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Race Track 101: Designers Discuss the Design of New Facilities

Prominent race track designers reveal what influenced the designs at several of the newest race tracks worldwide.

By John F. Katz


New race tracks, like everything from new fighter jets to new safety pins, have to be designed and engineered before they can be built. We spoke to some prominent track designers to get a sense of the process.

“First and foremost, we want to achieve an exciting drive,” said Dafydd Broom of Apex Circuit Design, Bledlow, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom, “because if it’s not exciting, people aren’t going to come back.” But Apex, whose projects include the Zhejiang Racing Circuit in China, the Dubai Autodrome in the UAE, and the M-Sport Evaluation Centre and OEM Test Facility in the UK, does far more than just design race tracks. “We actively encourage our clients to consider commercial sustainability for their future automotive developments,” Broom added. “A commercially feasible master plan is essential to ensure the future success and longevity of the venue.”

Central to the Apex Master Plan ethos is commercial sustainability. “It is our unique selling point amongst our competitors,” said Broom. “We achieve this by considering a wider mix of complementary land uses—drawing inspiration from the Walt Disney property development model, which uses a theme park to attract more lucrative development opportunities. The circuit becomes the core of the master plan, around which elements such as hotels, country clubs, retail, manufacturer brand centers, and residential properties are placed. All these various items that help improve the operational revenue of the facility itself.”

Regarding site selection, Broom emphasized, “not only is it critical that enough space is available for the track and the surrounding development mentioned above. It is also important to consider other physical features of the site. We analyze the land for topographical, geological and service constraints that might prohibit construction. We need to make sure that we can work around whatever constraints may be present.”

Then, in laying out the course, “it is absolutely essential to be sensitive to the existing topography, because the earthworks make up the vast majority of the cost of any construction,” continued Broom. “We look for flat areas to put the start/finish straight, the paddock and the pit lane. And then we put the track on the most exciting areas. We target undulating surfaces for the corners in order to create blind entries and exits. We want to test the drivers in all manner of their skill, with high-speed sequences, low-speed technical sections, and corners of varying geometry—closing radius, opening radius—all this to make the drivers think on every lap, and make them want to come back and drive the course over and over again.”

Of course there are limits. FIA rules restrict vertical gradients relative to the speed of the vehicle. “So if we wish the car to ascend or descend a steep hill, we need to slow the car first,” usually with a heavy braking zone. Computer simulations enhance safety. “We have developed a mathematical simulation that allows us to emulate any vehicle around any track we design. It tells us the speed of the vehicle at any point on the track—and what would happen if it lost control at that point, and how far it would travel on a particular surface before it came to rest.” That allows Apex to place barriers, gravel pits and other safeguards for maximum effectiveness—and to demonstrate to the relevant sanctioning body that the design is safe for the sport.

Additional simulation is provided by combining a physics engine called rFactor (from Image Space Incorporated) with models generated from the graphics software 3ds Max (from Autodesk). “That allows us to drive a car around the circuit we’ve designed, and to present our design to our clients, to drivers and officials. We can show it to anybody to get their opinion on the design.”

The design credits of Wilson Motorsport in North Salt Lake City, Utah, include not only NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, Louisiana, but Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama; Inje Speedium in South Korea; and a total redesign of Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant in Quebec (all FIA2-level facilities); plus “several street tracks for Indy cars and IMSA, a few championship kart tracks, and some road courses in the infield of NASCAR ovals,” said Alan Wilson.

“I am not an engineer,” Wilson continued, “although I do work closely with them in their detail work. I design from my personal experience racing cars and bikes, and from that of my wife, ex-F1 racer Desiré Wilson, with input from our many friends in the racing world. My major concerns are always to create both a good flow, leading to aggressive racing and overtaking, with technical challenges for the drivers, as cars now handle so well that it is the drivers’ skill that needs to be tested.

“But above all, safety is the highest priority,” he emphasized. “The prime customer of a race track is not the professional driver, but the semi-pro or amateur who will often crash but who cannot sustain the costs of repairing the car—and so will be lost as a customer if the track design leads to significant damage. Hence, I differ from most designers in wanting my safety zones as large as possible, and I like my barriers set well back.”

Wilson also emphasized long-term financial feasibility, “so costs are always an issue. Obviously I consider other tracks in my development process but have seldom copied them, as I believe that every site is different, and that you can’t just replicate a corner without huge engineering costs. The main site elements to be taken into account are drainage, easements, wetlands, severe gradients, rocks, and extreme vegetation, including large trees, which I always try to save. Location is also crucial, not just for access from significant population (customer) centers, but for connections to water, sewer, communications and power sources, etc. And the whole facility, not just the track surfaces, has to be laid out to minimize cost of operation, ensure ease of maintenance, and reduce staffing needs.”

One strategy Wilson favors is to involve “local engineers and architects, as they will continue working with the track owner long after I am gone.” It’s also important to “establish a solid, long-term business plan that is not reliant on professional events, and to design the facility so that it will not need constant upgrades or significant ongoing maintenance; and then finance it with as little debt as possible.”

“The first thing is to get the cars down the track,” said Ron Colson of Track Planning Associates, Oregon, Illinois. “The rest follows behind that as quickly as possible.”

A drag racer himself since 1958, Colson spent the 1960s moving up from gas coupes to gas dragsters to Top Fuel; drove the famous Chi-Town Hustler Dodge from 1972–1974, and hung up his helmet in 1980 after five seasons in Roland Leong’s Funny Cars.

“Most of my business has been in rebuilding older facilities, bringing them up to the highest standards,” he said. Colson has overseen major upgrades at Cedar Falls Raceway and Eddyville Raceway Park in Iowa, and at Cordova Dragway Park in Illinois, which happens to be where he saw his very first drag race in 1957. “Repaving is always the most critical update. Concrete has become the favorite material over the last couple of years. Concrete has greater durability than asphalt, and can be scraped more readily to remove rubber build-up. So when you consider the cost of materials, concrete is more economical than asphalt in the long run. Everything we do is in accord with the American Concrete Paving Association.” The material is essentially the same as on a public highway, “but the finish is more critical. The aggregate or stone that you use is important, as is the placement of control cuts.

“We can use asphalt, but while with concrete you can set a national standard, asphalt varies with every supplier, and with the quarry the rock came from. Usually I approach the paving company, and we go look at the smoothest job they ever did. And then we discuss how we can modify that to get the preferred result”—which, according to Colson, should “look like a rubber conveyor belt. It should be that smooth and flat.”

Cordova presented Colson with a unique challenge: Disgruntled neighbors had shot holes in drums of drain oil waiting to be shipped out for recycling. Colson worked with environmental engineers to treat oil-contaminated soil on-site and replace it in the original excavation—providing the track owner with huge savings in money and legal headaches. And about a dozen years ago, when Cordova proposed a late-night schedule intended to curb illegal street racing, it was Colson who approached zoning officials and won near-instant approval by reminding them of the illegal antics depicted in the film The Fast and the Furious. For Byron Dragway in northern Illinois, Colson actually won a seat on the Ogle County Board to roll back restrictions on the track’s operating hours.

Colson’s best advice to new track operators? “Hire a knowledgeable consultant. And if you don’t hire a knowledgeable consultant, at least learn from others’ mistakes. Go to other tracks, see what they did, what they feel turned out well and what didn’t. Then don’t repeat the same mistakes. You’d be surprised by how many people do,” he concluded.

Performance Racing Industry