NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Solving NASCAR’s Racetrack Problem, Part 2 – Happy Hour Motor Speedway I, A New Short Track

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.

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 1 and 2 than in 3 and 4 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 3 and 4 to the middle of turns 1 and 2, 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 10 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 these ideas, as a former employee of Indianapolis 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 1 p.m. 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 Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven at the finish line in Darlington. Replicas of Cale Yarborough’s No. 11 and Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 cars, with a sign in the middle saying “Three straight.” The prominently displayed No. 3 flag Jeff Gordon flew out the window at Phoenix, commemorating his tying of 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. HHMS 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, Kevin 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 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 SceneDaily 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 No. 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 Wallace for the win. I wonder if Rusty has forgiven him yet for that.

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