I hold these three truths to be self-evident.
(It’s still 4th of July week, cut me some slack).
First, Atlanta Motor Speedway should have been repaved a long time ago.
When Speedway Motorsports Inc., chickened out of giving the 1.54-mile track a makeover in 2017, at the behest of a multitude of NASCAR drivers, it didn’t make sense to me.
The track in Hampton, Ga., hadn’t put on a memorable race in years. Its most recent NASCAR Cup Series event most consistently cited as exceptional was the 2011 race won by Jeff Gordon after a duel with Jimmie Johnson. That was five years into the Car of Tomorrow era (but minus the ugly rear wing).
In the four years since 2017, the chorus of drivers advocating not to repave the track for the first time since 1997 continued, though a few detractors sprung up. This was as race winners led 181 laps (Kevin Harvick, 2018), 151 laps (Harvick, 2020) and Kyle Larson led 269 laps in March before being overtaken by Ryan Blaney with less than 10 laps to go.
Was this due at least in part to the high downforce package, which seems to work more at newly repaved tracks?
Undoubtedly. But oh well, the drivers said it was still fun.
Second, when a NASCAR drivers tells you for years a track is really fun, at least one like Atlanta, believe your own eyes.
Just because it’s a blast in the cockpit for three hours, doesn’t mean that translates to those watching in the grandstand, let alone at home.
I’m not the only one who holds these truths to be self-evident.
Steve Swift, Speedway Motorsports’ vice president of operations and development, said as much Tuesday (July 6) when Atlanta announced its repave and reconfiguration project that will start after Sunday’s (July 11) Cup race.
“If we’d had it our way in the engineering department, we would repave the track five, seven years ago,” Swift said. “There’s about every different type of glue, stickem, duct tape, you name it, that’s on this racetrack holding it together. … It’s just got to the point where it’s worn out. It’s just like a highway when they get potholes, things of that nature. We’ve been on that last thread of life … nothing happened in particular this year or last year that caused us to push the envelope quicker. But we’ve just been biding time. And that time is now.”
This time around, there’s been little to no input from “probably the most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” as former track president Ed Clark put it four years ago.
“We’ve really not talked much with the drivers on this one,” Swift said. “I say this in kind of jest and being funny, when a driver is happy about a racetrack usually the fans aren’t, right? And when the fans are happy, the drivers aren’t. So if you get the drivers’ input, you’re going to get a driver’s track. So we’re trying to find that happy medium, take the drivers input and put in some elements, but we want to make sure what we’re creating is what the fans want to see.”
Which brings me to my third self-evident truth. Or plea.
Stop. Trying. To. Make. Intermediate. Tracks. Like. Talladega.
Here's a taste of the next generation of Atlanta Motor Speedway! 🤩
— Atlanta Motor Speedway (@amsupdates) July 6, 2021
On Tuesday, Atlanta unveiled a reconfiguration that will see the track raise its banking in the corners from 24 to 28 degrees, while narrowing the track surface with an overall decrease in width from 55 feet to 40 feet. New widths will be 52 feet on the frontstretch, 42 feet on the backstretch and 40 feet in the turns.
All this is an effort to “create [a] closer, more competitive experience.”
The video Atlanta and iRacing debuted Tuesday featuring next year’s configuration looked as if it was lifted from a virtual race on a superspeedway.
While Atlanta was considered a “superspeedway” when it opened in 1960, that’s not what it is by today’s definition of the word.
When Atlanta was last reconfigured in 1997, it didn’t need pack-like racing to draw fans in.
Within three years — which is about how much AMS wants to age the track surface with new repave methods — we were getting finishes like this. In 2001, the final 10 laps featured five cars racing under a blanket for the win, but it wasn’t anything close to pack racing.
While I don’t think tracks should listen to drivers too much when it comes to repaving a track, getting their input on what to do with the “new” track isn’t a bad idea.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin sounded off on Twitter Tuesday night.
With all due respect. This same group has reconfigured Texas, Kentucky, Bristol with 0 driver input. One of those lost a race, other one we don’t race anymore and last one we put dirt over it. But hey, what do the drivers know 🙄 https://t.co/IRCfVeK79d
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) July 7, 2021
So they are trying to replicate the surface with new pavement? But want pack racing. I’m as confused as the other 35 drivers about this deal.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) July 7, 2021
He then went into more detail on “Racing Spaces” on Twitter, saying, “Tracks shouldn’t be in the competition business, they should be in the promoting business.”
“I don’t think they know what they want,” Hamlin said. “I think it’s a total dart they’re trying to throw that’s not thought out. … None of these tracks are going to race the way they want them to without excess (tire) grip. … They need to knock out 100 more horsepower if they really want us to draft (on these tracks).”
Hamlin, who also co-owns 23XI Racing, said he thinks the sport is “chasing TV ratings through aerodynamics packages.”
We are (hopefully) four months away from the end of the 550-mph horsepower package .
That package has tracks where it works: Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway. That’s about it.
It took multiple years of trial and error for NASCAR to figure out that the high downforce package didn’t put on good racing on short tracks, road courses or Darlington Raceway.
But it stuck to its guns elsewhere in an effort to improve “the show” at intermediate tracks that had been degraded over a decade by the Car of Tomorrow, track repaves and the addition of the PJ1 traction agent (which clearly only works at Bristol Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and, to a degree, Pocono … why is it that PJ1 largely needs to be used on tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports?).
As of right now, we the public don’t know what kind of horsepower the Cup Series will use in 2022 for its inaugural season with the Next Gen car.
However, when Speedway Motorsports conducted its testing on the new layout through iRacing, it was done with next year’s car, and, according to Swift, the package used was “restricted.”
Atlanta needs to be repaved.
The Next Gen car needs a chance to show what kind of show it can put on.
But changing the track’s profile like this comes off as an admission that — at least for Atlanta — it wouldn’t have been appetizing.
This feels like a no-win scenario.
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— SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch. 90) (@SiriusXMNASCAR) July 6, 2021