By Chris Leone (iRacing)
Earlier this year, Speedway Motorsports unveiled a new-look Atlanta Motor Speedway to millions of race fans on-site and watching on television for the first time. The reconfigured 1.5-mile oval was the result of years of development work with iRacing in the virtual world to produce a completely new racing experience. Before iRacers get the opportunity to try the new Atlanta in sim for the first time on Friday, this is the story of how the real thing came to be.
Changing the Flavor
When the checkered flag flew on March 20’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, it marked the conclusion of 325 laps of racing unlike any that Atlanta Motor Speedway had ever seen.
One need look no further than the post-race statistics to figure that out, as the NASCAR Cup Series field broke a 40-year-old record for lead changes that day with 46, and set a new track record with 20 of the day’s 37 starters leading at least one lap to boot. The finish produced yet another striking visual for the Atlanta annals, but one with a distinct flavor to the photo finishes that produced Kevin Harvick or Carl Edwards’ first victories, or Alan Kulwicki’s strategic triumph over Bill Elliott to win the NASCAR Cup Series title in 1992. This time, Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron led a massive pack of cars across the finish line, beating Ross Chastain by .145 seconds but also avoiding a multi-car crash across the line behind him.
The agent of all this change was a major, multi-year reprofiling project that took AMS’ need for a repave and adapted it into a completely different animal: the first 1.5-mile superspeedway on the NASCAR calendar. But while past projects of this nature have been done purely from past experience, Speedway Motorsports Inc., the track’s parent company, partnered with iRacing to facilitate the development work in the virtual world. The result was a track that saw thousands of laps tested safely in the simulator before ever moving a cup of dirt—and a proof of concept that can reshape the future of track development for decades to come.
“We always look at what the fans are interested in, or what they are telling us with their dollars or with their time,” says Mike Burch, Chief Operating Officer, Speedway Motorsports. “Certainly, you look at the racing at Daytona or Talladega, which are some of the most popular in terms of ticket sales or viewership. Fans also talk about wanting short tracks or more road courses.
“The narrative is that the mile and a half tracks are similar, and a lot of people will call them ‘cookie cutters.’ We like to say it’s not the shape, but the flavor; a chocolate chip cookie will taste much different than an oatmeal raisin. So, even though the track is a mile and a half in distance, you’ll talk to the drivers and the teams, and each track has its unique characteristics. But (with Atlanta), we really wanted to say, what can we do differently? What can we do that’s new?”
Over more than 60 years of history, Atlanta Motor Speedway has certainly been no stranger to flavor. The track currently boasts one of the most diverse schedules in all of racing, ranging from NASCAR’s three premier series to Supercross, and Monster Jam events on temporary dirt laid in its tri-oval. Drag racing events are regularly held down its pit road on Friday nights, and its record books also include IndyCar, IMSA, International Race of Champions, and even rallycross and flat track motorcycle events.
More significant to Atlanta’s character, however, was another major change that Speedway Motorsports undertook in 1997. What had previously been a standard oval shape was reconfigured into a tri-oval that more closely resembled its sister tracks at Charlotte and the then-new Texas Motor Speedway. As that track aged, it became one of the most beloved on the NASCAR calendar, producing Harvick’s first win just three weeks after the tragic passing of Dale Earnhardt, introducing the Cup Series to Edwards’ backflip, and giving Toyota its first Cup win in 2008 with Kyle Busch.
But while older surfaces are often looked upon fondly by racers and fans alike, they pose a unique set of problems. Burch points to “weepers,” cracks in the racing surface that swelled with water when it rained, and parts of the asphalt coming up as catalysts for a repave. But keeping with Speedway Motorsport’s long history of innovation, and even the track’s own history, the idea of a repave alone wasn’t enough—it was time to differentiate Atlanta from the rest of their portfolio.
“Initially, probably seven years ago, we started talking about repaving Atlanta,” adds Steve Swift, Speedway Motorsports’ Senior Vice President of Operations. “At that time, the drivers had really petitioned (Speedway Motorsports founder and then-CEO) Bruton Smith to keep the old racing surface and not change anything, so we put it on hold. Fast forward, and we got to the point where we knew we were going to have to do something. About two years ago, Marcus (Smith, current Speedway Motorsports CEO) was like, we’re going to have to repave Atlanta, let’s make it something different.”
“For a couple of years, we kicked around the idea of ‘what if we put higher banking on a mile and a half?’” Burch continues. “What would that do to the racing? And it always was a speculative ‘what if,’ until Marcus and I were enjoying some vacation time when we revisited the idea. This idea came up, and we’ve had a long relationship with iRacing, and we thought, let’s give Steve Myers a call and see if they can simulate it and see what we can get.”
“I never thought that the industry would open its mind enough that the two entities would be in a room and be able to propose such ideas,” admits iRacing executive director and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I think that when we get down to it, when you’re going to spend millions of dollars to make a renovation or change to a facility, then it makes a lot of sense, right? Not only is it a great idea to make sure you’re making the right choices when you’re making such a big spend, but it’s also a great marketing tool! You’ve got a legitimate visual for people to see what this should look like when it’s finished.
“It just took a while for the industry to really see what iRacing was capable of, and how to integrate that into what they were doing. As customers and users, we’ve always felt like this was (advanced) technology that had some unlocked potential, and now it’s great for the industry to really kind of open up to it.”
Breaking (Virtual) Ground
For iRacing, the idea of developing track concepts within the sim has become a larger and larger part of the business over the past few years. Many of the service’s off-road tracks, including two rallycross layouts at Atlanta itself, are of its own design, and at the same time, it was also hard at work on groundbreaking concepts with NASCAR to convert Auto Club Speedway into a short track and design a circuit for the streets of Chicago. Speedway Motorsports, meanwhile, has an extended history of groundbreaking projects of its own, from track reconfigurations and repaves to building the largest outdoor-hung video display in the world, Bristol Motor Speedway’s Colossus TV, in 2016.
But the Atlanta project would represent something different for both parties: taking an existing track and using extensive virtual testing to completely change its style of racing while retaining the track’s previous shape.
“It all started in August of 2020,” explains Greg Hill, iRacing’s Senior Vice President and Executive Producer. “Mike reached out to Steve Myers and told him what he wanted to do, what their goals were, and what they were thinking about for banking angles and the track widths and things like that. So we took that information and ran with it to start.
“It wasn’t precise engineering data, by any means, but we have great track tools where we can quickly create and modify track geometry to different specifications. From there, Steve Swift joined the conversation, and he described to me in even further detail what we were going to do here. So, with even more refined information, we took our existing track model and by using trigonometry, basically reverse-engineered our existing Atlanta to match the verbal description of the new Atlanta that they had in mind.”
“We’ve had a great working relationship (with iRacing) for a long time,” adds Burch. “We’ve seen the attention to detail and we’ve seen the tools continue to evolve. It’s not a game, it’s a true simulation – not just of the surfaces or the vehicles, but of the whole environment. That level of sophistication, this is a real tool we can use if we make changes to a track or a layout, to see what that feels like to a driver.
“The old model was, ‘well, we think this is what’s going to happen, let’s build it,’ and that was always the expensive part, moving the dirt. This gave us a chance to go through multiple iterations – iRacing in the virtual world, us in the real world – and it just seemed like a partnership that made a lot of sense.”
Of course, it also helped that iRacing’s decades worth of development work in the world of sim racing, from physics models to the cars themselves, have created the closest representation of real-world racing yet. That realism was a crucial factor in why, over the spring of 2020, real-world NASCAR stars embraced the platform, running what became the six most-watched esports broadcasts in American television history as COVID-19 postponed real-world events. It also meant that, compared to Speedway Motorsports’ previous projects, the reliability of the data in hand was much higher.
“I think that with the opportunity to use iRacing as a tool to virtually build whatever you want, that makes you so much more comfortable to change something that’s great,” explains Earnhardt Jr. “Without iRacing to virtually build this thing beforehand, it’s a very scary proposition of changing something that’s not broken—and I don’t even think that Marcus Smith and his team even consider any changes for fear of making the wrong change.
“But with iRacing, you can build this idea and simulate it, and get a really good idea of what changes are good, what changes are bad, and how to make something truly unique. I think it also helps people embrace change, knowing that this type of technology is being used and it’s not just a shot in the dark.”
“Back when we did Bristol, the old simulations back in those days were computer models that created a driving lane, and you would design the track based on that driving lane, or groove,” notes Swift. “But it didn’t give you a depiction of what the track was really going to achieve, it just showed you what the driving lane was. So having iRacing involved naturally gave us the feel of when you put multiple cars out there, what could happen.
“With the simulations like they are today, it was a really, really positive thing for us to be able to see what was going to happen before we put that big expenditure out there to build it and hope what we wanted to happen happened. Naturally races are different and you can’t simulate the human element as much, but we were able to utilize iRacing’s technology to give us the best feel of what we were going to get when we repaved the track.”
“Lo and behold, it produced some pretty interesting results,” Burch adds. “You take those, and you can say, this is something we can do. This is a new style of racing, with a shorter, high-banked track. And with the (Next Gen) car coming online, it was also great that iRacing had a model of the new car built. So we were actually able to see how it would perform.”
Full Throttle Development
With the basic concept and all the tools in place, the back-and-forth between iRacing and Speedway Motorsports to develop the new Atlanta could begin. Working around their mutual involvement in NASCAR’s first dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway last spring, 3D models and CAD data were developed and transferred to begin the actual development work.
“It was in September (2020) that the first two models were made, and then with some initial feedback that we provided to them, they sent that to their creating contractor,” explains Hill. “And he took that feedback and worked on what became the 3D plan for the actual crew that would be cutting the track. This is a process that they do with track building—they generate an architectural 3D file with the contours and everything. So, they took our feedback and generated one of these files in CAD and sent it back over to us.
“In April (2021) we received the actual CAD file, and we took that and converted it into a format our track building tool sandbox could load. We essentially traced it out, rather quickly, because our tools are really good at quickly modifying and iterating the geometry, which is what we’re doing. So, that was the first official version that wasn’t based on talk, it was backed up by actual data.”
Utilizing one of iRacing’s development environments, the same one that validated Auto Club, Chicago, and the Los Angeles Coliseum, Hill and a team of testers would go through the development process and further refine the layout. That process would see multiple versions that wouldn’t see the light of day as flaws were identified and addressed.
“As an example, they asked us to try out 32 degree banking, and I initially thought 32 degree banking would be too high,” he notes. “I recommended 28 degrees, just by pulling the banking down to get that profile. We drove it in our development build to get some feedback about what it was like, and what our initial concerns were.
“For example, it was a little too harsh of a transition coming out of turn two onto the backstretch, and we wanted to use more width on the existing apron than was on the original file. So they took our feedback and they tried to implement what we observed and they generated another 3D file and sent that back to us. We gave some further feedback, and in the final version they managed to solve the problem with some of the track widths.”
With the 28-degree banking locked in, as well as the other issues addressed, it was time to hit the new Atlanta in race sessions. These test races were the final step before breaking ground, and gave all parties the opportunity to demonstrate the new track’s capabilities without worrying about driver safety or the availability of Next Gen materials.
“We took that final version and simulated a real race with a full pack of cars, whether cars could pass, what the speeds were, and making sure to use the right aero package,” Hill continues. “And that is tremendously helpful, because they have the ability to run simulations on their prototype tracks with dummy cars where they can simulate top speeds, but it’s not real people.
“With the way we do it, we’re getting feedback from experts and racers and people who have experience racing real cars as well. And it’s invaluable feedback, because even before they break ground, they have confidence because we’re able to make it actually work by proving it out.”
“To be honest with you, I was kind of surprised at how similar the race looked from watching it on TV to how it felt when we were racing and using it in the sim before it was physically built,” said Earnhardt Jr., who was a key part of the test process and joined top real-world and sim racers in providing feedback throughout. “I thought that whatever iRacing sent to Speedway Motorsports, they were going to use verbatim. I didn’t want any mistakes to be made, so I thought ‘let’s make some of these decision for them, and show them everywhere things should be, whether they use it or not.’
“(A project like this is) an effort with great software that’s going to be vetted by real racers and also the pros on the sim. Sometimes, I’d rather have our esports champions and professionals giving us the feedback than real racers, because they’re so prolific, smart and successful, and they know what’ll put on a good race in the virtual world. (But) it’s insane to think about it knowing where we’ve been over the past two decades with iRacing as a company. For it to be part of some of the biggest projects happening today in the sport is incredible.”
“This is the first mile and a half to create that style of racing, so to have that simulation of confirmation more or less what we had thought it would do proving in the virtual world helped to build that confidence what we were doing was worth it,” adds Swift. “(It built confidence) that what we were doing was the right thing for the sport and our company, that we were building something we had hoped the fans would enjoy and would have confidence in what we were doing.
“To produce that in the sim world gave us the umph to keep us going whenever we would hit those struggles or hard pieces that would make it easy to say ‘we’re just going to put it back the way it was.’ It really made us all have the same goal that we’re making something unique here for the first time and we’re creating something new for Atlanta Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports.”
When iRacing’s hundreds of thousands of users hear the word “build,” they know what’s coming: a whole new experience. Each quarter, a new iteration of the member product is release, possessing not only new content like cars and tracks, but typically a swarm of new user features, such as refinements to the interface and new AI content.
The word means something different when referring to a real track, but the end goal is the same: take something that was already great and make it better. Physical work on the new Atlanta started in August 2021 and wrapped up in December. Over those four months, Swift and his team removed 125,000 yards of dirt, laid 18,250 tons of base stone and 15,800 tons of asphalt, and removed—and later replaced—8,000 linear feet of the track’s SAFER barrier.
“From a pure quantity scenario, I would say it was about the same (as other projects), but from a logistics and troubleshooting scenario, I would say the hardest job yet,” admits Swift. “That includes Bristol, completely redone from the outside walls-in, to Texas’ repave, to Kentucky’s repave, to Charlotte’s resurfacing, reconfiguring Las Vegas several years ago from the old Vegas to the new Vegas which included new walls and a new grade. Even the paving contractor, who did Talladega and Daytona in years past, said we won the award for the hardest repave.”
The biggest issue? What direction to repave *from*.
“The challenge with a mile and half track steeper than 24 degrees is most tracks, when you achieve that 24 degree banking, hold all that construction equipment from the top,” Swift explains. “Naturally Atlanta has a lot of Musco lights, catchfence, and billboards that are around the top of the track. To make that happen would have been a huge cost implication, so we went to our paving contractor and asked the question, ‘do you think you can pave 28 degrees from the bottom?’
“Paving machines aren’t built to pave at steep slopes—that’s why highways are all relatively flat. Even if you’re moving over a hill, they’re still relatively on a flat plane. And the only other tracks that had ever been paved higher than that were Talladega and Daytona, where they held that equipment from the top.”
Fortunately, this wouldn’t be the first time that Speedway Motorsports had a track repaved from the bottom, with the aforementioned 1.5-mile tracks all serving as examples. Between adapting notes from previous track construction projects some learning on the fly, and a little bit of luck, the project came together.
“When we placed the stone on the race track, we used the paving machine to place it to give us a feel of how to make those adjustments before we started putting blacktop in,” he continues. “Naturally, the stone base is a lot easier to move around once it’s in place than asphalt. (So) we were able to troubleshoot all our equipment while we were placing the base stone on the racing surface. And really, the stone placement was probably the most difficult; we started placing the stone as you would do at any normal paving project, and we couldn’t get the stone to stay up, it wouldn’t compact because it was so steep.
“We had to back up and punt, and we ended up cement-stabilizing all our stone. Virtually, we ended up with a concrete-treated base underneath the entire race track, because that was the only way we could get compaction to stay on that slope without stone wanting to come to the bottom or equipment wanting to slide off of it. When we decided to stabilize, it worked out so well that we had to take a milling machine to get any high spots down because it was so hard.
“When we started paving, we had some areas, going back to the engineering side of it, where we ended up having to move the fulcrum point of the paver nine inches. I asked the mechanic how he determined to move it nine inches, and he said it was as far as he could go, and it happened to work!
“There are only really two paving contractors in the United States even willing to talk about paving high banked tracks, and the one that we chose is the one that has paved the majority of all the high banks that are out there. And they had a great attitude, a great means and methods of tackling anything, and putting their best people on it to help figure that stuff out. So those groups did a really great job of troubleshooting the equipment and putting the right pieces in place to make it so we could pave at that embankment.”
The track’s former apron was removed entirely to create the narrower and steeper embankment, while an underdrain system was added to prevent the weeper issues that the former Atlanta surface had experienced in previous years. The grading contractor spent six weeks on site to help produce the rough layout, while the paving contractor had just finished up maintenance at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina before taking on the challenge of Atlanta.
“(The project) definitely had its challenges between the weather and the embankment,” concludes Swift. “Even though Daytona and Talladega are steeper, it’s a big long sweeping turn. The radius of those turns are so much longer than that mile and a half being a tighter turn. If you think in terms of a fulcrum point, you can imagine how being in a tighter radius really played more on the equipment, and how two pieces of equipment had to be in concert when they came through the turns, moreso than they did on the big tracks.”
A Grand Opening
“The key word is confidence,” Burch says of what iRacing added to the Atlanta reconfiguration. “I think what we learned when we purchased Atlanta, flipping it, moving the grandstands to the other side, and creating the double dogleg, was that everything works together. It’s not just getting the shape of the asphalt, but how does it work with the tire, how does it work with the environment. So (it was important) to have a tool that can bring all those elements together.”
Thanks in part to the collaborative efforts with iRacing, hopes were high for Atlanta’s proper debut. While wet weather cancelled all of Friday’s planned sessions, they couldn’t wash away the optimism—and Saturday’s sessions would be positive proof of the excitement to come.
“After a couple of minutes, we saw this was really cool, and this might actually work,” he continues. “It was compelling to watch these guys working out how these different lines worked together, how the drafting worked together. Usually the inside line, right around the bottom of the track, is the fastest way around, but you’d see a group of guys force a car down inside and have a multi-car draft pass him around the outside, so this could be really interesting when we get to Sunday in a fully competitive environment.
“It really worked out to be better than we could imagine. You really didn’t have cars that could really pull out from each other. You’d maybe have three cars pull away, but then the inside or outside line would organize and pull them back in. Talking to drivers after the race, they said it was somewhat similar to a superspeedway, but because the track was so much shorter, the amount of time you’d have to react was so much quicker than you saw at a 2.5-mile speedway. That split-second decision making, lots of decisions, lots of passing, lots of back and forth, and lots of real-time strategy made the racing so interesting to watch on a lap-by-lap basis.”
“I thought it all went really well,” added Earnhardt Jr., whose JR Motorsports team locked out the front row in the Xfinity Series race on Saturday and took the top four spots in the first stage. “I didn’t have any real expectations on how either of the races were going to look, but I’m not surprised when what we see in the virtual world happens in the real world. I’ve been on iRacing since 2008, and I’ve found dozens and dozens of scenarios where the sim is ahead of reality. Whatever people are figuring out in the setup world, or just variables that people are using on the race track in the sim world, I’m seeing that same thing play out in the real world down the road. I’ve always kind of been fascinated by that, seeing how closely the two worlds align, and it’s always a great feeling when they do.
“You’re always kind of wondering, ‘how close are we in the sim world?’ You’ve got all the information, all the aero, all the power, numbers, and data points, and it just really goes to show how advanced the sim is, when you can plug all that in and see how the sim and real world mirror each other.”
The results spoke for themselves. More than four million viewers tuned in, marking increases in the hundreds of thousands from the previous year’s race and more than holding its own against the second round of NCAA March Madness. Beyond that, the new racing product created a destination event on the calendar—one that Burch and Speedway Motorsports are keen to keep distinct.
“One of the things we’re seeing in the schedule is that the more diversity you bring, the more different styles you bring, the more interesting it is for everybody,” Burch says. “So I wouldn’t say we’re going to do a bunch of these, if we ever even do any more of these. We want to keep this special, keep it unique, and see as these guys develop an understanding of what it takes to be successful here. And I do think it opens up the door for someone who has some aptitude for superspeedway style racing, but with a skillset to make quicker decisions that allows some people to win or compete for a top ten as the race winds down.”
“(But) all of the feedback we’ve had was extremely positive. Fans responded well, not just with their social comments, but actually calling the ticket office and saying I want to be there in July when we come back and race again. Fans are voting with their wallets, with their time, with their energy. And that’s ultimately how you judge if something is successful or not.”
One thing is for certain, though: when tracks want or need to make layout changes for the future, iRacing will be on speed dial. And with numerous tracks and unique challenges now under their belt, Hill and the rest of iRacing’s development team will be patiently awaiting whatever legendary motorsports promoters like Speedway Motorsports can throw at them next.
“iRacing is a huge advantage, because I can’t imagine ten years ago building a new race track and just hoping it will work out,” Hill says. “Now you can know because you can use products like ours and the amazing technology we have and validate your ideas, or see if the ideas will turn out not so great, until you can arrive at a place that works.
“You can use iRacing to build confidence in real world projects, the investments that you’re going to make in the future. You can identify problems and fix those problems virtually without ever having that kind of pain in the real world where you might build a race track and realize there’s a huge bump exiting a turn and asking, how are we going to fix this?’ You don’t even need to worry about that because you already solved it ahead of time with very little money.”
“When we repaved Bristol, we thought (we knew) what it was going to do,” Swift concurs. “The one thing that we couldn’t take into account was the (Car of Tomorrow), and the first race with that car was the one at a brand new Bristol Motor Speedway. Those were a lot of elements that you couldn’t interject to see what was going to happen back in those days, but today iRacing can help us out and show us what we’re going to be creating can actually be achieved. It takes a lot of the guesswork out and gives us more flexibility to come up with different thoughts and processes to look at before we put a shovel in the ground.”
“Whether it’s a new venue or a facility that because of the health of the asphalt has to be redone, (iRacing) gives you the chance to say, let’s throw some different variables out there,” adds Burch. “And before you undertake that really expensive moving of the dirt, you can try a lot of things out virtually and test things out. And it may allow you to test the boundaries and try some really “wacky” things and see how a car would react, see how it responds with 40 cars on it.
“You don’t have to have nearly as much of a guess as you would in the past, you can run a bunch of simulations and put real human beings in the cars. Real racers can have a much more realistic view and feel before it becomes a reality. I think this will open up possibilities for us to try a lot of different things, to come up with the best possible solution to whatever venue or challenge to us.”
Earnhardt Jr. notes that, now that the industry has made it to this point, there’s no turning back. “There are a lot of projects in the works—a lot of big and ambitious ideas—and the sim will not only let some of those come to life and be a reality, but also save the industry and the fans a lot of heartburn over projects that shouldn’t happen, or that we find aren’t practical through the work of the sim.
“But the other thing is, as we’re developing race tracks using the sim, we’re also developing cars, and the sim is working with manufacturers to design cars. A lot of work went into the Next Gen that was on the service before the car was ever built, and I think that’s something that will evolve and become more prominent. Teams and organizations like NASCAR will use iRacing as a test environment before they ever make anything physical or tangible. That’s going to be a great thing, not only for race fans that love racing, but also for iRacing customers.
“To have that collaboration from the industry—manufacturers, drivers, all that—means that these cars are going to be more and more realistic, and you’ll have confidence that you’re driving exactly what these guys are racing on the race track, in scenarios that they’re facing, and dealing with challenges that a race car driver deals with. That’s pretty incredible.”
iRacing continues to consult on and develop new track configurations for major industry partners looking to create new racing experiences. To partner with iRacing to design your next real-world racing experience in the virtual one, visit www.iracing.com/contact for more information.
Images via Greg Hill/iRacing and Atlanta Motor Speedway