Imagine the Super Bowl being delayed – twice – because of turf problems.
That was the worst-case scenario that Daytona International Speedway and NASCAR officials lived through in February as the Daytona 500, stock car racing’s Super Bowl, was red-flagged twice while speedway crews attempted to patch a pothole in the track’s second turn.
It was one of racing’s most embarrassing moments. Throwing the green flag on a season in which it hoped to revitalize fan interest with tighter and more dramatic racing, NASCAR saw its candle smothered by aging asphalt. Irritated fans left the speedway by the hundreds during the delays.
Track president Robin Braig, who lost his job in the wake of the problems, apologized for the difficulties on what he called “hallowed ground”.
Although the problem area was replaced by a six-foot-by-18-foot concrete patch after the race, the decision eventually was made to repave the entire track for only the second time in DIS history. The $20 million project, which began July 5, is nearing completion, with the result being that drivers will race on a sleek, faster surface in NASCAR events during Speedweeks in February.
Before the 2011 season begins at Daytona, however, there will be much testing – by Goodyear and by NASCAR teams.
Cars will hit the new surface at speed for the first time Dec. 15 in day one of a two-day test by Goodyear. The new surface will require a new tire compound, and Goodyear, which danced through the 2010 season with very few tire troubles, will be working toward designing a tire that will be both safe and fast during NASCAR runs on the track in February.
Several Sprint Cup teams – probably at least one from each manufacturer – will participate in the tests.
Open tests for all Sprint Cup teams are scheduled at the track Jan. 20-22. Sports car teams participating in the season-opening Rolex 24 Grand Am race are scheduled to test on the track’s road course Jan. 7-9.
Although Goodyear and team engineers have data on how new track surfaces typically respond in their first races, there still will be a lot of mystery surrounding February’s Daytona events. Repaving work usually impacts the bumps and “waves” that become part of a track’s nature over the years, and a new surface typically means more speed and more grooves.
Navigating Daytona’s bumps and lumps has become a science of sorts since the last repaving job in 1979, as the track surface has aged and changed in the intense Florida summer heat and almost daily afternoon thundershowers. Some of that track “character” will be gone, but new track president Joie Chitwood, anxious to see the results of the repaving, says that’s a “risk” he’s willing to take.
“Being ‘too good’ the first go-round is a good problem to have,” he said.
Although new surfaces sometimes produce difficulties in tire engineering, Chitwood said he’s confident Goodyear’s test runs next month will be productive.
“I’m always concerned about tires at race tracks,” said Chitwood, who was president at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during tire debacles there in 2005 (Formula One) and 2008 (NASCAR). “But based on what we’ve seen at Talladega and how they reacted to that repave and what will happen with us, we feel good. If we didn’t have a tire test in December, I’d be much more concerned, but I think they’ll do a good job.
“I think the December tests calm everyone down.”
Although the track-surface repaving is complete, the entire project probably will not be finished until late December or early January. Work remains on areas adjacent to the racing surface.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.