Track Prep: A Lot of Hours, A Lot of Variables
It’s likely the most thankless — and time-consuming — job at a dirt racetrack during the week: preparing the track surface itself.
Hours and hours are spent weekly on the track — watering, rolling, sheepsfooting, dragging, packing — in an effort to get a racetrack that is smooth and multi-lane for a night’s racing show. Not to mention keeping the dust down for fans and drivers alike.
It is by no means an easy task. Usually, someone is always unhappy.
“Some want it wet, some want it dry,” said Scott Engfer, the long-time prep guy at I-94 Speedway in Fergus Falls. “That’s impossible; you can’t make them all happy. You try to do what the majority (prefer).”
Because of the way the weather varies in this part of the country, prepping a track can be an inexact science.
There are plenty of challenges because of just that. Maybe it’s a windy day and the dust for fans and drivers is an issue; maybe the track had a lot of rain during the previous days and getting it packed in is difficult. Maybe it has been 100 degrees all week and dry and the track simply won’t hold moisture.
“Weather is a huge factor in prep and the hardest to predict,” said Hunter Carter, who is the co-promoter and handles track prep at Sheyenne Speedway in Lisbon. “That would be the hardest to play with. The next is also to read the dirt and see when it’s wet and when it’s saturated. Wet is good saturated means there’s too much and it won’t pack well.”
“If the moisture’s down 4-5 inches deep and it’s packed good and tight, then we have a pretty good racetrack on Friday,” Engfer said. “It’s a little tricky when the wind is blowing and sun is out. It just depends on Mother Nature…Mother Nature can do a little better job of watering than I can.”
Plus, every track surface and shis different. What works at I-94 weekly may not work at say, River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks or Jamestown Speedway. What works at Jamestown may not work at Viking Speedway. You get the picture.
Jake Bitker and his wife, Sharnel, promote Norman County Raceway in Ada and co-promote Red River Valley Speedway in West Fargo with Nick Skalicky. Bitker oversees the track prep at both tracks and said much of the track’s prep work is done in the spring.
After the racing program is complete at each track on Thursdays and Fridays, the track is bladed by Bruce Visser and sheeps-footed so it is ready to be worked and watered for next week, Bitker said. That process takes around 90 minutes on those nights — after the all the night’s racing has been completed.
“It’s pretty much all done,” Bitker said.
Bitker said he starts track prep at Ada at noon on Thursdays and works all day on the track right up until race time Same schedule for Fridays at West Fargo.
“It’s non-stop,” Bitker said.
Bitker said he used to water Ada on Wednesday nights, but found not much was gained by doing so. If the temperature is scheduled to soar to around 100 degrees on Thursday, he said that might do some watering on a Wednesday night.
While Bitker does quite a bit of the prep himself during raceday, later in the day he has help with working the track, which includes digging, packing and watering.
Bitker, Carter and Engfer are all former racers, by the way.
Engfer estimates he spends 40 hours an average week working on I-94, but depending on weather it could be as much as 60. If it is a week of hot windy weather, that process could start as soon as Tuesday. That includes watering and sheeps-footing, rolling, packing and picking rock, something that happens when you try to dig up fresh material. If it is a hot week, the track will be watered into the night (misting) so the top doesn’t dry out too much. He estimates 15-20 hours a week alone are spent on the sheeps-foot.
“Friday, we try to maintain what we have…if get racetrack 4-5 inches deep (moisture-wise), we use that for a gauge,” Engfer said.
Carter said 20-25 hours per week are spent on Sheyenne’s surface. Veteran racer Jerry Lamb takes 4-5 hours to blade it a week, something he has done for many, many years. Carter spends many hours watering and packing.
Bitker, Carter and Engfer all watch the heat races closely — to see if drivers are running in more than one lane where dust is an issue. That determines what is done during the heat races and what would be done at intermission.
“(I watch) if there are spots make dust or if the cars are digging holes,” Bitker said, “or if it is going to lay rubber.”
“What I watch for is where it is cleaning off the best at and where guys are running,” Carter said.
What is the ideal track?
“Smooth,” Bitker said. “Whether it’s tacky or dry, as long as it’s smooth. It doesn’t tear up, it doesn’t get a berm, and the top and bottom lane are even. Turn 4 is the one I watch the most, to see if they are coming off of the corner at the same speed. If they can drag race down the front stretch, that’s what I want.”
“My perfect track is smooth bottom to top — slick and the dirt is cleaned off,” Carter said. “Then a nice traction strip right at the top of the track. So the track will be black top to bottom with a nice moisture strip at the top.”
“Dry slick seems to be the consensus,” Engfer said. “They like it dry slick with no dust. If it will shine over from top to bottom with no dust, then the drivers can still get a little traction and the races end up being pretty good.”
Track prep is a source of pride for many who do it — having a multi-groove, racy track leaves both drivers and fans happy.
“You have to put on a show for the fans,” Engfer said. “Whatever keeps the track so there’s passing room so that drivers can put on a decent show. You have to keep it so the fans stay entertained.”
“One thing about me and track prep is I take it very personal and a lot of pride. Perfection to me when it comes to a racetrack can be achieved in my mind,” Carter said. “They may set me up for failure more then success. I raced and know how I acted when a track wasn’t good. When my track isn’t good I take that very personal and probably harder on myself then I should be. I take a lot of pride to make a racer’s track and I work hard to do that every time.”