted with damns of cars already on the road. It can get very ugly as courtesy is in short supply. Once at the highway which takes traffic to the interstate five miles to the north, more of the same as parking lots on the right and the massive campground to the left all empty onto the four lanes. And if there is a show at the dirt track on the west side of that road…

Estimated travel time to hotel in Anniston 15 miles away: Two hours.

4. Richmond International Raceway, numerous time. The track is located in an urban area at the old fairgrounds. Traffic spills out on to city streets. The freeway is about, I would estimate, eight miles away. Here’s how bad getting out used to be: Writers from the Richmond newspaper and the local Associated Press bureau would bring grills, food and beer. And when media members finished work and headed to the media lot, which could be 1 a.m. or later, they would eat and drink until the traffic thinned out, which could be 3 a.m. In the worst of times, I would check out of my hotel before the race, book a flight out for 5 a.m. and go directly from the cookout to the airport. Not fun but functional.

Estimated travel time to hotel (if I passed on the cookout), two hours.

The Best

1. Kansas Speedway. Numerous times. Opened in 2001, the folks who planned and built

Nearly full grandstands at Kansas Speedway. Nearly empty roads before and after races. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

the track did their homework and then did it right. It is located at the intersection of two interstate highways. The parking lots are designed for flow. In and out. There was obviously a plan in place. The first race held there, I left for the race at the usual time of 6 a.m. I was in the track, 15 miles from my house, and parked by 6:45. My thought as I headed in was that they didn’t sell any tickets. On the way out, I watched flow from the press box. The lots were all but empty and hour and 20 minutes after the race.

Estimated travel home time: 45 minutes.

2. Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To this day, I do not understand how they do it. IMS, the biggest track in the world, is located in a residential neighborhood. The freeway is five miles or so away. Crowds of 300,000 fans attend the 500 and used to attend the 400. Yet two and a half hours after the race, the streets around the speedway are relatively empty. It all defies not just logic, but physics as well.

Estimated time to hotels up to 15 miles away: 35 minutes.

3. Phoenix International Raceway. November of 2007. I was out of PIR and in Scottsdale 30 miles away in about 15 minutes. Say what? Hitched a ride out that night with Ryan Newman and his wife in a Penske-chartered helicopter. No wonder the drivers don’t complain more about traffic problems.

Next time, we look into worst places in terms of price gouging by hotels.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, July 20 2011
3 Comments

3 Comments »

  • Terry says:

    Having gone to Bristol when you could buy a ticket on race day (CHEAP !! )….and then see it explode WAY PASSED what the little access roads could handle ….and it taking BRUTON….way to long to react. I have applauded KANSAS SPEDDWAY with the common since to say
    ” we got lots of room so we have NO EXCUSE to not use it ”
    Parking id great and EZ IN EZ OUT…….

  • Bryon says:

    Kansas is easy to get into but nobody is there to direct traffic out of the lots. I find it difficult to get onto the main roads. You have to run from your seats to get to car to get out quickly or tailgate for a hour or so.
    As for Texas, I spent about 4-6 hours stuck in parking lots trying to get back to the place I was staying. On a normal day it would take 30 minutes to get from track to place I was staying. This was like the second or third race they held.

  • David Lessmann says:

    I remember back in the 70’s driving from Omaha, NE to Brooklyn, MI to attend the closest NASCAR race. There was a raceday shortcut to the track that involved turning left off 127 when you saw the farmhouse with 3 silo and following Vicary Rd past Cement City. The shortcut was a backdoor way to the track that definitely saved time. It’s still there today, but nowadays I agree Kansas Speedway is the best in the land for getting you in and out quickly. Your 45 minute estimate is spot-on!