In February of this year, NASCAR fans had the time of their life watching three-time Daytona 500 champ Jeff Gordon in action at Phoenix International Raceway -- not in his heavily branded Chevy Impala, but in the driver's seat of a backhoe.
The highly recognizable racing figure had the honor of taking the first bite out of the course's asphalt track, which was scheduled to be demolished and completely repaved this summer. Just minutes after he took first place in the SUBWAY Fresh Fit 500, one of two major NASCAR bouts hosted by PIR each year, Gordon saddled up in the construction vehicle and literally dug in.
Five months later, the estimated $10 million track repaving project (the first at PIR in two decades) is nearing completion. Three layers of new asphalt have been laid, new concrete border walls installed, and the track prepared for a sweet new start/finish line made from native Grand Canyon stone. Rather than being tossed away as rubble, the old pavement pieces were recycled into commemorative plaques that went on sale this past Monday, July 25, through Jostens.
Why tackle such a huge project now? "Any pavement, whether it's a driveway or a racetrack or a highway, has a finite life to it," says Bill Braniff, Senior Director of Construction at North American Testing Corporation, the company behind all major NASCAR track construction projects. "It gets old and cracked and you can't keep patching it." PIR originally opened in 1964, and their most recent repaving project before the current one was back in 1990. So, it was time to give the ol' gal a facelift.
But that's not all she got.
Find out about PIR's new curves, and peep the first pics of the new track, after the jump.
Looking at an aerial view of the track, not much has changed. The original stands and outbuildings remain, as do the parking lots and VIP overlook area. The track's footprint is similar, with the exception of a steeper curve in one section that adds another turn to the course. But even small changes such as the smoother tri-layer surface make a difference in the speeds that drivers will reach (expected to be 2-3 mph faster).
Fans at Turns 1 & 2 will also get a better view, thanks to the new increased gradient.
Where most NASCAR tracks are relatively flat in the longer sections and move to a set tilt around the curves, the new PIR has a mile-long variable track; meaning that sections of the track change gradients up to a 12-degree tilt. "One we decided to completely repave the track, we looked at ways to change the geometry to make a more exciting race," Braniff explains.
"On a uniformly banked track, there's one quickest way around. These guys are all professionals, so they'll use whatever tricks they can to their advantage." Which basically means you've got a dozen or so drivers wearing down one small section of the width of the pavement, higher up on the gradient, while the interior of the track is like the geeky nerd boy at a frat party filled with buff jocks -- it sees hardly any action.
The newly designed and resurfaced track will encourage side-by-side racing, which translates to increased competition and visuals that up the danger factor in fans' minds.
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The revamped course opens with a Media Preview Day on Friday, September 30, followed by a Grand Opening bash on October 1 where diehard motorheads can race replica NASCAR stock cars. Pros will put the pavement to the test the following week in preparation for the next NASCAR event weekend in November.