Bowles-Eye View: Special Edition · Thomas Bowles · Tuesday July 12, 2011
As The Kentucky Speedway Turns had its latest plot twist Monday, two days after the sport’s newest Cup Series track took one on the chin with appalling traffic conditions that left even government officials late or unable to attend the race. A Republican State Senator, David L. Williams is pledging to hold hearings on the issue, claiming there’s a “responsibility” to investigate the matter of public safety; after all, some fans were stuck in their cars for seven hours plus only to be turned away at the door. On the flip side, “I’m sorry” was the new modus operandi for Kentucky track president Mark Simendinger, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.’s owner Bruton Smith and even his son, SMI President Marcus, all of whom got into the action with various romantic apologies. If nothing else, they were far-ranging in scope, from ESPN’s NASCAR Now to a press release that seemed an obvious melt to pressure Monday afternoon. As of this writing, those fans that bought tickets, yet missed the race can cash their ticket in for a free one at any SMI Cup event the rest of the year or the 2012 Kentucky race next summer. As a bonus, they’ll also get free admission to October’s Camping World Truck Series / IndyCar weekend at the 1.5-mile facility.
But will it be enough? The variety of first-person accounts we’ve heard from fans run the gambit; there are those who feel the problems are overblown, but plenty more who’ve taken the stance “they’re never coming back.” And note a ticket exchange, while a juicy consolation prize does not equate to a full, monetary refund for fans that might not be able to make future race dates work for them.
How big, exactly, is the scope of the problem SMI is dealing with? Well, here’s a small sampling of fan reaction received by us in the last 48 hours since the race.
Disclaimer: these are real stories, by real people whose last names have been withheld to protect the innocent.
In any type of situation like this one, it’s important to note that not everyone had a bad experience. After all, the race itself did sell out and there’s a reason traffic was backed up for miles: tens of thousands of people did make it in the stands and enjoy it.
“Yes, I would go again,” explains Vicki, who had a great time from her seats in the inaugural race. “Everyone that I talked to said this was expected – they need to re-route the traffic not going to the race, and that should be possible. Our bus left extra early.”
Another fan, Steve through Twitter, maintained the camping experience was great: no traffic, amazing people and an impressive group of Speedway employees to help out. He’ll certainly be back next year, along with a number of those who camped around him.
The Main Complaint
Marilyn, who writes in from north of the track explained in detail what happened to her and a whole bunch of people in the same line of traffic. Hers, more than any other story stands out as the template through which plenty of fans endured unexpected suffering throughout the afternoon.
“We traveled from Michigan to attend the race,” she explained. “We arrived at the backup on highway 127 (or is it 27) at approximately 2:30 pm, and we were exactly 5 miles out from the track. During the next 3 hours, we managed to move ahead 1.5 miles. By this time, people were coming back from the track saying that there was no place to park and they were turning traffic away; since we calculated that at our current rate of speed, we wouldn’t even get there until 11:30, we left. There were five of us in our group – all over the age of 60, so even though we might have been tempted to walk in, we would never have been OK to walk back out in the dark.”
“We were amazed on several levels,” she continued. “How can you not know that with 100,000 seats, you’re going to have at least 40,000 cars – especially after you had problems parking people for races the 2 previous nights? And even if you have no experience with event-day traffic, why would you not do a little homework and ask other tracks what they do. You never even considered running all roads inbound prior to the race and all roads outbound after? I find that completely amazing. Michigan International Speedway gets many more people than that in and out in way less time. Call them. They can probably help you.”
Writer’s Note: So much for help. Michigan President Roger Curtis issued his own personal response to the incident Monday, expressing “disappointment” at what happened down in the Bluegrass State and promising his Speedway would do more to personally ensure a great fan experience for everyone who attends there.
Marilyn continues: “Where is your PR person who has had nothing to say for the past 2 days. The only thing we’re hearing is that everyone is ‘sorry’ and they’ll ‘do better next time.’ Tell you what…in Michigan’s depressed economy, it was a bit of a sacrifice to spend $550.00 for those tickets, but we were excited to celebrate the inaugural race in Kentucky. And now, through no fault of our own, our tickets are worthless and the track is ‘sorry?’ I’m sorry, too, guys. Sorry we spent upwards of $1,000 for a race we weren’t allowed to attend. Also, sorry for the folks at the track who don’t seem to want to make it right with loyal fans.”
Here’s where the “will a ticket exchange be enough” question comes in. These people, like many others, had plenty of other expenses to go with their racing purchase; gas money, possible hotel expenses along with hours of wasted time. Will a simple exchange, in some sense baiting them to spend more money in traveling elsewhere – or back to Kentucky, with an uncertain traffic situation in 2012 – fully appease concerns? And is Monday, a full two days after the event too late to come out with a full-fledged apology?
Back to Marilyn. “How can NASCAR and Bruton Smith continue to sing the ‘It’s all about the fans’ song and yet let so many down?” she continues. “It would appear that everyone is sorry unless it’s going to cost them something. Then it’s ‘Tough luck, you guys.’ It makes me sad. One of the people in our party was attending his first ever NASCAR race and he’s vowed to never even attempt it again, and I know our story is not unique. People in line Saturday were out of their hot cars and talking. Everyone started out to be jovial and kidding about the holdup. By the time we left 3 hours later, there wasn’t a smile to be seen.”
But she ends with optimism for the future, if the track can make necessary improvements. “We went back to Richmond and watched the race at BWW’s,” she said. “It was a great race and the track looked wicked fast. Everyone who made it there seemed to really appreciate the Kentucky venue, so I’m sure you’ll not have trouble getting some folks to come back.”
Don’t Forget The Food
Several fans wrote in complaining about concession stands, perhaps a smaller problem in the grand scheme of things but don’t forget – those who made it in still need a certain amount of food and water to make it through.
“We sat in the Ohio Tower,” writes John. “They ran out of soft drinks and only half of the registers were open, causing long lines.”
Fellow fan Kathy agrees. “I guess we were some of the lucky ones,” she explains. “Though it took us 5 hours to go 20 miles, we did make it for the start of the race (pace laps). Also, we were on a chartered bus with TV so got to watch Race Day on SPEED and Countdown to Green on TNT. But food was another problem: it took my friend 45 minutes to get food after standing in 5 different lines.”
Clearly, according to several reports directly to us, it appeared the food stands were simply overwhelmed. Smith addressed this problem yesterday, claiming track workers from hot dog vendors to bathroom janitors ended up backlogged because of their own traffic problems. With even employees running late, it left Kentucky hopelessly understaffed in a “domino effect” that continued throughout the night. But if enough fans, at least the ones coming to us, are complaining about not enough food vendors? Expansion in that area might not be a bad idea for 2012. And we haven’t even mentioned the bathrooms…
Sandra, an older fan attending the race writes in: “I was 6 1/2 miles from the track at 3 PM for Saturday’s race. After the green flag was dropped, I was able to find a $15 parking lot about 1 mile from the track. I am a Senior Citizen and have knee problems. I took my cane and 12-year-old grandson, parked the car and started walking. I would like to thank the man driving a hay cart who offered us a ride up to the track after we walked about half a mile.”
Whoever that is, know how appreciated you are; the woman was unsure if she would have been able to make it to the track if not for that helping hand. “I did get to see part of the race,” she continues, “But had no time to shop for souvenirs, as after the race I still had to walk back to my car. This was definitely not a ‘Priceless Moment.’ Had the tickets not cost so much, I probably would have turned around after sitting in traffic for 4 hours.”
From those who experienced what many called a personal nightmare, frustration won’t go away so easily. While Bruton Smith was blaming the roadways themselves, specifically I-71, fans seemed focused on pointing the finger at SMI’s eccentric, octogenarian owner. Joe writes in, “Don’t tell me the ‘old man’ didn’t know this was going to happen! He’s smart enough to steal the race away from other tracks and he’s smart enough to know what was going to occur to the traffic situation when the race was held. He knows ‘You can’t put five pounds of [horse poo] in a one pound bag! However, the $$$$$ came in and that’s what important to him!”
Ken, who commented on an article Monday fired off as well, summing up a variety of problems. “We left Cincinnati at about noon and finally made it into the track at about 7:00,” he claimed. “There were cars running out of gas on I-71! When we finally got off I-71, there were no cops directing traffic. No wonder there was traffic chaos! It was worse once we finally got into the track! Now, we knew about the no cooler policy, but apparently, a lot of people didn’t. And there were some serious delays getting into the grandstands. The concession stands were selling everything out by the time the race started!”
“I finally made it to my seat with my one bottle of water about halfway through driver intros. Never again! This was my first time to that track, and my last! Bruton and Mark Simendinger both should be strung up! If I was the Governor of Kentucky, I’d order that facility shut down for good! Absolutely the worst fan experience ever!”
That’s the type of attitude from many of these fans that pose a challenge for track management. They have a voice, a public means to dispense that anger and for now, have developed an “off with their head” mentality; that, of course, is the hardest type to heal through even exceptional customer service.
Through several statements made Monday, to their credit, those in charge are moving in the right direction. But the process ahead will be long, arduous, and – if these fan stories are any indication – incredibly difficult to change perception.
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