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Traffic woes overshadow racing for some

April 7, 1997

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Here’s a bit of good news for anyone who saw or sat in the seemingly endless traffic jams caused by the opening weekend of the Texas Motor Speedway: it can’t get any worse.

The first two races at the $130,000 million facility drew more than 300,000 people Saturday and Sunday to this former patch of prairie 20 miles north of downtown Fort Worth.

The problem was that only one interstate highway and a few country roads fed into the place. And about 550 acres of grass fields that were supposed to be parking lots were useless swamps because of the spring rains that drenched the region last week.

As a result, five-hour drives and 15-mile backups were common. That meant the largest sporting event ever held in North Texas also created some of the worst traffic backups the area has ever seen.

``Some people said it took them 30 minutes and other people three hours and they came the same way,″ TMS general manager Eddie Gossage said. ``It’s not how we wanted to start it out; not at all.″

Leaving the track proved even tougher than getting in. Four hours after the race ended, tens of thousands of fans were still struggling to leave the speedway grounds.

Gossage said things would’ve been better if the fields had been paved, as originally planned. That notion washed away following the wettest February in local history.

``We need to put a few million dollars into paved parking,″ Gossage said. ``That’s the answer.″

When more storms hit last week, Gossage came up with a Plan B. Late Friday, he and local officials put together a shuttle parking system featuring nearly 300 buses and several remote lots.

The buses themselves got stuck in traffic early Saturday, then things improved. The new challenge Sunday was handling a crowd that grew from just over 100,000 to around 185,000.

Also, many fans heard horror stories about Saturday’s traffic for the Busch Grand National Coca-Cola 300, so they tried getting an early jump for Sunday’s Winston Cup Interstate Batteries 500. That caused several-mile delays by sunrise.

Racing regulars said they’ve never seen anything like this, not even at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the only sporting venue in the country bigger than TMS.

``We go to Talladega and Talladega is a big track and they just handle the traffic so much better,″ said Keith Ellender of Sulphur, La. ``They have like 18 lanes going in and nothing going out except one emergency lane. They’re not ready for it here yet.″

Both Indy and Daytona International Speedway, which used to be the circuit’s second-biggest stop, are more accessible because both are inside their cities. TMS was built in a rural area, then annexed by Fort Worth.

The city spent $7 million improving roadways, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

``If we could’ve loaded the parking in here, there would’ve been traffic jams similar to what you see at other races,″ said Gossage, whose daughter needed three hours to make a 20-mile drive into the speedway on Saturday. ``Anytime you get 200,000 people together you’re going to have a traffic jam.″

Things weren’t only bad on the ground. There were so many helicopters ferrying people to the track from nearby Alliance Airport that pianist Van Cliburn was left behind, causing him to miss his scheduled performance of the national anthem.

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