Test drivers testify to totally different Atlanta Motor Speedway

Welcome to the all-new, possibly improved Atlanta Motor (Almost Super) Speedway.

A trio of the big boys from NASCAR’s premier racing circuit swung by Wednesday and Thursday to take a high-speed test drive over the re-paved and re-configured AMS track. And they immediately issued this alert for all their brethren who’ll show up for the two races here this season:

“It’s a new Atlanta, unlike anything I’ve ever seen at this track,” said Ross Chastain, who’ll be driving a Chevy for the start-up Trackhouse Racing team, partially owned by entertainer “Pitbull.”

“Let’s just call this a new racetrack. It’s a brand-new racetrack,” said Chris Buescher, a Ford fellow with RFK (Roush Fenway Keselowski) Racing.

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So, between now and the March 20 start of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, there will be a lot of unlearning to do about the 1.5-mile, 62-year-old track. There are new secrets to unfold, news strategies to develop, on the same year NASCAR is unveiling its new Next Gen car. A year of big change in the sport will be on full display in Atlanta during its March and July races.

Directly after last summer’s race, crews went to work tearing up the old surface, one that dates to 1997, and increasing the banking of the turns from 24 degrees to 28. That makes AMS the highest-banked intermediate track on the circuit.

Four degrees of banking may not sound like much, but track general manager Brandon Hutchison already noticed a big difference. Taking his own personal car on a tour of the new layout, he noticed the traction warning-light flashing, where that never happened on earlier joy rides around the place.

Those in somewhat faster rides have been torn about the project. “It’s no secret that the drivers really loved the old, worn-out Atlanta,” Hutchison said. “But at some point, you have to repave.”

Skeptics have included the likes of Kevin Harvick, a three-time winner at the track. His crew chief was particularly harsh when speaking on the redo last year. “It’s going to make the racing horrible, and it’s going to be one lane and nobody is going to pass anybody,” Rodney Childers said at the time.

Kurt Busch won the last race on the old surface in the summer and returned this week for testing with his new team, 23XI, the one co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. After getting some actual on-track experience, he concluded, “That old surface and how it was that racer’s racetrack and how we’d be out there sliding around working on tire management – that really won’t come into play now,” he said Thursday. “It’s going to be more of a drafting game, about speed and whatever you have to do within the rules to gain that speed.”

Credit: Donald Warr

Credit: Donald Warr

The three drivers involved in the test all portrayed the new layout as a hybrid, bringing into play much of the same kind of racing seen on the big superspeedways such as Daytona and Talladega.

The combination of the higher banking and the increased traction provided by the new pavement should create more of an emphasis on drafting and more pack racing, they said.

“It’s an engineering marvel to have this much banking and to have kept the turns this sharp and have it as smooth as it is,” Busch said.

He continued, “The biggest thing once we get more cars into the draft situation and have our Daytona- and Talladega-style draft, this is only a mile-and-a-half track. Things are going to be moving quicker. You’re going to be digesting things much faster to have that Daytona, Talladega feel here at a mile-and-a-half. It’s going to change the game.”

“This is going to be unlike any Atlanta race you’ve ever seen,” said Chastain, looking ahead to March. “I’m not going to say it’s full-blown Daytona – drafting with 40 cars in the pack – but it’s going to be a different race. Combine that with the Next Gen car, I’m nervous for it, but I’m excited that I get to be a part of this today.”

Because of the pack racing there, Daytona and Talladega are known for producing big, spectacular crashes. When asked if that might add to any nerves come March, Chastain wasn’t too macho to say that thought never occurred to him.

“And I’m not bashful about that,” he said.

“A lot of times the best track for a driver is the most worn-out, slick, tire-falloff type (all of those trademarks of the old Atlanta surface),” Chastain said. “We’re so out of control we can’t really get around each other. We’re just trying not to wreck ourselves, let alone get side by side. Here that’s not the case. You’re going to be wide open, bump drafting, especially into the straightaways. And you see at the speedways the wrecks usually happen at the end of the straightaway. I think you’re going to see some of that.”

Whatever the new personality of racing will be at Atlanta Motor Speedway – be that wild or mild – the true test will come when there are 40 cars on the track, not three.