Drivers weigh in on upcoming changes
Kansas Speedway will have a different feel when the Sprint Cup series returns this fall.
Immediately after Sunday’s race, an M1A1 Abrams tank and armored combat earthmover from the Kansas Army National Guard will rumble over its asphalt surface, the ceremonial start to a massive renovation project that will include the construction of an infield road course.
The biggest change will be to the surface itself.
The old, worn-out pavement will be stripped away and the underlying material sculpted to transform the uniform 15-degree banking of the original layout to variable banking of 17 to 20 degrees. Pit road will also be reconstructed along with both straightaways.
”I know they’re making some changes and I hope it works out really well,” said Jeff Gordon, a two-time winner at Kansas. ”We’ll enjoy it as much as we can in this last, final race there on the old surface. Then we’ll go to work on what the new surface is going to be like.”
If it sounds as though Gordon is lukewarm about the project, well, that’s because he is.
So are most drivers in the garage area.
It took several years for the surface to mature to the point that drivers could race two- and three-wide, a common problem at freshly paved tracks. Before that, races at Kansas Speedway often resembled a high-speed parade around a single groove in the middle of the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren understands the frustration of drivers who have seen some of the most exciting stops in the series compromised by repaves, but he also pointed out that track owner International Speedway Corp. wouldn’t incur such a cost if it wasn’t necessary.
The weather in Kansas, where temperatures can fluctuate up to 60 degrees in a matter of days, has compromised the integrity of the asphalt. Officials were forced to tar over seams in the track several years ago, and the entire racing surface has shifted down the banking over the past couple of seasons, creating even wider gaps that could eventually become hazardous.
”I understand the need is there,” said Jimmie Johnson, who won last fall’s race at Kansas Speedway. ”I feel we’ve learned a lot with progressive banking, and we can really help racetracks spend some time creating a middle grove and an outside lane.
”I can also say that we’ve learned that there’s certain asphalt combinations now that are being put down that are going to last a long time, but they don’t work very well. The one at Phoenix is going to take a long time before it comes around. I would advise if anybody is listening to not choose that blend. Let’s get to something that wears out.”
Even if that means repaving more often.
”I like Kansas the way it is,” said two-time winner Greg Biffle. ”I’m not a huge fan of repaves because it takes a little bit for the track to get its character back. We know they have to come with a fairly hard tire. It’ll be slick and it’s hard to drive, and hard to get side-by-side in the beginning. It takes a bit for that track to get competitive again.”
While the repave has been met with skepticism – if not outright criticism – the road course that will be built in the infield has generated applause.
The course should be finished by the time NASCAR returns Oct. 21 for the sixth race in the Chase for the championship, though competitive racing on it won’t happen until next year, when a Grand-Am stop is planned for Kansas Speedway.
The circuitous design begins in the first corner, where drivers will make a hard left and meander down the backstretch. A hairpin turn will bring them back to the main speedway in Turn 2.
The construction projects scheduled for this summer come on the heels of a new casino that overlooks the second corner, the addition of lights to provide for night racing, and entertainment and retail development in the surrounding area that includes a minor league park and Livestrong Sporting Park, the new home to MLS club Sporting Kansas City.
”The area is growing, especially right there at the racetrack,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. ”The area is really growing at a high rate of speed and making the track itself a success and the idea of building the track there a success.”