Kansas Speedway is in need of a repave. The racing surface of the eleven year old track has become somewhat a patchwork of sealant and rectangular tar surface mends.
The intermediate track is owned by International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and was opened in 2001 with Jeff Gordon winning the first Cup race that September.
Kansas Speedway was built in the fan friendly D-shape design. Although the D-shape design of the track allows better viewing angles for spectators sitting in the stands the fans have slowly become disenchanted with these types of racing facilities giving them the nickname 'cookie cutter' tracks because they are all the same in appearance with little variation in basic design.
Most of the tracks built from the mid 1990's to the mid 2000's were based on the same D-shape design. Even though each of these 'cookie cutter' tracks vary in banking and radius of their turns they all appear to be the same to the average NASCAR fan almost to the point where fans tuning in on Sunday don't know which track their NASCAR superheros are racing at until it is flashed across the screen or the announcer happens to mention the track's name.
The problem for the fan is that these D-shaped ovals like Kansas appear to have no individuality and most of these fans are tired of seeing the same type of racing week in and week out with what seems to be the same drivers who have mastered these 1.5 mile tracks winning each week.
The problem for drivers is that no matter the degree of banking or the radius of the turns the cars on the track all seem to have the same problem while racing each other for position, the dreaded aero push. With D-shaped 'cookie-cutter' ovals the cars are essentially in a corner for about two-thirds of the 1.5 mile lap and no matter how different each track may be in it's banking and turn radius's you just can't get rid of the areo push that drivers experience.
Drafting is a good way to gain speed and cut fuel mileage while racing in a straight line, but once you get into the corners the air you didn't want on the nose of your car on the straightaway you want back. What happens is that "the trailing car suffers a reduction of downforce on its front tires, resulting in a loss of stability and handling" (via howstuffworks.com) and since these 'cookie cutter' tracks are mostly corners it makes it very hard for drivers to pass the cars in front of them.
This is why it is hard to pass and why teams spend an abundant amount of time developing the areo packages for their cars and why you see the same cars winning at these types of tracks - those who spend the most, win the most!
So what can be done to get rid of this type of racing?
Well the owners of Kansas Speedway seem to think variable banking is going to be the solution to this problem. The new pavement at the track is going to be 17 degrees on the low side and up to 20 degrees along the wall replacing the uniform 15-degree banking of the existing track. But I'm not too sure about that variable degree banking is the answer.
Sure variable banking helped to make passing easier at Bristol, but that is a short track where it is still possible to win the race with the sheet metal nose missing on the front of your car and the grip of your front tires isn't dependent on the air flowing over the nose and hood of your car.
Variable banking also helped racing at the 1.5 mile Miami-Homestead Speedway where the track went from a flat cornered track to a 6 degree banked track to the variable degree banked track (18-20 degrees) it is today. But Miami-Homestead is not a D-shaped oval it is more of a traditional shaped track that has two long straightaways where one could get the advantages of drafting and feel the effects of aero push much less compared to the D-shaped tracks.
Will variable banking help solve the problem of aero push for drivers or will they still have the same problems regardless? Variable banking will allow the cars to maintain a higher speed in the corners while up high compared to those staying lower in the corner, but I think the areo push problem will persist. I'm not a physicist nor an engineer but in my opinion, regardless of the degree of banking, you will still have cars in corners for the better part of each lap needing air on the nose to make it turn whether they are running up high or down low - it just makes sense.
The next race Kansas hosts in the fall is going to be a very significant one, more significant than what anyone is letting on at the moment I think. If variable banking helps make racing more exciting at Kansas then it would be safe to assume that variable banking will also help at all of the other 1.5 mile D-shaped ovals currently on the NASCAR schedule.
But what if it doesn't improve?
My hope would be that those in charge would re-evaluate the success of the current D-shaped formula and set about making some changes that would reconfigure many of the current 1.5 mile 'cookie cutter' tracks into more individually unique racing complexes with a visual and racing identity of their own (maybe even seeing a few more short tracks). And if they remain at the status quo then I would imagine you will start to see declining attendance and TV ratings as the fans become more disenchanted with these 1.5 mile D-shaped 'cookie cutter' tracks .