Debating the Theory of Ovalution

By Stephen Wilson

Racetracks may look cookie-cutter to the untrained eye, but there is a lot of history beneath that asphalt. Preeminent oval track scholar Van Walling ’77 has coined the term Theory of Ovalution, which helps outline the generational advances in track design. Walling has spent over 40 years studying oval tracks, starting with an independent study project in his senior year as an engineering student at Lafayette. Those years of research are captured in his two-volume oversized soon-to-be published Oval Track Almanac (OTA). The book serves as a one-of-a-kind compilation of geometric design data, aerial photographs, topographical mapping, layout diagrams, and technical notes for more than 900 oval tracks.

Here he lays out that theory and then explains how viewing tracks from a combined historical and technical perspective creates interest and brings the heat.

Oval Track Generations and Design Trends

Walling defines five Oval Track Generations to serve as a framework for OTA’s historical analysis, highlighting development of the sport’s infrastructure over the years.  Here are defining characteristics of tracks from each generation.


  • Surface: Dirt
  • Length: 1 mile
  • Shape: Classic oval
  • Examples: Brighton Beach (N.Y.) Dirt Track; Kenilworth Park (Buffalo, N.Y.); Glenville Driving Track (Cleveland Ohio); Columbus (Ohio) Driving Park; Ascot Speedway (Florence, Calif.)

Can you believe it: As a World War I flying ace, Medal of Honor recipient, automotive designer, military consultant, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and president of Eastern Air Lines, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker is an American icon.  Unknown to many, however, his career began as a race-car driver, competing on the 1-mile dirt tracks of his day, including the Driving Park oval near his boyhood home of Columbus, Ohio.


  • Surface: Board
  • Length: 1.25 miles
  • Shape: Classic oval
  • Examples: Altoona (Tipton, Pa.) Speedway; Los Angeles Motor Speedway (Beverly Hills, Calif.); Kansas City (Mo.) Speedway; Charlotte Speedway (Pineville, N.C.); Miami-Fulford Speedway (Fulford-by-the-Sea, Fla.)

Can you believe it: With its 50-degree banks, Miami-Fulford Speedway was one of the fastest board speedways ever built. It held one race in 1926 and then was leveled by a hurricane later that year. The track was never rebuilt. Instead the lumber was used to help rebuild homes and businesses in the Miami area.


  • Surface: Initially dirt, later asphalt
  • Length: 0.5-1 mile
  • Shape: Initially classic oval, later a wide variety of shapes
  • Examples: Occoneechee Speedway (Hillsborough, N.C.); Oakland Speedway (San Leandro, Calif.); Trenton (N.J.) Speedway; Martinsville (Va.) Speedway; North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway

Can you believe it: Occoneechee Speedway held its last race in 1968 but exists today as part of Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail thanks to the efforts of a number of local residents and Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. It is one of only three racing venues on the National Register of Historic Places, the other two being Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Bonneville Salt Flats.


  • Surface: Asphalt
  • Length: Initially 1-1.5 miles, later a wide variety of lengths
  • Shape: A wide variety of shapes
  • Examples: Alabama International Motor Speedway (Talladega, Ala.); Dover Downs International Speedway (Dover, Del.); Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.); Pocono International Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)

Can you believe it: Originally paved with asphalt, the Dover Downs 1-mile classic oval was resurfaced with concrete in 1995. There is an active harness horse-racing track (a 0.625-mile oval) located inside the speedway.


  • Surface: Asphalt
  • Length: 1-1.5 miles
  • Shape: D-shaped and tri oval
  • Examples: California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.); Pikes Peak International Raceway (Fountain, Colo.); Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway; Kentucky Speedway (Sparta, Ky.); Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)

Can you believe it: Noted speedway designer Charles Moneypenny copyrighted the D-shaped design he used for Michigan International Speedway and Texas International Speedway in 1969. In the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, others apparently thought enough of Moneypenny’s design to use it for their tracks.  In doing so, they were either purposely ignoring his copyright or were simply unaware of it.

Theory of Ovalution and Circles of Influence

OTA’s Theory of Ovalution posits that certain tracks throughout history have been much more influential than others. These four iconic racetracks are deemed to be the tent poles—or more appropriately, the Circles of Influence—within the Theory of Ovalution:

  • Brooklands—This 2.75-mile, somewhat pear-shaped, high-banked, concrete speedway was built in Surrey, England, in 1907.
  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway—This 2.5-mile, low-banked, rectangular oval was built in Indiana in 1909. Originally “surfaced” with crushed rock and tar, the surface later evolved to brick, to brick and asphalt, and finally all asphalt.
  • Darlington Raceway—This 1.366-mile (originally 1.25-mile), high-banked, non-parallel oval was built in South Carolina in 1950. It was intended to provide a venue where stock cars could compete in a 500-mile race as their open wheel counterparts did at Indianapolis.  It’s length and surface were unheard of for stock car racing, which in its infancy raced almost exclusively on ½-mile dirt tracks.
  • Daytona International Speedway—This 2.5-mile, high-banked, tri oval was built in Florida in 1959 because land development pressures would soon bring an end to racing on the beach. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. drew upon the design features of the preceding Circles of Influence—as well as his knowledge of the high-banked board speedways of the 1910s and ’20s—to create a true game changer … a modern marvel of speed, sensation, and entertainment.

Some Tracks are HOTS

Walling wanted OTA to be more than a directory of every oval track that ever existed.  So he established criteria through which tracks had to demonstrate uniqueness; sort of a high-speed honor roll.  He called these criteria HOTS, historically or technically significant. This means a track had one or more of the following factors:

  • Designed, not just made
  • A first of its kind
  • Longevity
  • Pioneer
  • Held significant events
  • Unique geometry
  • Unique surface
  • Unique venue
  • Considered “world’s fastest”
  • Endorsed by racers

Not surprisingly, the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the only facility on OTA’s 900+ track roster that satisfies all 10 HOTS criteria.  Most tracks only meet three or four criteria; some just one.

  • It was designed by engineer P.T. Andrews.
  • It was the first large track in the U.S. designed and built specifically for automobile racing.
  • Dating back to 1909, and racing every year except the war years of 1917-18 and 1941-45, it has longevity.
  • Likewise, it is a pioneer, having been active prior to World War I.
  • It has held more than 100 Indianapolis 500s for open-wheel cars and 25 Brickyard 400s for NASCAR stock cars.
  • Its rectangular shape—two long straightaways, two short straightaways, and four equal-length, 90-degree turns—is geometrically unique.
  • Though there is nothing unique about the track’s current asphalt surface, it’s what lies under that asphalt—those fabled bricks—that fulfills the unique surface niche.
  • Unique venue? How many places that you know of have hosted hot-air balloon races, airplane races, national championship races for open-wheel cars and stock cars, world championship Formula 1 races, motorcycle races, mini-marathons, championship golf events, and rock concerts?
  • At various times, the speedway has held the world record time for an automobile on a closed course.
  • Though the Racer Endorsement criterion was established to provide a “mulligan” for a deserving track that could not otherwise muster a vote in the other nine categories, it’s not at all difficult to find racers to endorse the Brickyard. Legendary A.J. Foyt has often said, “A.J. Foyt didn’t make the Indy 500; the Indy 500 made A.J. Foyt.”  And who could forget  Al Unser Jr.’s heartfelt, tearful quote in Victory Lane at the 1992 Indianapolis 500, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”