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Track Talk: With track size, bigger is not necessarily better

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 11:56 a.m. CDT

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One of the most frequently asked questions that I have regularly posed to me concerns the length of our tri-oval racetrack at Iowa Speedway. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it ten thousand times . . . “Why didn’t you just make it a mile and a half, or maybe two miles?”

That question evolved from a popular misconception of the criteria for building a racetrack in the first place and, of course, the myth that with racetracks, as with theme parks, bigger is always better’ 

Specifically regarding the length of racetracks, that misconception has perpetuated a belief among some folks that if a track isn’t a mile or more, it really doesn’t qualify as a big league facility. 

Many people are now beginning to understand that what was created in Newton proves beyond a  shadow of a doubt that ‘short tracks’ — where racing began — have a permanent place in the future of our sport.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when it was generally accepted in the motorsports entertainment industry that the perfect val track for top-flight events was a 1.5 mile, ‘quad-oval’ design, similar to the legendary Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, NC. 

Then came the track-building boom in the mid-to-late 1990s, and the era of the track perfected on a CAD program was launched.

Clearly, there is a lot to like about such modern-era 1.5 mile tracks as Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.  The racing is fast and exciting, and no doubt these now-established ‘big tracks’ have a very loyal fan base.

Previously, NASCAR superstars like Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. had been racing and winning on short tracks like Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway (both half-mile ovals), and while fans loved the all-out, take-no-prisoners style of racing on the short tracks, the sense of high speed wasn’t quite as dramatic as it was on the superspeedways. 

Enter the 1988 expansion of Richmond International Raceway in Virginia, from a classic half-mile oval to a .75 mile tri-oval, and that feeling of high-speed, close quarters racing began to take shape. Rusty, in particular, was paying close attention – and Richmond helped him build a reputation as the King of the Short Tracks.

So when the Iowa Speedway President approached Rusty about designing a state-of-the-art oval track for Newton, Iowa in the early 2000’s — one that would be capable of hosting a variety of racing series, from regional touring late model stock cars to IndyCars and NASCAR’s top three national series’ — Rusty immediately thought of his then-favorite racetrack, Richmond, and began to envision an even better version of a sub-one-mile tri-oval.

Literally, Iowa Speedway’s 7⁄8-mile (.875 mile) format was born out of Rusty’s realization that this was, indeed, the recipe for a ‘perfect’ oval track.  Incredibly fast (straightaway speeds over 160 mph for stock cars; nearly 200 mph for IndyCars), progressively banked in the four corners to provide three separate racing lines, and featuring a long, curving straight right in front of the grandstands for maximum viewing angles.

What Rusty created is now regarded as the ‘wave of the future’ among racetrack and sanctioning body insiders. 

Not only because it is so clearly a fan friendly venue, affording great sightlines from every seat and allowing each fan to see all of the action without needing field glasses for the farthest sections away from the seats, but because of safety innovations such as free-standing Safer Barrier all the way around the perimeter of the track and additional fan amenities like a concert-quality public address system. 

In sum, an ideal track is not unlike the ideal length of a story: Long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting.

Rusty Wallace will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC on Friday night, February 8 — the youngest member of this august body of stock car racing’s legendary stars, innovators and pioneers. 

We are all very proud of the accomplishments of his illustrious career, and of his rightful place among the greatest of the greats in NASCAR. But if there were also a Hall of Fame for racetrack designers, Rusty should be elected to it as well.

Both as a driver and a fan, what Rusty designed for Newton will live on and be cherished by many generations to come.

We’ve saved a place for you at Iowa Speedway during our exciting, edge-of-your-seat 2013 season.  Find out how you can enjoy the ‘perfect’ oval track this year . . . just give us a call at 866-RUSTY-GO (787-8946), or check us out online at www.iowaspeedway.com. 

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