Atlanta Motor Speedway
Atlanta Motor Speedway has undergone a complete transformation under the stewardship of Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsport's company, turning what was a meagre facility struggling to survive into one of the premier superspeedways in America.
Recently extensively re-configured with a new track surface and banking increased from 24 degrees to 28 degrees, the track now boasts the highest banking of any intermediate length oval used in NASCAR. The track has two annual Cup races, supported by the Xfinity Series and Truck Series; the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 in the spring and the Quaker State 400 in the summer.
The expansion under Smith's ownership has not just been in terms of facilities, which are second-to-none; the number of series visiting the track has also greatly increased while the venue has been host to everything from dog shows to concerts and business conventions.
The circuit has its origins in plans hatched in 1958 by Walker Jackson, Lloyd Smith, Garland Bagley, Ralph Sceiano and Ike Supporter. Construction began but before it could be completed, funds ran dry and all bar Bagley had pulled out. New investors, in the shape of Dr. Warren Gremmel, Bill Boyd, Jack Black and Art Lester, pumped in $1.8million to finish construction in 1959.
By all accounts, while construction had been completed, the circuit was far from ready for racing. Creature comforts for spectators were fairly minimal – the only toilets in the facility were a three-hole outhouse in the infield – and the first row of seating in the grandstand was too low to see over the track wall and mud abounded at every turn.
Still, Atlanta International Raceway (as it was then known) showed promise, having been built in a dip in the ground forming a natural bowl for spectators. Those not in the grandstands or wooden bleachers brought blankets to sit on the earth banks to observe the action. At 1.522 miles it became the seventh superspeedway to host a NASCAR Cup race when it finally made its racing debut on July 31, 1960.
Through the 1960s and '70s it scraped out an existence, struggling to make money and eventually entering Chapter 10 bankruptcy. Several changes of management ensued before settling down with Walt Nix, who served as general manager for much of the next two decades except for a brief period when NASCAR president Mike Helton was in charge.
Indycar came and went from the facility in the mid-60s before returning for a five-year stint in 1978. Rick Mears dominated the victory count during this period with five wins, only interrupted by Gordon Johncock and Johnny Rutherford. NASCAR continued its presence throughout this period and its two races – the Atlanta 500 and the Dixie 500 – became staple parts of the calendar.
Bruton Smith takes over and begins a transformation
In October 1990, the event that would shape Atlanta's rising fortunes occurred, when the facility was purchased by Bruton Smith and was renamed Atlanta Motor Speedway. A year later, the addition of the East Turn Grandstand expanded the seating capacity by 25,000, and the 30 suites that adorned the top gave new meaning to the word 'luxurious'.
The expansion continued in 1994, when the nine-storey Tara Place opened, containing more luxury suites, the speedway offices, a ballroom and 46 luxury condominiums. Alongside it was the Tara Clubhouse and its accompanying swimming pool and tennis courts. A year later, the Earnhardt Grandstand opened.
Smith still had further ambitions to transform the facility and in 1997 the start/finish line was moved from the west to the east side of the track, and two doglegs were added to the front stretch to form a 1.54-mile quad-oval, which replaced the original oval. The project made the track one of the fastest on the NASCAR circuit.
Running alongside the new start/finish section was the new Champions Grandstand which increased the total of luxury suites to 137. New media facilities, garages and countless fan support buildings were added at the same time.
Two weather-related events happened in the mid-2000s. In 2004, the circuit became an impromptu shelter for evacuees from Florida fleeing Hurricane Frances. While there were no indoor facilities available, visitors waited out the extremely slow-moving storm parked in their recreational vehicles, after creeping along for hours in traffic on nearby Interstate 75. The following year, it was the circuit's turn to be at the eye of the storm. On the evening of July 6, 2005, an F2 tornado spawned from the remains of Hurricane Cindy swept through the facility, causing major damage. Roofs and facades were torn off buildings but, remarkably, all had been repaired or rebuilt in time for the autumn NASCAR race.
In October, 2006 Atlanta Motor Speedway added another Grandstand, the Winners Grandstand, offering fans a great view of the front stretch and pit road. A Trackside Terrace Luxury RV Camping area replaced the aged Weaver Grandstands as well.
Sitting atop the Winners Grandstand is a public suite called Club One. Limited to just 1,000 occupants, the exclusive club offers a climate controlled view of the entire track as well as a rooftop sight and sound observation deck.
Changes for the next generation of NASCAR racing
In July 2021, Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith announced a project that would see far reaching changes to the configuration of the oval course at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Immediately following the Quaker State 400 ground would be broken on a total circuit re-paving project, the first for 25 years, which would also see the banking completely re-profiled.
Following 10 months of confidential research, development, testing and simulation with engineers and iRacing, the re-profile was to increase the current 24-degree banking in Atlanta’s turns to 28-degrees, higher than any other intermediate track on the current NASCAR circuit. Banking on the straights would remain at five degrees. In addition to the new high banks, the racing surface was set to become narrower with an overall decrease in width from 55 feet to 40 feet. New widths will be 52 feet on the front stretch, 42 feet on the back stretch and 40 feet in the turns.
“As Atlanta’s racing surface has aged, we’ve challenged ourselves to reimagine what NASCAR racing at an intermediate track can be,” explained Smith. “With high banks in the turns, narrower width and new pavement technology, Atlanta will be unlike any other mile-and-a-half track on the circuit. It’s all new for ’22 and this will be specifically designed for close, competitive racing.”
Construction took place over five months, which saw the old surface completely torn up and new drainage technology installed, before being covered with some 17,000 tons of asphalt. The latter element was no feat, given the challenges of laying a surface at the extreme angles produced by the banking.
“A lot of technology has gone into how and what we use to put down the asphalt," said Steve Swift, Senior Vice President of Operations and Development for Speedway Motorsports. "Any time that you’re putting machinery on 28 degrees – it’s not meant to be there. So there’s a lot of technology that goes into that to make sure the engineering is right, the angles are right, and you’re getting the proper compaction and you’ve got your weight distribution correct."
The new drainage system should also help to alleviate the problems of recent years, where races have had to be postponed due to 'weepers' - patches of water seeping back up through the otherwise dry track after periods of earlier rainfall. To mitigate these issues, the AMS project called for installation of a new drainage system all around the track and an Open Drainage Layer, or ODL. The ODL is a porous layer of asphalt is designed to better absorb ground water and lead it to the drainage system, away from the racing surface.
Changes well-received by drivers
The reconfiguration was complete by January 2022, with the first chance for NASCAR drivers to sample the course coming during a Goodyear tyre test session the same month. They found a track that was much-changed from what had gone before.
“There’s a ton of new here. It’s probably not even fair to go comparing to the old Atlanta at this point, there’s just so many variables in it,” said Chris Buescher, driver of the No. 17 for Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing.
“I’m that brain emoji where my brain is blowing off,” added Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 45 for 23XI Racing. “There’s a lot to digest. It’s an engineering marvel to bank a racetrack with this much banking and keep the turns this sharp and to have it as smooth as it is. They did a really good job.”
Based on findings from that test session, NASCAR announced that competitors will field superspeedway cars at Atlanta for the first time during the 2022 season. The cars will run with 7-inch spoilers and 510-horsepower engines, the same configuration that is used at superspeedways Daytona and Talladega.