News & Media

Caraviello: Resurfacing isn't a debate, but a necessity

July 13, 2011, David Caraviello,

About a month before its most recent NASCAR weekend, a slab of asphalt at Kansas Speedway came loose and slid down the track, creating a 3-inch gap in the racing surface. There was no damage below the top layer, so engineers were able to fix the problem well before fans and stock cars descended on Kansas City. But track president Pat Warren couldn't help but ask himself -- what might have happened had the timing been a little worse?

"It could be worse than the pothole at Daytona," Warren said. "You can't just go and patch that. It's not like a 15-minute patch job. That's go in, tear out 4 feet of asphalt on either side, go down 18 inches. It's sort of like a cavity -- you clean it all out, fix it, and repair it. And it's just random when it happens. If it happens on Friday night of a Cup weekend, that's a very bad outcome. We don't think there's a tremendous risk in that happening right now, because it's only happened once. But we feel like the responsible thing to do is to get the track fixed and repaved."

New track, new date?

Kansas Speedway is getting a new surface, and it appears the 1.5-mile oval will be getting a new date, as well.

Track president Pat Warren said his facility's spring Sprint Cup race will likely have to slide back on the 2012 schedule to accommodate a resurfacing project that will begin immediately following the event. Kansas' spring race this season was on June 5. Its fall event is scheduled for Oct. 9.

Warren said that current window isn't large enough to accommodate the resurfacing project, which also will add variable banking to the 10-year-old facility. Harsh winters in Kansas City won't allow the work to be done during the offseason. NASCAR is currently working on the 2012 schedule, which isn't expected to be released until later in the summer.

"It looks like the date will slide back earlier in the spring to give us the time we need. There's not enough time from the date we had this year, which is the date Dover will have next year. There would not be enough time between that and our fall date to get it done, and there's not enough good weather between our fall date and our spring date to do the work over the winter," Warren said.

"That was actually what we wanted to do, but asphalt plants shut down in about November here, and then we couldn't reopen them until about March or April, and then we run the risk of literally not getting the job done. The only option from the schedule standpoint is to try an create a little more space between the races and try and get it done over the summer."

-- David Caraviello


And so Kansas will do just that, resurfacing and adding variable banking to the 1.5-mile oval between its spring and fall Sprint Cup events in 2012. The Sunflower State venue will become the latest in the series of major NASCAR tracks to be resurfaced in recent years; Darlington, Charlotte, Bristol, Talladega and Daytona have all been resurfaced since 2006, Phoenix is in the midst of a resurfacing and reconfiguration, and Michigan is slated for a new coat of asphalt after its upcoming August race weekend. The rough, worn surface that greeted drivers last weekend at Kentucky led many to wonder if that track might be next.

This is a lot of fresh asphalt (or concrete, in Bristol's case) in a fairly short span of time, a rash of resurfacing that's altered track characteristics and racing at some of the venues that have received it, and in the process left both fans and competitors to deal with sometimes-uncomfortable adjustment periods. Darlington no longer presents the tire falloff that was once its signature. There's less beating and banging at Bristol. Daytona and Talladega now feature tandem drafting. And some drivers, who prefer worn surfaces that put more of a premium on car setup and skill behind the wheel, are frustrated.

"The worst thing in the world that happens to this sport is repaving race tracks," Kevin Harvick said. "That is the absolute worst thing you can do to make the racing bad, is to pave a race track. You look at some of the race tracks that have been paved for five or six years now, and I don't know if it's the type of asphalt or whatever they're doing, but the racing isn't the same that it was."

And yet, given that asphalt is a temperature- and weather-sensitive compound that expands and contracts and absorbs moisture and has a limited life span, resurfacing is an inevitability. Daytona's old surface, which had recently been flooded by heavy rains, sprang the infamous pothole during the 2010 Daytona 500. Phoenix's old surface baked under the Arizona sun for two decades and was in danger of coming apart. Talladega's was riddled with cracks filled by tar seams. Perhaps facilities are being more proactive these days, given that no one wants to have the next pothole. Although the Kansas track is just 10 years old, Warren says it's been beaten down by temperature extremes in a region that gets very hot in the height of summer and frigidly cold in the depth of winter.

"We've got terrible freeze-thaw damage on the track," he said. "If you think about where we are, and you think about other tracks, I believe we have the widest temperature variations of anywhere on the Cup schedule. Because it can be 110 degrees today, and in the winter we're 10 below. It's not just that, which causes great expansion and contraction in the asphalt. But even in the winter, we'll have days where it will be zero one day and 60 two days later. So what's happening is, the asphalt is expanding and contracting. Snow, if there was any, is melting and going right into those cracks. And two days after it was freezing it will be 60 again, and that just widens those cracks, and the process starts over. It's all related to wear and tear, which is almost all related to freeze-thaw damage."

Even so, resurfacing can be a harsh reality for many top drivers who feel older, rougher surfaces help separate them from the rest of the field. The bumps in Kentucky's lower groove -- which were the dominant story of last weekend before the traffic gridlock that marred race day -- led to many questions about a potential resurfacing of that facility, something owner Bruton Smith said was probably two years away at least. They may not enjoy the rough ride, but many drivers prefer the challenge that an abrasive surface like Kentucky's presents.

"We need this character on the tracks," Jimmie Johnson said. "The rougher it is, the more interesting the surface. ... I think the cars are so equal that we need the tracks to separate the field somehow. If that's a rough surface and shocks become important or driver technique and lines become important, that will open up opportunities to pass. If we have perfectly smooth race tracks, tons of grip, it's going to be a parade out there at 200 mph."

Roughness in and of itself does not seem to provide enough of a mandate for resurfacing. A number of drivers queried last weekend drew the line at the possibility of the track breaking up, which were real fears at Kansas and Phoenix that don't yet seem present in Kentucky. Daytona's old surface was as rough as any around, and track officials rebuked any notion of resurfacing -- until the pothole came up. "I don't think it's ever the roughness, or too rough or not rough enough," Ryan Newman said. "I think it's more an issue of water seepage and the track actually tearing up."

That's what happened in Daytona, and that's what officials are trying to prevent in Kansas. Still, it's a tough thing for some to digest. Jeff Gordon says he loves the Kansas track, the way cars slip and slide on it, how vehicles can run along the line at the bottom or up against the wall at the top. And he knows resurfacing will remove some of those characteristics, at least until the new asphalt ages, a process that usually takes many years.

"I'm not a fan, because the new pavement that exists out there is so smooth and is not very abrasive," Gordon said. "Goodyear has a very difficult time building tires for the new repaves, because it just generates so much heat, but they don't dissipate the heat by having abrasiveness. I just wish we could talk to the companies that are doing the paving and find a way to put some abrasiveness -- and a lot of it -- just into the aggregate. The aggregate that is in the newer pavement is so small, and very little of it is at the surface. So that is what has caused a lot of issues."

If asking for abrasiveness out of a repaved surface sounds like something of an oxymoron, that's because it is. According to International Speedway Corp.'s Martin Flugger, who is currently overseeing the resurfacing job at Phoenix, older tracks are abrasive because a lot of the aggregate is sitting up on the surface, where it can wear out the tires. "It's very difficult, if not impossible, to get that type of texture out of a track from day one," Flugger said.

"The paver wants to lay a map down that's knocked down flat. The rollers want to knock everything flat. What you have in some of these older tracks is, the stone starts to get exposed, and the stones are sitting up above the surface, because as you strip the finer material away from the stones that are in the track, it kind of exposes the points and the rocks up from the surface. When we're done paving a track, all the voids and spaces, it's got a negative texture to it. It's more down into the surface than up out of the surface."

Translation: It's very smooth. Artificially aging a resurfaced facility would require "some sort of blasting operation where you ... shot-blast the track and prematurely age the track and strip away some fine [materials] and expose the stones," Flugger said. "But now you're doing what you basically don't want to do, which is taking years away and life away from the track." And facing the possibility of having to resurface again, but sooner than before.

Gordon said he'd like to find some kind of happy medium, which many tracks try to achieve through reconfiguration. Not all of them do it -- Daytona and Darlington are examples of recently resurfaced facilities that wanted to keep their basic geometry intact -- but some see it as a way of adding a degree of raciness to a track that's been repaved. That's why Kansas isn't just resurfacing, it's adding variable banking of up to 20 degrees to a facility that's banked uniformly at 15 degrees now.

"I would love to be able to keep the racing surface that we have now, if we felt like we could safely maintain it and keep it up," Warren said. "But everything I've been told from our engineers and the experts is, the risk is too high. We understand that, but if the risk is too high, what can we do to make the racing as good as it can be in those early years when the asphalt is fresh and then even better in the later years when it starts to wear? And the answer is, the variable banking."

Phoenix is also going that route, implementing variable banking, widening its frontstretch, and tightening and pushing out its dogleg on the backstretch. "The typical model, the typical older track, once you repave it, it wants to become a single-file race track, because the fastest way around the track becomes the bottom of the track," Flugger said. "There's no real competitive advantage to getting outside of a guy and staying up high, because you can't maintain the speed. That's why in a case like Phoenix, we're out here changing the banking from the bottom of the track to the top of the track, and we moved the dogleg out a touch, so when we're done paving, you'll have those competitive lanes right away."

It's all in an effort to get the competitive nature back into a track as soon as possible, using those tweaks to a facility's geometry to offset what it might lose with a change of surface. Does it work? Such an approach did wonders for Homestead-Miami Speedway, which became a much more competitive stock-car venue in 2003 when variable banking was added to what had been a flat oval. Time will tell if Kansas and Phoenix will benefit similarly. The only certainties are that asphalt will eventually wear out, and that track surfaces will ultimately have to be replaced -- whether drivers like it or not.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.