The Frontstretch: Solving NASCAR’s Racetrack Problem, Part 2 – Happy Hour Motor Speedway I—A New Short Track by Kurt Smith -- Friday March 20, 2009

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In last week’s Happy Hour, I discussed baseball’s ballpark boom and how the place responsible for it all, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, changed the formula for modern ballparks—from antiseptic concrete bowls to eye-catching and distinctive structures with natural grass. I suggested that NASCAR could learn from this, with most of the NASCAR schedule littered with tracks that are all too similar to one another.

My idea was that the architects of the next speedway could try the same tactic, and use elements of several classic speedways in its design, while at the same time incorporating the modern amenities that the newer tracks brag about. And the next time NASCAR moves to a new track, it has a place to go to with better racing and a memorable fan experience. And new tracks in the future will have a standard.

With that in mind, here is what defines Happy Hour Motor Speedway I. Feel free to chew me out if something doesn’t work, or add any ideas of your own.

1) It is eight-tenths of a mile (just slightly longer than Richmond). I have no beef with the biggest of big tracks—I’m in the minority in finding Pocono’s pure size endearing—but let’s face it, all of us love to see drivers fighting for the tiniest of tiny bits of real estate, and to see drivers almost half a lap down when the race starts. Bristol and Martinsville, more than most tracks, separate the men from the boys in this sport. My track will be a little bigger but not by much. There will be carnage, but I’m leaving the crown of most carnage to Bristol where it duly belongs. And like Richmond, it will be plenty wide enough for three-wide racing.

Richmond is one of many tracks that might influence the design of Happy Hour Motor Speedway I, but it’s not the only one.

It’s not that drivers don’t need a good racecar for less than a mile, but they will have to be up on the wheel throughout. No lapses in concentration allowed. My track is going to be challenging to race on, but drivers will love it.

My second track will be huge. It’s going to be the longest in NASCAR. But the current car NASCAR has steadfastly insisted we use runs far better at short tracks for the moment, so we’re starting there.

2) There is high and progressive banking all around the track (like Dover). Martinsville is great partly for its almost nonexistent banking. A driver scrambling to slow to 30 MPH going into a turn is great. But we want to see guys going fast. At HHMS they’re going to barrel into corners going at least 110. I’m estimating somewhere between 20-25 degrees of banking in the turns.

The banking is going to be different on the opposite ends—higher in one and two than in three and four or vice versa. It might not be as high as Dover’s nine degrees on the straightaways, but there will be some, maybe six degrees, because that improves the fans’ view too. More on all that in a minute.

3) The racing surface is concrete (like Dover and Bristol). This isn’t because I like Carl Edwards. Or even because I think racing is better on concrete—truthfully I can’t really tell, although concrete is harder on tires and the cars run faster on it. It’s just to be different, to require a different type of setup, and to make crew chiefs do some thinking.

And it looks neat. Pieces of black tires that were insufficient to the task of staying intact will be in full view in the off-white background, strewn about the racetrack until it rains.

4) There are no seats on the backstretch (like Pocono, Loudon and others). The seats at HHMS will be from the middle of turns three and four to the middle of turns one and two, for several reasons.

First, not having the track surrounded by seats is easier on fans’ eardrums. I have enjoyed races at Pocono without the benefit of earplugs. There is no way that’s happening at Martinsville.

Second, the seating should be arranged so that everyone in attendance can see pit road, like at Pocono. Often that is where some of the best action takes place—seeing a leader suddenly have to come in, seeing phenomenal pit crews accomplish in 15 seconds what takes Firestone a day, seeing cars race at 35 MPH to be the first out. No one who pays for a ticket should miss that.

Third, I like the idea of not having subpar seats anywhere at my speedway.

And lastly, it’s good for aesthetic reasons too…I like looking at wide-open expanse. No racetrack, no outdoor sports venue for that matter, should isolate itself from its surroundings. One should know where one is not by looking at the sign on the scoreboard but by looking at the meadow or RV Park or lake or railroad beyond the site of the track. The view should be interesting, sure, just trees wouldn’t be great, but that’s all part of picking a great location. That’s next.

5) It is located near a body of water and a railroad, which influences its design (like Darlington). Asymmetry…where on earth has that concept gone in racing? Hasn’t anyone noticed what makes Darlington so special? Irregularity based on location is one of the features that define many of the new ballparks. It’s hard to believe that so few of the tracks in NASCAR have any asymmetrical quirks. I guess Phoenix, Pocono, and the road courses count, but there isn’t much else.

Not only would there be no seats on the backstretch, there would be a local ordinance reason for it, even if it is fudged a bit (as some new ballparks are—San Diego is an example). This will result in the frontstretch and backstretch being different lengths to go with the aforementioned different banking and angles in the turns. How much will the turns differ? If crew chiefs aren’t cursing the day I entered this world when they come here, I won’t be happy with it. Happy Hour Motor Speedway will separate the men from the boys on the pit box too. We’ll see what Chad’s really got.

Since ballparks located in downtown areas of cities place more emphasis on public transportation, maybe something like that could work for races. NASCAR has far worse traffic problems at its events than most other sports. Being near a passenger railroad in a rural area could result in one or more stops on the rail to be solely for the racetrack…maybe one or two at the track itself, one at the RV park, and a couple in nearby towns where shuttles could take groups of people to the track after breakfast in a local restaurant. Traffic is absolutely murder at most tracks on race day. HHMS will take every step to ease it. Easier said than done, I know, but we have some smart people around here.

The view from the stands should be of a local railroad as opposed to a highway. People see highways every day without thinking twice. A railroad stirs up images of hardworking men building a medium of transportation, and of businesses transporting loads of raw materials—how America used to be before (ironically) the automobile. It’s nostalgic. Remember, Happy Hour-designed speedways are about the sport’s and the nation’s history.

6) It is located in a rural area, with no casinos and no Oscars (like Talladega or Martinsville). The focal point of the location chosen would be the racetrack. Not an industry, not another sport, the racetrack. If it works for Green Bay, it can work for NASCAR. It probably should be located somewhere near a big market, but that market should be a good sports market, like Philadelphia, St. Louis or Detroit as opposed to Atlanta or Los Angeles. (No disrespect intended to fans there.)

At first, my thoughts on this were that we should put a racetrack back in the south, seeing as they’ve lost so many in recent years and that is still the base of NASCAR’s fan appeal. Perhaps somewhere in Mississippi…and networks and/or the track’s PA could play ZZ Top’s “My Head’s In Mississippi” before each race. It’d be a good counterpoint to hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” before Dega races. I’d mix the concrete for the whole track myself to see ZZ play it live there.

Sorry to have gotten off course a bit. But if we’re going back to the roots with this speedway, it could well be somewhere in the Southeast. We can find a way to assure Brian France that doing so isn’t an endorsement of slavery.

But on further reflection (it’s great to have a job that encourages “reflection”), I’ve decided it would be fine to go anywhere where race fans are proven to be. If that’s in California then so be it, but we now know that the Los Angeles area isn’t the place. They won’t even support football for crying out loud.

I’m not the biggest fan of Loudon, but there’s no question that the place sells tickets. Maybe the New England market could support another race. Any locality that consistently draws decent throngs for Nationwide races could be considered. It’ll take some research. But in true retro style, we’ll go where fans already are, not where NASCAR would like them to be.

7) There are no low seats. At nearly every track, there is too much stuff in the infield to be able to see what is going on in the backstretch from a low seat. Maybe things in the infield could be arranged so that people can see everything, but I would rather people weren’t close enough to risk hearing damage if they can’t see the whole track.

Dover’s high banking makes it possible to see most of the track from wherever one is sitting, so that is one solution, but I also think the lowest ten rows or so could be eliminated without too much pain. I’ll have plenty of higher seats, kind of like in the one odd-looking high section at Richmond. There will be fewer seats because of this. That’s fine. I’d rather have fewer seats and butts in all of them.

To fill up the space under the grandstands, a walkway with a row of concession and souvenir stands could be placed underneath it, facing pit road and the front straightaway. It might take some soundproofing, but people also can get a hot dog and a T-shirt while the race is going.

8) There are sufficient tunnels for haulers, ambulances, and pedestrians. I hadn’t thought of this originally, but when I showed John Potts (Driven To The Past) these ideas, as a former employee of International Raceway Park, he offered several suggestions regarding tunnels.

To go along with concessions and souvenirs stands under the grandstands, he suggested a pedestrian tunnel to the grandstand area, to allow drivers and others to get to the souvenir area for autograph sessions, or to the tower while there are cars on the track. (I believe Dover has this.) He also suggested an ambulance tunnel, which could lead to a care center outside that could also look after injured or ill patrons.

With no grandstands on the backstretch, this shouldn’t be too difficult. And a pedestrian tunnel under the grandstands at the start/finish line gives Mike Helton a place to hide after the driver’s meeting.

9) There are no lights! (like Pocono, Kansas, Dover and Wrigley Field once). This season’s Daytona 500 convinced me more than ever that races should be held on Sunday afternoon. Not Saturday, not in the late afternoon/evening. Sunday Afternoon. The green flag will drop at 1PM and we’ll race for 500 laps, and it’s going to take a lot of rain to deprive patrons of any of them. Networks won’t like it. Tough. Fans in attendance at HHMS will get home or back to their hotel at a decent hour.

10) There are seats with armrests, not benches (like Lowe’s). I will say this about Lowe’s: one doesn’t have to stop drinking beer or soda to keep their bladder from exploding, because getting up and finding one’s seat again is nowhere near as difficult as at a place with benches and rubbing cheeks. (Cheeks rubbin’ is NOT cheeks racin’.)

11) There is free parking and coolers are allowed. Would you suspect otherwise?

12) There will be nods at the front gate to some of NASCAR’s greatest moments and heroes. Let’s just try a few off the top of my head: a statue of Dale Earnhardt in his famous arms-in-the-air pose after finally winning the Daytona 500. A mural of Busch and Craven at the finish line in Darlington. Replicas of Cale’s 11 and Jimmie’s 48 cars, with a sign in the middle saying “Three straight.” The prominently displayed #3 flag Jeff Gordon flew out the window at Phoenix, commemorating his tying of Dale Earnhardt’s win total. It will be eye-catching on the outside too.

There is often a wait at the front gate to let people in. Happy Hour Motor Speedway I would entertain fans with large screens at the front gate, showing ongoing video broadcasts from some of the greatest finishes: the 1976, 1979 and 2007 500s, Harvick and Gordon at Atlanta, Earnhardt slicing through the field at Dega, and many, many others. People waiting will be pumped thinking about what they are about to witness. They’ll get so into it they won’t mind the wait. Maybe we could strike a deal with the NASCAR Images people. They do an amazing job.

And a huge picture of Brian France with a circle and a line through it. (OK, that last won’t help my quest to get a Cup race at my speedway, but I can dream.)

13) There would be an award for winning a race (like Martinsville’s grandfather clock or Nashville’s Gibson Les Paul). This relatively inexpensive gimmick can help to make a speedway noteworthy. Most places offer a trophy. HHMS will offer something else, like a Jeff Dunham talking Peanut doll. As hard as those things are to get, drivers will be fighting that much harder for the win.

14) There is a notable food item at the concession stands (like Martinsville’s hot dog). Is there a sports venue anywhere that serves decent nachos with real cheese instead of that Velveeta processed crap? HHMS will sell the best nachos on the circuit—served with real shredded cheddar and Monterey jack (and make sure it’s real Monterey, Jack!) cheese and kick-ass guacamole. Or soft pretzels from the Mart Pretzel Bakery in Cinnaminson (which are almost worth paying New Jersey property taxes to be near). Whatever works. Sports fans love to munch when they’re watching. HHMS will offer a grub item that people will mention when they talk about a trip to the speedway.

And last but sure as heck not least…

15) It would have a great nickname. Like The Cuss Oval, or Concrete Hell. Something at least as cool as the Lady In Black, Thunder Valley or The Monster Mile. Not something lame like the Beast of the Southeast.

There you have it…the key elements of a new, classic-yet-modern short track speedway for NASCAR racing. Some time soon, I’ll present my design for a superspeedway where a restrictor plate will not be necessary.

I’m not saying any of this would be easy to do. You’d meet a lot of resistance if you suggested fewer seats instead of more. And NASCAR and the networks might not like the idea of giving a race to a track without lights. As I said a week ago, many of the folks running the show don’t think like fans. But wouldn’t all of this be better than another symmetrical 1.5-miler?

Think it over gentlemen.

There’s Still Always Room For Kurt’s Shorts

  • Art Weinstein over at Scene Daily wrote an article Wednesday pondering what NASCAR’s worst change in recent years has been. After he mulled over the new car and the late start times, he decided that the Lucky Dog was the worst, because—and I quote—“You’re giving something to someone who has not earned it.” Yet he has grown to like the Chase. Art, help me out buddy: one lap vs. as many as four wins’ worth of points, which Clint Bowyer collected in 2008 courtesy of the Chase? I’m going with the Lucky Dog on that one.
  • I see that finally there is someone out there, a regular commenter, (M.B. Voelker), who agreed with my Mirror Driving assertion that the Vegas Nationwide race was terrible. Although that kind of shoots down my “kid saying the emperor has no clothes” complex. More on that when I touch on the safety of the new car in a future Happy Hour.
  • There has been talk and assurances from both Kasey Kahne and Budweiser that Bud will remain as sponsor of the No. 9 Dodge. I never even knew it was in jeopardy. Was one win from the Miller Lite car all it took to question whether Kasey has the moxie?
  • The 24 team is determined to get into the win column this year after a long winless streak. The last time Jeff went into Bristol winless for a long time, he put the bumper on Rusty for the win. I wonder if Rusty has forgiven him yet for that.

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Count Culo
03/20/2009 03:56 AM
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Only thing you left out to make your races more interesting was my ‘ol pal Phil Hansen’s “Bobcat Box”… that’s the concept of having a box located behind every driver’s seat that has a door remotely controlled from race control…. and only one driver’s box has the bobcat actually in it each week… but no one knows which one…. especially the guy at the switch….

midway thru the race… once things settle down and get a little boring (and the bocat’s had time to get really hot annoyed and PISSED OFF), then race control throws the switch….
can’t you hear it now??….

Jeff Hammond: WHOA, there goes Jeff Gordon weaving all over the track!!…. He must have the BOBCAT this week
D.W.: I think you might be right Hammond… it sure ain’t DIGGER !!!
Mike Joy:…. Uhhhhh… Duuuuh…..

Sign me up for season’s tickets at the HHMS !!!

CC

M.B. Voelker
03/20/2009 08:42 AM
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As a big fan of the difficult tracks, especially the asymmetric, headache for the crew chief sort of difficult tracks I like almost everything about your proposed track, including the nachos with real instead of plastic cheese.

I want to hear the crew chiefs tell their drivers “The car not perfect. Its not going to be perfect. Now drive the thing!” and see those drivers step to the challenge. (My own impossible dream track has an inside dogleg — where you come off a paperclip turn into a short straight then have to make a shallow right-hander to another short straight leading to the large end).

But you HAVE to have lights.

Starting the race early enough that I miss the green flag if the preacher runs long and we’re learning a new piece during choir practice is no guarantee that Mother Nature is going to co-operate with you.

Darkness falls earlier in Mississippi than in New Hampshire and Loudon’s lack of lights has created issues and controversy despite the advantage of that long, northern twilight.

Don’t get me wrong about this, I love trains and would far rather spend a day on a train than any other form of long-distance travel. But outside the crowded northeast corridor passenger train service, especially Amtrack, is a black hole of taxpayer money that I have better uses for than creating and maintaining the necessary infrastructure to support rail service to a rural race track once or twice a year.

And don’t forget the “family” section where people can bring their kids to a race without having to take them home soaked with beer, asking unanswerable questions about why “ladies” would lift their shirts up, and in possession of an expanded vocabulary of words they aren’t allowed to use.

:-)

john
03/20/2009 08:57 AM
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I would buy season passes to such a track. One thing you didn’t mention which I think would be cool is some sort of VERY modern sound system to allow us to SOMEHOW hear the track announcers at least MOST of the time—that’s my number 1 peev at ANY racetrack I visit.

There is often a wait at the front gate to let people in. Happy Hour Motor Speedway I would entertain fans with large screens at the front gate, showing ongoing video broadcasts from some of the greatest finishes: the 1976, 1979 and 2007 500s, Harvick and Gordon at Atlanta, Earnhardt slicing through the field at Dega, and many, many others. People waiting will be pumped thinking about what they are about to witness. They’ll get so into it they won’t mind the wait. Maybe we could strike a deal with the NASCAR Images people. They do an amazing job.

WICKED.

FS_Danny
03/20/2009 10:24 AM
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Sign me up for tickets at HHMS as well! Really great article, Mr. Smith, enjoyed this a lot.

Ryan
03/20/2009 10:48 AM
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Only 2 night races . Daytona in July , current night race at Bristol . Every other race begins at noon on Sunday . Mind you i said RACE begins , not pre-race .
And since i think we all agree ( except for NASCAR and Bruton Smith ) that we need far more variety in race tracks , lets just revert back to the types of tracks NASCAR grew up on . They raced on the sand at the beach , they raced at Darlington , on the dirt in PA. , on road courses in CA.( several of them ) and NY. ( several of them ) , and some of the smallest tracks in America ( Islip , North Wilkesboro , Martinsville .
You want to liven things up ? Race at the mile dirt at Springfield twice a year , race at North Wilkesboro ( they were always popular ) , road corses at Road Atlanta , Sebring , and Daytona . Hell , you could even throw in the Pikes Peak Hillclimb ( it was part of the USAC Stock Car Championship for many years ). Where do we get the additional dates for these races . I bet we can come up with some 1.5 mile tracks that should be forced to give up at least one of their dates each year .

Doug Scholl
03/20/2009 11:19 AM
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Never mind where do I buy season tickets where do I invest my life savings.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to seeing the trucks run at Iowa. If the racing and facility is all it hopped up to be then when can we cancel a Cali or Michigan race to put the big boys on that 7/8ths track.

Big Jon Medek
03/20/2009 12:15 PM
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Almost perfect thought! While the ideas are mostly excellent the big issue is that the economy will not allow for the building of any new tracks in the next 5 years or more. Why not apply your thinking to the major overhaul of an existing track! A challenge but achievable. Also please remember us racing campers; we need the best on-track campground in history! And you need to hook the whole place up with full (but hidden) high tech; high-def monitors and wireless broadband everywhere. Digital audio system with PA sound coming out nice rather than blaring from a few speakers. And it needs a HOUSE BAND !!!!! And one more thought: there is a huge difference between Northern and Southern California as well as New York State and the City. Trying to get too close to the BIG population ignores the rest of these very large states which are full of race fans.

chris
03/20/2009 12:15 PM
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Sounds good, Kurt. What would the HHMS (that sounds like it would be an SMI track, btw) Pit road look like? Wide with big pit boxes? Narrow pit boxes to make it challenging? A barrier on the outside edge of Pit Road to keep FS wrecks out? Obviously, you’d want to keep all the pitboxes on the frontstretch based on the whole seating portion of the discussion.

…and the LVMS nationwide “race” was a total disaster. The Atlanta cup race has been the best this season. Slipping, sliding, passing. Yes, I understand that 1 car really nailed it, but even then the race was competitive and I really enjoyed watching it.

Kevin in SoCal
03/20/2009 12:55 PM
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Kurt said: “Los Angeles area isn’t the place. They won’t even support football for crying out loud.”

Once again, its NOT the L.A. football fan’s fault we have no team. The Rams were fairly well supported but St. Louis made them a better offer they couldnt refuse. The Raiders left (good riddance) because the city is too broke to spend the money to upgrade the stadium they played in. Which, ironically, is the same reason why they left Oakland in the first place. There are still a HUGE number of Rams and Raiders fans in L.A., as well as fans of every other football team in the nation. Do you consider Detroit a bunch of football haters because they dont support the 0-16 Lions?

KenKars
03/20/2009 04:27 PM
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I think the reason that the Budweiser and Kahn deal came up is because Bud announced that this is their last season with the Kenny Bernstein Drag team.

Bill B
03/20/2009 08:36 PM
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Rodney Dangerfield… “And where are you gonna build this track? Fantasyland!!!

FS_Kurt
03/21/2009 08:12 AM
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Actually Bill, I suggested Mississippi.

Kevin, you are almost always accurate in your comments, but I really find it difficult to believe that a city would cite lack of money as a reason not to keep a football team in town. It sure as heck never stopped Philadelphia.

Chris – I would prefer pit road as wide and safe as possible. Too dangerous an area to mess with.

M.B., as a churchgoer myself, far be it for me to deny the dropping of the green flag to one. But is there an earlier Mass to attend? Or can you become the head of the choir, so you can change rehearsal times? That might be my solution. ;-)

Count, I absolutely love the bobcat idea.

John, Big John, and Ryan—great ideas all and stuff I hadn’t thought of.

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting.

mike
03/22/2009 06:53 AM
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“9) There are no lights!”

I DO NOT agree with this. Saturday night racing…especially at short tracks is the BEST!!!

M.B. Voelker
03/22/2009 09:41 AM
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No, Kurt,

Rural and small town, protestant churches have 1 service which, except in the rare cases of churches who juggle schedules because they share a pastor, starts promptly at 11am — a time adhered to almost as firmly as if it were carved in stone from on high.

Getting the entire congregation together in one time and at one place is seen as a principle and is almost never compromised in any church that has physical facilities large enough to hold them all.

:-)

FS_Kurt
03/22/2009 10:22 AM
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My bad M.B., I’m used to life in the most densely populated state in the Union. Lots of Catholics to go around. :-)

Tell you what guys…I like night racing too. I just don’t want races to start at 4 on a Sunday. So I’ll make lights my bargaining chip…and give in only when the grandstand and concession stand plans are agreed to! Don’t tell the big guys.

Phil Allaway
03/22/2009 01:11 PM
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M.B Voelker, your impossible dream track that you described is essentially a smaller version of Trenton International Speedway, a kidney-shaped 1.5 mile track in New Jersey that closed in 1980.

As for Kurt’s proposal, I’d go there. I’d also add in the the caveat that the concessions be more affordable than at most first-class sporting facilities. $5 for a soda is unacceptable.
I wonder what it would actually look like. A larger Concord Motorsports Park, perhaps?

Chip
03/22/2009 11:58 PM
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I get worn out with folks hollering about races interferring with church. Set your priorities or go to church on Wednesday night. If church comes before racing for someone….fine. Me and all my friends that are probably going to hell anyway would like to see the races start midday on Sunday like they used to all the time. I do agree with a family section in the grandstands, and otherwise I think this new track sounds like a winner. If you can get NAH-SCAR to return to a decent form of racing there, I’ll buy tickets.

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