NASCAR finds bonus use for Air Titan
January 07, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Before every race, NASCAR drivers and crew members go through a certain amount of conditioning to close up any potential gaps in performance. In a novel turn last season, tracks began to undergo their own form of pre-race conditioning.
To carry the analogy one step further, drivers and crew members have personal trainers and fitness coaches in their corner for motivation. Tracks? They have Air Titan.
"You'll see the difference -- there'll be a noticeable difference on the track."
-- Jerry Kaproth, NASCAR's manager of race track infrastructure
The bonus facet of NASCAR's evolutionary track-drying system came to light last season as an additional form of track preparation. The asphalt conditioning process and the next phase of the Air Titan dryer were focal points of the three-day NASCAR Track Services Summit, which wrapped up Tuesday in Concord, N.C.
Jerry Kaproth, NASCAR's manager of race track infrastructure, said the feedback from pre-race conditioning in the handful of applications last season has been overwhelmingly positive. He recounted that after the process was complete at Phoenix International Raceway, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick approached NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director John Darby to say they could feel the difference.
"They said, 'whatever you did, we could see it right away,' " Kaproth recalled.
NASCAR.com rode along with the lead truck of the Air Titan convoy before season-ending events in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway to gain more insight into the track conditioning system. The low-speed ride failed to register on the truck's speedometer, but was nevertheless instrumental in getting the 1.5-mile speedway in peak condition to crown champions in NASCAR's three national divisions.
In basic terms, the process uses the Air Titan's normal setup, but a water truck rides in front, wetting the track. The water loosens any debris or residue on the surface, helping the Air Titan's powerful vacuum to clean the track.
The resulting combination of dirt, sand, debris and water gradually fills the Air Titan's collection tanks with what Kaproth calls a broth-like mixture. Kaproth said his team sent samples of the mix to the National Center for Asphalt Technology at Auburn University for analysis to get a better handle on the process.
"It came back slag aggregate, meaning it does have some asphalt component but it's just junk that sits on top of the road that is loose already," Kaproth said. "We're just cleaning out the pores. Now that we know what it is, we just have a vacuum sweeper pick it up and dump it on the apron."
The system is more effective than in previous years, where a jet dryer would simply blow off the track. The new process has helped the track surface take rubber faster, causing an uptick in early practice speeds.
"It looks likes where we've done (conditioning), they've been running faster quicker," Kaproth said. "Instead of taking that first practice session to fiddle around, they're coming right at it."
At Homestead, Air Titan driver Rob Angle led the conditioning charge on the eve of on-track activity. Though his speed never reached more than 5 mph, his task required continual radio communication with the other vehicles around him -- the water truck and the tractor-trailer carrying the collection tanks.
A video camera facing backward helped Angle guide the white Ford pickup, working his way down in 9-foot swipes from the top groove against the outside retaining wall toward the inside of the track, much like a Zamboni would clear an ice rink. The difference was that the truck's windshield wipers were in continual motion to combat the excess spray from the water vacuum, forcing Angle to use visual cues -- asphalt seams or painted lines on the track -- to navigate the circuit.
Other visual cues make it clear that the process is working. Before and after pictures of the track reveal a much lighter shade of asphalt after the cleaning. Even more noticeable is the grime that accumulates on the Air Titan truck's white paint.
"You can see all the dirt on the vehicle," Angle said. "(At Phoenix) when we went out, the truck was white like this one here. When we came back, it was as black as that track. It was pretty nasty."
Not every track will get the conditioning treatment in 2014; Kaproth said each race is considered on a case-by-case basis. But the next evolution of the Air Titan system may make the process much more efficient as the season progresses. Kaproth said a new, self-contained "Air Titan 2.0" could be ready by spring. He also said that his team has worked with innovation partner Sportvision to map out preferred grooves in past races. Using those coordinates, Kaproth's infrastructure team can tailor-condition tracks with the goal of widening the racing line and facilitating side-by-side racing.
The technology has come a long way from the days when the only track sweeping was done with brooms.
"We have all the parts and pieces," Kaproth said. "You'll see the difference -- there'll be a noticeable difference on the track."