Atlanta Motor Speedway’s surface has likely already started being torn up by now. After 24 years of being used and abused by NASCAR’s best, the old girl is not only getting shiny new lip gloss (asphalt) but a facelift (steeper banking and a narrower racing surface).
She’s desperately in need of a repave, and any argument to try and keep holding off was shattered when the surface started to come apart during the Cup Series race this past Sunday. The Quaker State 400 was red-flagged for almost 20 minutes for repairs, and as the reality of its future took hold.
Honestly, Atlanta has needed this for a few years, but the feedback in support of continually delaying the work was so strong that that’s what officials did. And now, not only is it being repaved, but reprofiled. Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR are getting the last laugh as the sport continues to push for more entertaining racing, and this project coincides with the rollout of the Next Gen car.
There is frustration amongst the drivers about Atlanta’s renovation. Not so much about the repave, as even the staunchest supporters can admit the time has come. It’s been harder for some to understand and agree with the reprofiling idea. Most drivers said they were not consulted.
“Just a broken-down process, and that’s what is so frustrating,” Denny Hamlin said. “The process is just broken. I look at a lot of the responses, and people are like, ‘Why should they listen to you all because you’re always going to look at what’s in your best interest and agenda is.’ The thing is, as drivers, just tell us the agenda. Do you want speedway racing here? OK. We don’t like it, but here’s what you need to do to get there. We’ll help you accomplish that; just tell us the goal.
“Don’t mix the message by saying you’re going to see something you’ve never seen, and they show a clip of iRacing cars racing in a pack, but yet you want your surface to match the old (one). That’s counterintuitive. You can’t make it narrower and a superspeedway. Those two things don’t match up. Again, I think we can help. We’re an asset. We are the biggest asset that NASCAR and these tracks can have. Just tell us your goals. We may not agree with the goal, but we can help them get where they want to go.”
Hamlin said International Speedway Corp. (ISC) usually consults drivers before its projects. In this case, with Speedway Motorsports, Hamlin believes the drivers feel “super-disconnected” because their input was not sought.
Former series champion Brad Keselowski was a bit more diplomatic with his thoughts on what’s to come for the track. When he addressed the media, Keselowski admitted he had not seen enough information about the track’s plans to offer an informed response, which brings big question marks. But he did agree that there is a disconnect between NASCAR and the drivers – sometimes.
“Ultimately, I think the disconnect is, we have to decide as a sport if we’re working together or we’re not working together,” Keselowski said. “I think there are some frustrations that come up time and time again where we’re working together until we’re not, and that can be frustrating. I sense a lot of those emotions through the garage area right now.”
Emotions were undoubtedly high going into and then over the weekend. Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief Rodney Childers has reservations about the changes and said early last week it would make the racing horrible and the track one-lane.
Kyle Busch used his post-race media availability after winning the Saturday Xfinity Series race to offer his unfiltered and honest thoughts when asked about the subject.
Busch said he was glad to win the Xfinity Series race on a real Atlanta racetrack because the next one “is going to be a showpiece, and it’s going to be s***.”
Hamlin and Busch have both been blunt about the way Speedway Motorsports does things. Hamlin said last year they go “rogue” with how they prepare racetracks when it comes to the PJ1. And Busch all but said the same earlier this year (“they just go off and do whatever the hell they want to do every week”) when talking about Circuit of the Americas and some of the track preparation done there.
Kevin Harvick is “of the opinion that they don’t care. They just do what they want.”
Joey Logano said he was “blindsided” by the news of the repave and reprofile, and didn’t have an answer for why drivers were not told.
“I don’t know why,” Logano said. “I feel like the relationship with the drivers and SMI have always kind of been there and been able to talk back and forth, so I don’t know why you’d make it a surprise. I don’t get it. I think something I’ve learned over the last few years is everyone can bring something different to the table.
“When you bring 10 other people around, that might change your perspective. Well, if we’re all sitting around a table, we can probably change each other’s perspective a little bit to come up with what’s the best, but we’ve got to have the meeting to do that. We didn’t have the opportunity to do that.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter. The Atlanta surface is coming up, both on its own and now with the help of heavy machinery. Goodbye tire wear and off-throttle time. So long to seeing multiple lane options for racing.
Repair work aside, it felt good to see Atlanta give everyone one more fun Sunday afternoon of racing. Drivers were all over the track, and the win came down to a duel between brothers. Afterward, a few drivers made sure to give one last nod to the place.
Winner Kurt Busch was thrilled that the track he described as “old school” gave way to an old guy winning. Matt DiBenedetto acknowledged he was going to miss the surface, and he made sure to appreciate the final 400 miles he had running on it on Sunday.
Ryan Blaney also said he would miss it, and then the Team Penske driver acknowledged a new era in Atlanta Motor Speedway history is coming. Whether we like it or not.
“It was fun to race on it,” said Blaney, who won at the track in the spring. “I really wish we could have swept (both races) before they paved this place, but I’ll take one last good look at it, and it’ll be a lot different when we come back here next year.”