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Is This Heaven? No, It's Atlanta

Thursday, September 6, 2012

During race weekend, Nate Ryan of USA Today wrote a story about why drivers love racing at Atlanta. So in case you missed reading it for yourself, here it is! If you love racing at Atlanta, you can certainly relate to it! 

In Carl Edwards' vision of the afterlife, the road to the pearly gates would be lined with seams of rough pavement filled by tar strips. Divine perfection would be pockmarked patches of abrasive asphalt and a slippery surface that inspires faith via a lack of traction.

Is this heaven?

No, it's Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"If the Lord were to take me from this Earth right now, there would be a place in heaven that would look a lot like this racetrack," Edwards said. "It is awesome. It's as good as it gets. If there was a way to repave tracks just like this, this is how they should pave all of them."
With a preponderance of repaved racetracks filling the Sprint Cup Series schedule over the last decade, Atlanta's weathered asphalt has become a welcome anomaly for the drivers in NASCAR's premier series.

Sunday's AdvoCare 500 will mark the second consecutive season that the 1.54-mile track will have only one annual race, and the Labor Day weekend stop has been even more distinctive this year while juxtaposed against a summer of seemingly weekly makeovers.

"It's a fun track," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I've enjoyed coming here for a really long time. It's definitely a different style of racing (and) something we do less and less of. It's welcome by most of the drivers."

In the last two months, Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway debuted fresh coats of pavement. In preparation for an Oct. 21 race during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Kansas Speedway hosted a Goodyear tire test this week that marked the inaugural laps on the first resurfacing since its 2001 opening.

Phoenix International Raceway had an offseason reconfiguration, and Bristol Motor Speedway ground down its outer lane (to mostly rave reviews) before last week's race.

More than half of the 22 tracks on the Cup circuit have had surface alterations in the past decade — meaning 19 of 36 races in 2013 will be contested on repaved tracks.
Meanwhile, Atlanta Motor Speedway has left its asphalt untouched for 15 years to increasingly rave reviews from drivers who prefer racing on tracks where increased tire wear and tricky handling at breakneck speeds can enhance the opportunity for passing and side-by-side battles.

"This place is old, worn out, cracks everywhere, and yet every driver loves it," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. "We're slipping and sliding around. The racing is pretty spectacular. So from a pure driving standpoint, I'd like to come here five times a year.

"Unfortunately, eventually they're going to have to repave here, too. I just hope more tracks start looking at how they repave, because we're paving these racetracks with what we're trying to pave highways with, and this is not a highway."

Though motivated by good intentions and multimillion-dollar expenditures — the 2010 Daytona 500 was interrupted for two hours by a pothole that triggered a $20 million makeover of Daytona International Speedway and increased the sensitivity — the repercussions of repaves have been raised vociferously by drivers. The central thrust is that the high level of grip on new pavement fosters singe-lane racing, which negates passing opportunities.

This wouldn't be a major problem if tracks would wear out as quickly as Atlanta did. But advances in repaving technology have created surfaces that virtually don't age. Darlington Raceway (repaved in 2007), Talladega Superspeedway (2006) and Charlotte Motor Speedway (2006) are as glass smooth as when their recent surfaces most recently were laid. The removal of the bumps and gravelly conditions at Daytona and Talladega helped engender the tandem racing that drew outrage from fans and prompted rules changes by NASCAR.

"They've come so far with the stuff they use to make the blacktop that it doesn't get abrasive," Matt Kenseth said. "I don't think the racing is as good like that. Tracks like (Atlanta), Kansas before they paved it, Chicago (and) Texas, those places are more worn out. I think it puts on a better race because you can move around the racetrack. You've got to manage your tires."

Though racetracks are leery to use materials that aren't built to last, some stars want more balance between durability and degradation.

"I think we're hurting the sport by doing all these repaves," Gordon said. "I understand a lot of these tracks, especially after Daytona, the surface comes apart, they've got to repave. We cannot let that happen again.

"But I think they've really missed it on what they're repaving the surfaces with. It's extremely disappointing to me. I think it takes away from putting the best race out there, as well. I think that the whole model of repaving needs to be readjusted. I know we can come up with better surfaces, not more longer-lasting surfaces."

Many are hoping Atlanta remains an original. Track President Ed Clark said he wants to put off repaving "for as long as we can. We don't want to consider it until we see dirt coming through the asphalt."

During each offseason, track staff walks the length of the oval from the wall to the apron and hand-seals any cracks to prevent moisture from seeping through the surface. "That's one reason it's lasted so long," said Clark, who also noted the area doesn't have the rough winters that punish the surfaces of Pocono and Kansas.

After finishing third last year at the track, Tony Stewart (who starts on the pole Sunday) vowed if Clark repaved it, "I'll personally shoot him myself. This place is so racy. You actually have to take care of your tires, and that's what makes it fun, because guys overdrive their cars and fall off."
Jimmie Johnson prepares for Atlanta by reminding himself he won't feel as secure in his No. 48 Chevrolet, not that the five-champion is complaining about comfort as a critical factor to enjoying 200 mph-plus.

"Tracks with character fit our race cars so much better," said Johnson, who has three wins at Atlanta and a memorable charge from 11th to second in the final eight laps of a 2008 race.

"Maybe your first lap, you can drive the car, the rest of it is all about compromising (while) things are deteriorating rapidly. Every lap you make, the track gets more slick."
As David Stremme tweeted Friday, it's akin to sliding a car around a dirt track. "Which=fun," Stremme wrote.

Racetrack environs that evoke dust also can be pristine in the view of Edwards, whose ebullience about racing at Atlanta is boundless despite the fact his Chase chances might be over if he can't score his fourth victory Sunday.

"It's so awesome," Edwards said. "We're going to wear out steering boxes. We're slinging the cars sideways. There is going to be somebody on the last pit stop who takes tires and passes 20 cars in five laps.

"That stuff is fun, so I just hope whatever they do they can maintain this pavement and not have to repave it. And if they do, please pave it just like it is. We could not be at a better racetrack."

 

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