LOUDON, N.H. – Bruton Smith boasted about the largest crowd to attend a NASCAR race this season: More than 100,000 fans filled Kentucky Speedway in its inaugural Sprint Cup Series event.
Unfortunately for NASCAR, it was the fans who couldn't get there that got the headlines.
The lasting memory of the race is not Kyle Busch taking the checkered flag, but the gridlocked cars filled with fans who were, in NASCAR terms, red-flagged and forced to sit on I-71 with no shot at making the big pass and arriving to the track in time for the start — or even the halfway point — of the race.
Smith, the track owner, and NASCAR officials want answers to why fans were stuck in traffic for hours as they tried to get to Saturday night's race at the track in Sparta, Ky.
Smith said he will meet next week with Kentucky governor Steve Beshear to start finding some solutions.
Smith absorbed some of the blame, but stopped well short of saying there was more the track could have done to avoid the problem. He blamed everyone from the company running parking ("they did a lousy job"), to I-71 ("a lousy piece of interstate"), to the fans who were warned about the trouble ahead but still left late.
"When I tell you we will fix it, I hope that you believe me," Smith said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
NASCAR President Mike Helton called the traffic a "very serious issue" that must be corrected, adding that NASCAR "won't rest" until it figures out what went wrong and how to correct it.
Many fans say once they got to the gate, they were turned away by police because the track had run out of parking.
"We're sorry for the fans that were touched by that unfortunate episode," Helton said. "We will not let this fall to the wayside until we get resolution to it."
Helton said there were numerous meetings with track officials and other organizations, and he was confident a proper plan was in place. Kentucky Speedway had held Truck Series and Nationwide Series races in the past without the massive congestion on I-71. The state spent millions of dollars over the last decade to improve the infrastructure around the venue in hopes of one day getting a Cup date. Yet widening the interstate to three lanes for a couple of miles heading north to Cincinnati did little to expedite traffic.
"Ten lanes wide, everybody would have been in there," Smith said.
Helton has not talked to any Kentucky government officials since Saturday afternoon.
"What I think we have an interest in is finding out exactly what happened Saturday night. Did all those changes contribute to that and did it really maybe compound the situation," Helton said. "Was there overconfidence from the fact they had raced there for 10 years and not taken in full consideration of the physical changes that were taking place. Those are the kind of questions we'll have to get to the bottom of to figure out the solution."
Kentucky Speedway on Monday offered a ticket exchange to fans who missed the race because of the traffic.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Marcus Smith said fans can swap their unused Kentucky tickets for entry into events at any 2011 race at an SMI track. The tickets also can be swapped for entry into the 2012 race at Kentucky.
"I know that we all work on a common goal of making the experience for race fans" appealing, Helton said. "Along the way, we have hiccups."
Maybe a good scare will solve that.
This is the time of the year when next year's race schedule is set and, while Kentucky is sure to be on it, Helton might have made officials there squirm a bit when he refused to say for certain Cup racing would return.
"I don't want to speculate on that type of thing," he said. "You look at the history of our sport, we've had issues that happen, and we generally figure out how to work through them."
Asked if he threatened the governor with moving the race to another one of his tracks, Bruton Smith cracked, "Las Vegas, baby."
Kentucky gets another shot this season in October when it holds Trucks and IndyCar races.
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart knows change must come.
"I felt bad for the fans because they are the ones that suffered last weekend," he said. "It put a black eye on us."
Most tracks have dealt with traffic and parking headaches in the past and usually found a way to ease congestion — and complaints.
The foul-up was a big speed bump in what's otherwise been a solid year for NASCAR. TV ratings are creeping up, first-time winners such as Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and David Ragan placed fresh names in the news, and Helton believes the revamped points system has added a jolt of interest in Chase qualifying.
The first 10 spots go to the top-10 in points, with the final two wild cards reserved for the winningest drivers not already qualified. Those two drivers, though, must be in the top-20 in points.
"We like the energy or emphasis around what the wild card has placed on winning," Helton said.
NASCAR wants to keep the focus on wins, great races, and the fun on the track.
Instead, it's dealing with the consequences of having fans miss out on all of that in Kentucky's first run in the big time.
Follow Dan Gelston on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APgelston