What It Takes to … Design a Racetrack

By Stephen Wilson

Van Walling ’77 knows a few things about racetracks. He started investigating them during his senior year as part of an independent study project. His premise for the project was based on an idea that Pocono Raceway didn’t exist, but was still a 1,025-acre spinach farm in need of a multi-million-dollar superspeedway complex.

Walling spoke to Pocono Raceway officials, wrote letters to legendary track designers, and even looked up Mario Andretti in the Easton phone book and gave him a call. Surprisingly enough, Andretti was home between races and provided 20 invaluable minutes of track design advice from a driver’s perspective.

While Walling finished his class with an A, he had more questions than answers and continued his research as a hobby for nearly 40 years. All the blood, sweat, and motor oil he’s poured into the project has yielded a two-volume book (that’s still in need of a publisher) called Oval Track Almanac (OTA), a compilation of geometric design data, aerial photographs, topographical mapping, layout diagrams, technical notes, and history and significance for nearly 900 oval tracks.

So for you DIYers out there who have a little extra land for building your Field of Dreams or for you business savvy entrepreneurs who might have some pull within the motorsports industry, here are a few things to consider as you decide to get into the racetrack business.

The Big 10

The 10 basic components associated with the three-dimensional geometric design of oval tracks are shape, length, area, orientation, straightaways, profile, width, banking, transitions, and surface.  These oval-track building blocks require myriad considerations as combinations hide complexities and compromises for each design component

Consider the most basic racetrack form: a classic oval … two parallel straightaways connected by two 180-degree turns.  Long straightaways and sharp turns allow for higher straight-line speeds but slower speeds through turns, creating a significant speed differential.  Shorter straightaways and flatter turns don’t allow for as much straight-line speed but allow for more speed to be carried through turns.  But wait … should those turns be banked to allow for higher speeds?  If so, to what degree—low, moderate, high, extreme?   And how are the straightaways and turns to be connected?  Which leads to …

Transitions Are Top Dog

Transitions are typically what separate a good track from a not-so-good track.  It’s a simple concept—going from a relatively flat straightaway into a banked turn and out again—but it’s amazing how many designers and/or track builders have failed in this critical area over the years. Ramifications of poor transitions range from monetary (expenses of having to rebuild all or some of the track) to competitive (poor transitions often result in boring single-file racing) to safety (poor transitions can lead to accidents, injuries, or worse).

Hall of Fame driver Jeff Gordon knew transitions were king: “The biggest thing I would do, no matter what size track it is, is it’s all about transitions. It’s how you transition into the banking in the corners, how you transition from the banking to the straightaways, how banked the straightaways are, and then the transition in and off the next corner. To me, the more focus you can put and the sooner you start the transitions, the more side-by-side racing you’re going to see.”

Surfaces Matter

While oval track design has evolved across all of the design components, none are as visual as the issue of surface.

Automobile racing on oval tracks began on horse-racing tracks, typically ½-mile ovals at county fairgrounds or 1-mile ovals at state fairgrounds.  Horse racing required a dirt-surfaced track so that is what auto racing inherited. As dust became a factor both in terms of competitor safety and spectator viewing, promoters began searching for hard-surfaced alternatives for auto-racing tracks.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway had a disastrous debut in 1909 with its original surface of crushed rock and tar; a decision to resurface the 2.5-mile track with 3.2 million paving bricks saved that facility (and possibly the sport) and gave birth to the classic moniker: The Brickyard.

The other defining surface was wood.  Board tracks were constructed of 2x4s laid on their edge.  These tracks grew out of the 1/4-mile and 1/2-mile wooden velodromes used for bicycle racing and the slightly larger motordromes built for motorcycle racing. When the concept was extrapolated for auto racing, the result was a series of 20 or so high-banked tracks built and operated between 1910 and 1931.

While asphalt dominates today, it and concrete were tried as early as the 1910s, but the technology had not yet evolved as there were no real highways at that time. Don’t think all asphalt tracks are created equal. As the surface ages, it changes significantly, especially when factors like weather, wear, and maintenance can vary.

Only Looking Left

Early auto racetracks in the U.S., having evolved from horse tracks, ran in a counterclockwise direction—so all left turns.

Uniqueness Helps

All of the tracks in Walling’s book have the HOTS, an acronym for historically or technically significant. This means a track has/had one or more of the following cool factors: a first-of-its-kind unique venue, longevity, unique geometry, significant events, and unique surface.

Consider Daytona Beach Road Course.  Long before the present Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, cars raced on a course that combined the hard-packed beach sand and adjacent Highway A1A.  They would race north on the beach for 2 miles, make a hairpin turn (to the left, of course), run south on the two-lane asphalt surface of A1A for another 2 miles, then make another hairpin turn to return to the beach straightaway.

Accordingly, this course met four of the HOTS criteria.  It held significant events (national championship stock car races), featured unique geometry (a very narrow oval with extremely long straightaways and tight turns), had a unique surface (sand and asphalt), and was a unique venue (combination beach and public road).

With track design it’s important not to get too technical and overdo the engineering, but at the same time you don’t want to ignore engineering or only use basic highway-style engineering. Balance all three so you can experience and enjoy the speed, competition, thrill, safety, entertainment, and art along with the technical aspects and human element of true motorsports.