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An Inside Look At Preparing A Dirt Track For Race Night

That’s your show. If you can’t race on the track, you’ve got nothing.
– Don Kazarian

The most complicated, least understood, but most complained about subject in dirt track racing is the racing surface itself. Very few racers and race fans think about the effort that goes into preparing a track’s soil for a night of racing. On the other hand, race track promoters make race track preparation the single biggest concern for each race night. We sought out a couple of dirt race track specialists to get the real dirt on dirt. 

“That’s your show,” says Perris Auto Speedway Promoter Don Kazarian. “If you can’t race on the track, you’ve got nothing.”

Southern New Mexico Speedway’s Dean Nesbit agrees, “Fans want to see racing. To have good racing, the track has to support multiple racing lines.”

A good racetrack is one that allows racing with a lot of passing. There are dry slick tracks and tacky-heavy tracks that are racy. How to get to that point depends on several factors. Track layout, soil type, weather patterns and the type of cars racing are all major considerations in preparing a track’s surface for racing.

Many racers and fans don't realize the incredible amount of work that goes into preparing a track for race day. From selection of soil to weekly upkeep, the best track managers know the dirt on dirt.

Establishing a Base

Kazarian had the opportunity that few promoters have had; he started from scratch with the track as it was being designed, “We started with a base of native soil and compacted it thoroughly. We had more Caterpillar equipment in here than most building construction sites.”

Establishing a high compaction rate for the track’s base is imperative in order to achieve consistency in the track’s surface layer. Compaction of soil is simply compressing the grains of soil to a tight layer by displacing air from between the soil grains. A little moisture can act as a lubricant for the grains of soil to compress tightly together.

After a race, the track surface can take rubber from the tires, sit for a day and dry out or have deep ruts. Washing down the track to remove the rubber, knocking down the high spots and filling in the ruts are the first step in preparing the track for the next race.

“Once you have a solid base, you need to leave it alone,” says Nesbit. “Resist the urge to plow or cut the track too deeply. Once you get the base hard-packed, you only have to worry about the top few inches, which makes it easier to produce a consistent track surface.”

Ascot Park.

Duplicating a Legendary Track Surface

Perris Auto Speedway promoter Don Kazarian explained how his track ended up with the current racing surface: “After our first couple of attempts at finding the right dirt for racing, someone said we should use the same soil that Ascot Park used. We found out that they got their soil from a cemetery, and there was no way we were going to get the 30,000 yards of material that we needed. So we took a soil sample and had it analyzed.

We called the boys at the US Geological Survey to find out where we could find soil with this same make-up. As it turned out, there was a location 35 miles to the south where the same type of soil existed.  We approached the land owner and managed to work out a deal for the soil we needed.”

Soil Is the Key

Not all soil is the same. Kazarian learned early that clay content is not always the best factor to determine which soil to use. “In 1996 when we went to lay our first top layer, we knew a clay surface was what we wanted. We hired a soil scientist that helped us pick a clay soil from a local plant. The soil had 75% clay content and I’ll be honest, it was a disaster. Halfway through the night it got so dusty that the fans couldn’t see the back straightaway.”

Quickly choosing the second type of clay soil that the plant had to offer, Kazarian replaced the top layer with 30,000 yards of the new soil. “We battled that new layer for four months with the same problems that we had with the initial soil type.”

Eventually, Kazarian got soil samples from several different tracks, including the legendary Ascot park, and paid for the samples to analyzed and classified by soils geologists. Finding the common soil class that provided good racing surfaces at top tracks was a start. Finding a source for the soil was a different matter.

“We ended up calling the US Geological Survey to ask where we could find the soil make-up that we had identified,” Kazarian says. “As it turned out, the exact type of soil we were looking for existed just 35 miles to the south of our tracks location.”

“Clay acts like a sponge. It absorbs water and expands. When it dries out, the surface develops cracks," says Southern New Mexico Speedway's Dean Nesbit.

The Best Recipe  

“There is no universal recipe that works for every track, every season, every time of day or every type of racing,” says Nesbit. “We have soil with a pretty good amount of clay but being located in Southern New Mexico, we are right in the middle of a desert. Winds blow sand across the track and we end up with a sandy-clay surface.” 

To combat issues like an abrasive sandy track, drivers tend to use harder compound tires at tracks where these conditions exist. Nesbit explains, “A lot of sand in the soil can act like sandpaper to the tires and the track may rubber up. That’s another issue that has to be dealt with.”

With so many variables out of their control, like the sun, wind and rain, track operators control the only thing they can; adding moisture to the track.

For Kazarian, the track surface needs a certain amount of aggregate in the soil for bonding and moisture retention. “A good track surface will have a high aggregate level. Somewhere around 25% to 30% is a pretty good percentage of aggregate to work with.”

According to Nesbit, clay has its own inherent tendencies, “Clay acts like a sponge. It absorbs water and expands. Then when it dries out, the surface develops cracks that can pose a problem in preparation. Too much clay is as bad as too little.”

The goal is to create a track surface that supports multiple racing lines through the last lap of the last feature race.

The Goal 

Nesbit claims that the main goal in track preparation is stability, “Weekly racers want to see a consistent track.” Most of the time they don’t think about what goes into creating that consistent racing surface, but they do judge the track surface based on what was there last week. If I see one racer starting to dominate because he has the right chassis set-up for the track surface, I might throw them a curveball and change things up a little.”

It’s a lot of experience and 90% gut instinct.
- Don Kazarian

Kazarian agrees, “Controlling the amount of traction in the racing surface comes down to controlling the moisture content. Everything that we do, from racing class line ups to how many hot laps we run, is designed to keep the track in good shape for racing.”

One thing is certain about the dirt in dirt tracks; there are so many variables that it would take a full encyclopedia to cover it all. “It takes years of experience of find the balance and nuances of maintaining a race track surface,” says Kazarian. “I started in ’96 with no real understanding of how to prep the dirt. Now there are very few nights that I get surprised. It’s a lot of experience and 90% gut instinct now.”

Controlling the Variables

There’s no real way to control the moisture in the track, because there are so many variables. Being mere mortals (yes, track promoters are still mortals, regardless of how God-like they tell you they are), there is no way to control the humidity, rainfall, sun or wind. A good track man will read the signs and compensate for the conditions. 

“I live on the weather channel,” says Kazarian. “Over the years I’ve paid attention to where the sun’s path crosses the track at different seasons and what happens when the winds change directions. Each of these conditions affect the track in different ways.”

The sun hits the track in different places during different seasons. While these type of variables can't be controlled, knowing how and when they happen is a key to predicting what will happen to the track surface.

Nesbit watches the dirt and takes mental notes on how the dirt is reacting to the conditions. “I also keep a close eye on the weather conditions. But paying attention to the top couple of inches of the dirt will tell me most of what I need to know.”

Sun and wind evaporates the moisture, rainfall adds additional moisture content to the soil. Promoters adjust by controlling the only element that they can, which is the amount of water they put on the track. “Too much water causes problems, especially with high powered sprint cars,” states Kazarian. “If you have a track with too much water deeper in the track, sprint car tires will dig at dirt until the track gets rutted up. Too little water causes a dry-slick or one line racing surface, which can become dusty and very unfriendly to fans watching the racing.”

Water is one of the few things that can be controlled by the track operator. "Too much can be as bad as too little," says Kazarian

Not only do the promoters have to pay attention to the weather conditions, the type of race cars featured during an event becomes an issue. “Late Models cause a track to dry out faster because of all the turbulence created under the car,” says Kazarian. “You also have to consider the tires in each division. Street stocks tires can dig in and fluff up the track where the sprint cars use tires that tend to rubber up or polish up parts of the track. We typically tailor our race classes’ line up to what the track needs.”

Equipment

Kazarian acknowledges, “We have it pretty good at Perris Auto Speedway. We have equipment that many other tracks don’t have the luxury of having.” 

The top of any track’s list of equipment is a road grader. “The grader is essential in knocking down the peaks and filling in the ruts to get the track’s surface smooth,” says Nesbit. “It’s one of the first things we do weekly to prep the track. Right after washing the rubber off the track and fluffing up the surface a little, we will knock the high spots down to smooth out the peaks and valleys.”

“We also use a sheep’s foot roller and a tractor pulled soil rake to help work the soil,” says Kazarian. “The sheep’s foot does more than pack the soil tightly. It actually makes a very good soil mixing tool allowing the water to penetrate into the soil deeper. The rake will wake up a track that has turned into a single line track.”

A tractor pulled rake, water truck, road grader and sheep's foot roller are the tools of the trade.

The soil rake stirs up the top couple of inches of soil, breaking any glaze and allowing moisture to percolate back to the top, or it can open the soil to the sunlight which can help dry out a saturated track. 

Whatever equipment a track has, it’s important to start prepping for the next race as soon as possible. “Many racers think that track prep is only performed just prior to racing,” says Nesbit. “We start getting our track back in shape as soon as racing is over for the night. The sooner you start working the track, the easier it will be to maintain a consistent racing surface.”

While much of the equipment used in track preparation is the same as road construction, “Road work and race track prep are very different,” states Kazarian.

Kazarian prefers to surface the track himself. Doing the actual "hands-on" work puts him in position to see more of the track's soil. "One day I calculated that I had over a million laps on this track," he says with a laugh.

What to Look For

Racers may not need to understand all the intricacies of race track preparation, there are a few items to keep in mind when checking track conditions.

  • If the air is hot and humid, plan on the surface drying out some.
  • A cooler humid temperature will help keep moisture in the surface. 
  • Pick up a little dirt between your fingers and squeeze it. If it falls apart easily plan on the surface being slick at the end of the night. 
  • If the soil seems to hold up fairly well, you can plan on getting good traction.
  • Check the track’s soil throughout the evening and stay ahead of the changing conditions.

Nesbit advises racers to watch the track surface and takes mental notes on how the dirt is reacting to the conditions.

Above all else, remember that the track is trying to produce a good racing surface. Promoters know that fans are there to see good racing with lots of passing. Despite what many racers may believe, the track operators are not there to have their drivers guess at what the track conditions will be. Their job is to produce a consistently good racing surface.
With so many different elements working against them, it’s certainly a chore to produce the same surface as the week before. It’s almost impossible to create the same track condition as the beginning of the season at the end of the racing season. To that end, we tip our hats to the men that do the track prep. 

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