Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger reported Tuesday that the new asphalt racing surface being laid at the Sparta venue was only days away from completion.
In a sense, once the asphalt is down, then the real work starts.
“I guess it’s an irony with a new track, but once you get it down, you immediately begin a process of trying to make it seem as old as we can,” Simendinger said. “And that’s going to take a lot of work.”
The green flag will fall on the sixth running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 on July 9. The Camping World Truck Series (July 7) and Xfinity Series (July 8) will run in Sparta the same week.
Competitors this year will race over the first new racing surface at Kentucky Speedway since the track opened in 2000.
By the time the Sprint Cup Series came to Sparta in 2011, the track had been dramatically affected by the effects of ground water below the racing surface and the freeze/thaw cycle. At that point, the mile-and-a-half Kentucky Speedway trioval was as bumpy as an old-fashioned washboard. Those bumps became the Speedway’s calling card.
Things came to a tipping point during the week of last year’s NASCAR Quaker State 400. Drainage problems and seepage were such a problem that Kentucky Speedway officials were not able to dry the track in a timely manner following rainstorms. So in January, track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc., announced that a new racing surface would go down at Kentucky.
Many NASCAR fans — and drivers — are leery of the quality of racing produced on new racing surfaces in recent times.
Between 2011 and ’13, there were several Sprint Cup tracks that were repaved. The result was a series of super-smooth, high-grip tracks where it was easy for teams to hit the setups on the cars. That allowed most competitors to run nearly identical speeds, and made it all but impossible to pass.
The racing that resulted was so dull, it even bored the drivers.
Through a variety of treatments and by dragging the new asphalt with blasting mats, Kentucky Speedway officials will try to accelerate the seasoning of their racing surface so it will never drive like a “new track.”
“You know how an Interstate highway looks right after it’s been repaved?” Simendinger asked. “That’s exactly what we don’t want. We want our track to look scuffed up, like it has some wear on it.”
While giving up the bumps, Kentucky Speedway officials hope they have found another way to create a unique track that will yield good racing.
In Turns 1 and 2, the banking is being enhanced from 14 degrees to 17 and the track narrowed by some 20 feet. Meanwhile, Turns 3 and 4 will retain the current 14-degree banking. That will create two distinct sets of turns.
Drivers have long found the entry to Turn 3 at Kentucky to be tricky. Now, the idea is that coming off Turn 2 at greater speed (because of the increased banking) will force drivers to have to make testing decisions on what line to run into Turn 3 and whether and when to brake.
“Will they have to get on the brakes?” Simendinger said. “That, actually, is what we want. Because that’s what could set up passing and some great racing.”
In Kentucky Speedway history, there have been 1,335 laps of Sprint Cup competition run. Kyle Busch (437) and Brad Keselowski (408) have combined to lead a whopping 63.5 percent of those laps. Busch (2011 and ’15) and Keselowski (2012 and ’14) each have two Cup victories in Sparta.
Is the repave the thing that finally ends the Busch/Keselowski Bluegrass domination tour? Simendinger points out people were asking the same question last year after it was announced that NASCAR would run a new, low downforce rules package in the Quaker State 400.
“And then, 10 laps in, I looked down and it was the KB-BK Show again,” Simendinger said. “So, we’ll see.”
The repaved Kentucky Speedway will get its first Sprint Cup exposure June 13 and 14 when NASCAR holds a two-day organizational test in Sparta to allow teams to accumulate data on the new racing surface.
Simendinger says one driver from each Cup team will get to take part in the test.
“That will really be the unveiling of the track,” Simendinger said. “I would anticipate we’ll have 10 or 11 Cup cars here. It will be exciting to see those cars on the track for the first time.”
So far, even without the bumps to use in the track’s marketing, Simendinger says ticket sales for the 2016 Quaker State 400 are tracking up slightly over last year.
“Now, it’s the 60 days leading up to the race that actually make or break you, so we have a long way to go,” he said. “But I’m not going to complain about being up.”