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Texas Motor Speedway Schedules Major Facelift

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 6 2017

Texas Motor Speedway is in for some major changes. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Texas Motor Speedway has absorbed enough of the wet stuff from Mother Nature. And get ready for a triumphant return of the Texas Tire Monster to “The Great American Speedway” in 2017.

Following a 2016 season during which rain and subsequent track-drying efforts tested the patience of sanctioning officials, competitors and fans during its three major race weekends, TMS officials announced Friday a major capital improvements project that dramatically will change the black-ribbon racing surface of the high-banked/1.5-mile oval.

Scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 9, the project features a complete repave, construction of an extensive drainage system and a re-profiling of the 1.5-mile layout at the Fort Worth facility that annually plays host to two separate NASCAR-headlined and one INDYCAR/NASCAR event weekend.

The renovation will add a new layer of asphalt over the existing pavement, an expansive French drainage system on the frontstretch and backstretch, and reduce the banking in Turns 1 and 2 by four degrees from 24 to 20 degrees. However, the banking in Turns 3 and 4 will remain at 24 degrees.

Barring extensive weather delays, the project is expected to be completed by early to mid-March in anticipation of the recently re-branded Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 doubleheader scheduled for April 7-9.

“The real reason we’re doing this, of course, is because of the fans and given our recent issues with having difficulty in getting the track to dry,” TMS President Eddie Gossage said during a national teleconference.  ”We felt like it was something we had to do to insure that when fans come to the racetrack they know that the track is going be able to dry quickly so we can get back to racing and they can get what they came for.

“The old surface, which went down in 2001, the top level of it was very porous…kind of like a sponge. It came through age and it came through use and it came through the use also of the jet trucks and the Air Titans and things like that simply open up the surface. Anytime we even got a brief shower it just soaked into the upper level of asphalt and it was difficult _ no matter how many jet trucks we put on it _ to get the water out.”

Case in point, the AAA Texas 500 Cup race on Nov. 6 won by Carl Edwards following a six-hour rain-delay and track-drying effort. Scheduled for 334 laps/501 miles, Chase Race No. 8 was red-flagged on Lap 293 when rain returned. Edwards won the race parked on pit road.

Despite the marathon evening, any number of Cup drivers lobbied Gossage last fall to not repave a worn-out but “racy” surface. “I think the initial response you’re going to get from some drivers is an immediate ‘No!’^” Gossage said. “But they were all here whether it was the NASCAR guys in the two races or the IndyCar drivers that had to come back a couple months later, they all experienced it. When they think about it, they’ll realize it really wasn’t a choice _ we needed to do this.

“That being said, we have ways to ‘age’ the track, to work rubber into the track. We invented the Texas Tire Monster back when we put the old surface on it in 2001 _ a trailer with race tires on it _ and it works rubber into the racetrack. We’ve learned ways to prep asphalt (including the use of lime) that started here in 2001. Is it new asphalt? Yes. But we’re going to do everything we can to make it feel like it’s got a lot of years under it before they ever race on it.”

Gossage recalled that 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick spent numerous laps riding in the Chevrolet SS pace car with NASCAR officials to check the track’s condition during the drying process in November. “He said, ‘You’ve got a problem and you have to fix it. More power to you,’^” Gossage said. “Joey Logano, I think, likes what we’re doing. We’ve had some conversations with them (NASCAR drivers) but calls we’ve made to them.

“We respect the drivers’ opinions and how they appreciated the old track surface but we have to do what’s best for the NASCAR and INDYCAR fans and that’s put a new surface down that will dry quickly.

“While we’re doing the repave it gave us an opportunity to add some uniqueness and configure the oval here to make it more challenging to the drivers and add more action for the fans.”

Pressed for a price tag on three separate occasions from three reporters, Gossage declined to name a figure. “We don’t typically talk in terms of dollars-and-cents,” Gossage said. “At this point, no number we can offer up. Just suffice it to say we’re doing what’s right and what needs to be done and the dollars-and-cents isn’t what’s important to us. We’re trying to do what’s right for the fans and make it work for them and these teams as well.”

The track’s lone Verizon IndyCar Series race weekend took the biggest weather-related hit in 2016. Scheduled for June 11, the 20th annual Firestone 600 _ billed as “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” _ was postponed because of rain and rescheduled for the following afternoon. A total of 71 of the scheduled 248 laps were run June 12 before the race was suspended due to a return of inclement weather.

In a first for TMS, INDYCAR and track officials opted to reschedule “The Resumption” for Saturday night, Aug. 27. The event re-started on Lap 72 and produced three-wide and four-wide racing before Graham Rahal completed a dramatic, last-lap pass of leader James Hinchcliffe to win by a miniscule 0.0080-seconds. It was the closest race in TMS history and fifth-closest in Indy car history. But the event was poorly attended on a typically hot North Texas summer night.

In what proved to be a preview of the season’s weather woes, Kyle Busch overcame an early pit road mishap to win the rain-delayed Duck Commander 500 Cup race on Saturday night, April 9. Busch finished 3.904-seconds ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. following a rain delay of 1 hour, 50 minutes. The race started under caution, with NASCAR mandating a competition caution after 29 laps to check Goodyear tire wear on a green track.

Lane Construction Corp., with offices in neighboring Justin, Texas, will handle the repaving project and is recognized as the pre-eminent paving company for NASCAR speedways. The company has paved several prominent speedways since 2003 including marquee facilities Charlotte Motor Speedway, Daytona International Speedway, Darlington Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway.

The repave will feature an asphalt mix similar to the surfaces at Speedway Motorsports, Inc. sister tracks Kentucky Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The mix used in conjunction with the construction method adds lime to accelerate the properties of an “aged” track.

For installation of the French drainage system, trenches will be cut in numerous locations on the frontstretch and backstretch to provide multiple points for water to drain away from the facility more quickly and efficiently than the current system. A drainable mat installation will tie into a continuous toe drain to aid in the process.

In addition to the repaving and drainage system, TMS will undergo a re-profiling in Turns 1 and 2 to give the venue a unique layout from its currently symmetrical 24-degree banking in all four turns. While Turns 3 and 4 will remain unchanged, the banking of Turns 1 and 2 will be decreased to 20 degrees with the racing surface width expanding from 60 to 80-feet in that section.

“Due to the issues we had in 2016 with moisture and track drying, we had to take steps to correct the problems to give the fans the experience they deserve,” said Steve Swift, SMI’s Vice President of Operations and Development, who is coordinating the project. “With that task at-hand, we looked at what would be the best way to create more exciting racing and to correct the water issues. We’re excited to put these practices in place and create another great SMI race.” 

The reduced banking, which will decrease lap speeds and potentially open up additional passing opportunities in Turns 1 and 2, certainly will provide TMS with a distinctive layout.

“For years, I’ve heard the absurd comments about 1.5-mile tracks being tagged as ‘cookie-cutter’ tracks,” Gossage said. “That’s generally fans without knowledge and reporters who are lazy. You can look at mile-and-a-half tracks that look very much alike _Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas _ go ask the teams, they’re nothing alike. So they’re not ‘cookie-cutter’ at all. This once and for all clearly will make Texas unlike any other racetrack and can’t be charged with being a ‘cookie-cutter.’

“Just an opportunity for us to be unique and be special. That’s the way we like it here in No Limits, Texas.”

Along those lines, Gossage was asked if the re-profiling of Turns 1 and 2 _ noteworthy for a “bump” created by the South tunnel and famously criticized by superstar Earnhardt Jr. _ was an admission the racing through there had not been exciting.  

“I feel like no race is as exciting as it could be _ ever. Any racetrack,” Gossage said. “You always want to try to make it better. It was just an opportunity _ the track is torn up so why not do something? Wanted to give these drivers a challenge, wanted to give everybody an opportunity for more passing opportunities because of having to slow down or having to use brakes. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

There will be four stages to the project beginning with installation of the drainage system along the backstretch. The same construction will follow on the frontstretch, with the third stage being the grade changes in Turns 1 and 2. The final stage will be the repaving.

Gossage said NASCAR will coordinate with tire supplier Goodyear and INDYCAR will do likewise with Firestone on compound testing once the repaving is completed. “We’re going to strongly encourage Goodyear to test and not just bring one tire. That would be a mistake,” Gossage said. “We’re going to work hard to try and get Goodyear to do that.

“Whether NASCAR expands the (April race) weekend, I can’t speak to that yet. That would probably be wise for all the teams to get out there because it’s not only new asphalt, it’s a new configuration where a setup you had in the past probably has to be thrown out the window. They’re going to be looking for a compromise setup that works pretty good on a lower-banked track in Turns 1 and 2 while Turns 3 and 4 are the same banking as it was before.

“Either you’re going to have to find a compromise or you’re going to have to find a setup that works good on one end or the other. But I don’t think anybody is going to find a setup that works good all the way around like they’ve done in the past _ and that’s exactly why we did it.

“In time as the asphalt ages, the drivers will have to stay out of the gas a little longer, hopefully use the brakes some in Turns 1 and 2 and that sets up passing opportunities in the turns, on the back straightaway and of course, now you’re going to be carrying different speeds through Turns 3 and 4. Hopefully that creates some passing opportunities on the front straight as well.

“So a whole lot of different things going on here, but the big thing being that you’re not seeing is underneath is this drainage system. We want to make sure we don’t struggle with the issues we’ve struggled with last year. It’s not fair to the fans.

“We’ll do it and do it right. We’ve got lights. If we have to work 24-hour shifts and consider weather…it’s spitting snow here today. Weather plays a role, too, but I have every confidence Steve Swift and his crew will get it done by March 1.”

This project will mark the second full repave since Texas Motor Speedway opened in 1997. That project occurred in the summer of 2001 as the racing surface was repaved with a granite-based asphalt compound from the original limestone-based asphalt.

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 NASCAR doubleheader will open the 2017 Texas Motor Speedway season April 7-9. The Rainguard Water Sealers 600 INDYCAR/NASCAR Camping World Truck Series doubleheader is set for June 8-10. The speedway’s season will conclude with the AAA Texas 500 NASCAR Chase tripleheader Nov. 2-5.

For additional information, visit www.texasmotorspeedway.com or call the speedway ticket office at 817.215.8500.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 6 2017
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