Everything’s Big In Texas – Including Criticism Of TMS

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 28 2022

A good time was not had by all at Texas Motor Speedway over the weekend. (Photos courtesy of NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – NASCAR’s Playoff weekend at Texas Motor Speedway provided compelling story lines via the feel-good victories scored by Tyler Reddick and Noah Gragson in their respective Cup and Xfinity series races.

Unfortunately, the on-track action around the high-banked/1.5-mile oval was almost an after-thought considering it played-out against a backdrop of blown Goodyear tires, flash fires and a flurry of grinding wall-bangers. Indeed, the overall cluster-effect conveniently fed into the narrative that “The Great American Speedway” is in need of a reconfiguration, repave and reboot.

A hot topic all summer on social media, the possible reconfiguration of TMS went all-out on the record Friday morning courtesy of reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Larson. Asked his opinion on how to improve the quality of racing on TMS’ uniquely-banked layout, Larson offered this not-so-subtle suggestion to the brain trust of Speedway Motorsports led by President and CEO Marcus G. Smith.

I would like them to demolish this place first, and then start over from scratch,” Larson said.

Ouch! That was not what Smith and/or Mark Faber _ who began his tenure as TMS Executive Vice President and General Manager on Aug. 22 _ needed to digest over coffee and Krispy Kremes.

Tyler Reddick takes the checkers at TMS. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

However, the quality of racing here in NASCAR’s three national touring series and the NTT IndyCar Series has come under increasing driver, fan and media scrutiny since completion of a major capital improvement project in March 2017.

Announced on Jan. 6, 2017 by Smith and former TMS President and General Manager Eddie Gossage, the key element was reduction of the banking in Turns 1 and 2 from 24 to 20 degrees. The Turn 1 apron also was flattened and widened. The banking in Turns 3 and 4 remained at 24 degrees and the entire layout was repaved. The intent was to break TMS out of the “cookie-cutter” mold associated with intermediate tracks and create added passing opportunities.

Complicating the issue, however, is the fact NASCAR has continued to apply a traction compound/resin that, if not properly heat-activated, reduces the racing surface to a single, slippery bottom lane. That compound has proven especially problematic for passing in the IndyCar Series.

“Well, for one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration,” said Larson, the Hendrick Motorsports ace who won the 17th annual AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 Cup Playoff race in October 2021 en route to his championship. “I think I would like to see them go change it from your mile-and-a-half to something shorter. If I could build a track, it’d probably be a three-quarter-mile Bristol _ basically pavement and progressive banking, all that. I don’t know if that’s even possible here…but anything would be better than what they did.”

On Sunday, Reddick emerged as the fourth non-Playoff driver in as many 2022 races to earn a victory. Reddick led the final 24 laps of the 18th annual AEA 500 on his way to a 1.19-second victory over Playoff contender Joey Logano. The win was Reddick’s first in Cup on an oval, following victories earlier this season at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course.

Reddick, of Richard Childress Racing, led three times for a race-high 70 laps in the 334-lap/501-miler that set Cup track records for most lead changes (36), most leaders (19) cautions (16), caution laps (91) and longest race (4 hours, 21 minutes, 53 seconds). Included in the latter figure was a 56-minute red flag stoppage for unexpected lightning strikes and light rain in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

Reddick, who fell two points short of advancing into the current Round of 12, continued the streak of a non-Playoff winners that began in the opening three-race Round of 16. Reddick followed Erik Jones (Darlington Raceway), Bubba Wallace (Kansas Speedway) and native Texan Chris Buescher (Bristol Motor Speedway) in the role of spoilers.

Chief among the tire issue victims Sunday was 2020 Cup champion Chase Elliott, who was leading on Lap 184 when the right rear tire on his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet blew exiting Turn 4. The No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Camaro ZL1 slapped the wall with its right rear quarter panel and then the right front fender, sparking a brief fire before coasting into the infield grass. The Playoff point-leader as the race began, Elliott finished 32nd in the 36-car field and fell to eighth in the standings, 26 points behind new leader Logano.

Earlier, Cup regular Cody Ware of family-owned Rick Ware Racing escaped serious injury in a scary crash on Lap 168. Ware’s No. 51 Ford Mustang whacked the Turn 4 wall at speed, with the impact wadding-up the car’s right front suspension. Disabled, the car slid down the 24-degree banking and onto pit road where it slammed the inside retaining wall before stopping in the box of BJ McLeod. Ware exited the cockpit with assistance of the track’s safety crew, but collapsed when he tried to stand up.

Ware was treated and released from the track’s infield care center after experiencing “discomfort” in his ankle. A team spokesman said Ware did not suffer a concussion and flew back with his team to North Carolina Sunday night.

Trigger-fingers immediately pointed in the direction of Goodyear and Director of Racing Greg Stucker. Team-owner Childress pointed out he and Randall Burnett, crew chief on Reddick’s No. 8 Lenovo/ThinkEdge Chevy, had opted for a conservative approach to tire pressures after Saturday’s practice and qualifying.

“Goodyear builds a great tire,” Childress said. “This was a great tire that Goodyear built for us. Like Randall said, there’s a fine line to push that limit. It wasn’t the tire as much as it is trying to be as competitive as you can.”

Stucker said this particular tire compound package was introduced at Kansas Speedway, specifically for use on 1.5-mile intermediate layouts.

“We’re getting as much information from the teams, trying to understand where they are regarding their settings _ air pressures, cambers, suspension and so on,” Stucker said during an impromptu infield media center presser. “For sure, I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are, some more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part. I’m not saying that’s the only thing but it’s certainly a factor.

“We know a lot of guys have had not had issues _ in fact, guys put full-runs on tires. But obviously, other guys have had issues so we’ll be working with them to try to sort through exactly what that is and how they’re different from other guys.”

Stucker added the aggressiveness ramped-up once racing resumed on Lap 224, after the red-flag downtime. ”We were running considerably faster than what we were before (the stoppage), so all those factors come into play,” Stucker said. “The resin, I think, kept the racetrack extremely fast. There was very little tire fall-off and when the bottom’s not working the guys could move up (one lane). All those factors play into it. No excuses, we’re just trying to find exactly what’s going on.

“If you look at races these days, people don’t ‘ride’ very much anymore. When the green flag falls everybody’s up on the wheel and they race hard. Everybody’s trying to win so everybody gets aggressive. The tire is a new element, that’s why we supply the data on setups.”

Reddick suggested that all teams are still compiling information on NASCAR’s “Next Gen” Chevy Camaros, Ford Mustangs and Toyota Camrys. Sunday’s race was the first point-paying event at TMS for the Next Gen, which made its competitive albeit non-point debut at TMS during the 38th annual NASCAR All-Star Race in May. 

“It’s a brand-new car,” Reddick said. “It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, the diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.

“I don’t really know all the details on this, to be honest. But I do feel like Goodyear will be able to correct this. I just think as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be.”

Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, assured that Goodyear is working to eliminate tire failure. “We’re all learning about the setups, the tires,” Miller said. “Goodyear is learning about the construction, the new wheel. It’s part of a learning…it’s an unfortunate part of a learning process.”

Asked about a possible reconfiguration of TMS, Miller said, “Well, I think the general consensus _ this is just is my opinion _ this has been a difficult track to race on for a while now. What the plans are for it, anything like that, I don’t have any details on any of that. But if you ask the drivers, if you ask the crew chiefs, it’s been a difficult place over the years, for sure.”

The summer’s reconfiguration rumors were led by a possible copying of the recent revamping of the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga. A sister Speedway Motorsports facility to TMS, the D-shaped layout now is NASCAR’s highest-banked intermediate track. Banking was increased from 24 degrees to 28 degrees, while the racing surface was narrowed from 55-feet to 40-feet. The track’s straightaways have remained at 5-degrees.

“I’ve heard of those reconfiguration rumors (at TMS), for sure,” said Logano, the 2018 Cup champion and driver of the No. 22 AAA Ford fielded by Team Penske. “I don’t know what’s truth or what’s rumor. My only opinion is don’t make it like Atlanta. We’re all (drivers) on the same page, so hopefully Marcus listens to the drivers this time.”

Or, maybe Marcus might listen to NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. Winner of his first Xfinity and Cup series races here in 1998 and 2000, respectively, Junior chimed-in after Saturday’s 18th annual Andy’s Frozen Custard 300. The 2022 Xfinity Playoffs opener was won by JR Motorsports’ Gragson, whose fourth consecutive victory tied a record set by Sam Ard in 1983.

Gragson, driver of the No. 9 Bass Pro Shops/True Timber/BRCC Chevrolet Camaro, finished 1.238-seconds in front of fellow-Playoff contender Austin Hill and his No. 21 Bennett Transportation and Logistics Chevy. However, only eight of 38 starters completed a 200-lapper marred by two major crashes and nine cautions for 52 laps.

Here’s the reality of the situation,” said Junior, on-site as the owner of JR Motorsports and as analyst for NBC Sports’ telecast. “Obviously, the grandstands are going to stay and the condos in Turn 2 aren’t going anywhere. I doubt that Big Hoss (giant TV) is going anywhere. So, whatever you’re going to do has to fit in this footprint. So, a half-mile short track is not happening and a 2.5-mile superspeedway is not happening. Whatever happens has to kind of fit where the track is now. With those parameters, what do you do with this track?

“Honestly, I think that I would either do one of two options, and I’m scared to put them out here. I would revert back to the original configuration in Turns 1 and 2 and leave Turns 3 and 4 the way it’s been. Go back to the way the place was before they changed (Turns) 1 and 2 or I mean…they could just repave the treated part of the racetrack. They could leave the bottom two grooves the way they are and literally just pave the upper grooves that have been treated. That new asphalt would have more grip, more speed, guys would be running up there. You’d basically have the racetrack you have now but without the treatment on it.

“I think the treatment is a lot of our problem. We put this on the track and it grips and it’s great but I think long-term you don’t want this stuff on the surface. It’s re-apply and re-apply and re-apply and it’s got to be kind of affecting the asphalt in a negative way. So you see guys go up there and (say), ‘I can’t mess with it until we activate it.’ I think for a long period of time you don’t want to be putting this on the surface of the racetrack.

“I wonder where we might be today with this (tarmac) untreated _ entirely untreated. That’s basically what I think about it. I know that Marcus would love to put Atlanta 2.0 here but I really don’t believe that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t think anybody wants another Atlanta.

“Parker Kligerman (racer/broadcaster) said it best. He said, ‘This place should be different than anything else _ not like Atlanta, not like anything. Texas only offers X, Y and Z.’ That’s a great way to think about it going in _ how can you offer something that you don’t get anywhere else? And so, start there.”

Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 28 2022
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