HAMPTON, Ga. - As has been done for each of the past 20 fall seasons, operations crews were hard at work this week, implementing an annual heavy maintenance program on the aging 1.54-mile racing surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Well beyond its predicted lifespan, the asphalt, originally lain at the same time the track was reconfigured into a quad-oval layout in the spring of 1997, is showing its age. Widening cracks, bumpy seams and asphalt aggregate – the “glue” that holds it all together – depleted to the point of near total nonexistence, may all sound like typical characteristics of a forgotten racetrack of the past.
But in reality? It’s perhaps one of the most well-kept 1.5 miles of asphalt in the country and easily one of NASCAR drivers’ most cherished venues. It’s old, abrasive and slick, and it presents a difficult challenge for racers to find speed and keep their wheels spinning in the right direction. With its numerous racing grooves and characteristic bumps, race cars typically tread over every square inch – from the wall to the apron – over the course of a race as they try to defeat not only their competitors but the track itself.
“The drivers love the worn-out asphalt,” said Ed Clark, AMS president. “They especially like it here because they can run so many different lines around our track. It produces pretty dramatic two- and three-wide racing.”
Of course the historic racing surface, which has seen iconic moments in NASCAR history like Dale Earnhardt’s 0.010-second margin of victory over Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Kevin Harvick’s emotional and record-setting 0.006-second margin of victory over Jeff Gordon in Earnhardt’s Richard Childress Racing car the following year, wouldn’t still be in “raceable” condition without the meticulous maintenance program employed by AMS over the years.
“This will be our 21st season racing on this surface,” said Clark. “That’s pretty much unheard of as far as racing surfaces go. And I give the biggest part of the credit to the sealing program we’ve done year after year.
“It’s something that’s been a religious program for us really since Year 1, when we (last) paved. It prevents the heaving-up you get when you get water freezing underneath. It’s allowed our surface to live really an extended time.”
Originally set to finally surrender to Father Time and be resurfaced after the conclusion of the speedway’s annual NASCAR weekend this past March, the two-decade-old asphalt received a temporary reprieve after several drivers spoke up in a chorus of opposition.
“I think that’s one of the reasons the drivers have really petitioned to not repave,” Clark said. “They know we’ve got this great program in place to seal the track up. We know we’re going to have to pave very soon, but we’re going to get at least one more year out of it – our 21st season – next February with the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.”
Walking alongside maintenance crews as they worked earlier this week, Clark noted that for a geriatric race track like AMS, it’s actually in surprisingly good shape.
“The worst area we found is really right in front of our grandstand area, here on the front straightaway. We traditionally come in in early October, seal the cracks up, keep the moisture out throughout the winter, and that’s allowed our surface to last such a very long time.
“One of the reasons that we seal our track in October is that it’s one of the driest times of the year here in the Atlanta, Georgia area.”
As for how much longer the track surface will last, Clark was willing to take a wait-and-see approach going forward.
“We’re prepared to repave if we need to after the 2018 event. Of course, all that’s going to be based on the evaluation we do after event weekend. So, it could go longer, but we’re prepared to come in and pave sometime next year, right after that event. But who knows? We may even see more years beyond that.”
NASCAR racing returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway Feb. 23-25, 2017, featuring Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series doubleheader on Saturday, Feb. 24, followed by the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, Feb. 25.