By Beth Lunkenheimer, Contributing Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas — The offseason brought about some pretty major changes to Texas Motor Speedway. While many drivers were quite fond of the rough surface at the 1.5-mile oval, nestled just north of Fort Worth, Texas, something had to give after the porous surface held rainwater through multiple race weekends last season.
The speedway announced a major improvement project back in January that brought a fully repaved surface. Additional drainage was added, and the surface was reconfigured. The banking in Turns 1 and 2 were decreased from 24 to 20 degrees, while the width of that area of the track increased by 20 feet.
Friday brought about all sorts of difficulties for the field as drivers attempted to navigate the treacherous new surface for the first time. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson each had some sort of an incident on Friday. In fact, the common theme from pretty much anyone was that it was slick.
“Everything is tricky with a new surface, you know what I mean?” Matt Kenseth said after qualifying on Friday. “It’s not just qualifying – obviously, practice has been tricky and the race in traffic is going to be extremely tricky.”
Even in the XFINITY race on Saturday, the long green-flag run that lasted for more than 100 laps saw plenty of rubber laid down on the track that made the rest of it too slick to drive on.
“If we had the tire dragging tractor still hooked up I would suggest to hook it up and put it down in the groove and follow that groove we have put down,” Kevin Harvick said while discussing the new surface. “It was a huge help. The part they have prepared was very good but the inside and outside of that groove is very dirty and you can’t get everything off the race track or out of the pores of the race track until the cars come and suck them all out going 200 mph.
“Having some more rubber drug along the race track would be a huge help for a second groove.”
Well, that’s exactly what will happen Saturday night and Sunday morning. Both the Tire Monster, brainchild of TMS president Eddie Gossage, and Kentucky Speedway’s Tire Dragon will run on the track from 10 p.m. Saturday night and from 6:30 a.m. right up to pre-race on Sunday morning.
The Tire Monster was created in 2001 when Gossage wanted to be able to groove the newly-repaved track much like you would prep a dirt track. The idea sparked when he wanted to use tires with a boat trailer that was weighted to push the rubber into the track. Goodyear called the idea ingenious, which led to Gossage drawing up plans. The machine runs the track at 70 mph to help fill in the imperfections in the new surface.
Meanwhile, the Tire Dragon is four tires wide and hooks up to tractor. When it runs, slowly, the wheels turn in opposite direction while towing so you never flat spot the tires. Gossage even pointed out that “it makes an awful noise.”
Despite the appearance that the surface just isn’t quite ready to offer great racing, Gossage seems to be pleased with the overall progress.
“It’s behaving like new asphalt,” he explained. “We’ve done all kinds of things to try and prep it, but at the end of the day, you can’t simulate anything.”
However, he stopped short when it came to answering whether he felt like the surface was on track for what was expected following the repave.
“There’s some anxiety to it all, but I thought it went pretty decent today,” Gossage. “I was encouraged by the way it got better as the race went on.”
Only time will whether the time spent trying to rubber the track will help to widen the groove and allow side-by-side racing that doesn’t turn into someone getting loose and either losing multiple positions or spinning altogether.
It’s not like the racing is going to be 100 percent amazing overnight, but warm, windy skies overnight will keep the rubber in the surface. And you can bet that if Gossage isn’t happy enough with the product, he’ll do everything he can between now and June when the Truck Series visits to ensure it’s more conducive to the racing he envisions.