Nothing bumpy about this: Iowa Speedway has character

Updated: 

NEWTON, Iowa -- Its asphalt has faded in the 13 years it’s been sitting in the sun, turning from jet black to light gray. Iowa Speedway isn’t young anymore, and it’s showing it with a face of darker patches intermingled with black tar seams and lighter sealant.

When it’s not being faded by the summer sun, it’s being squeezed and spread by the constant freeze-thaw of Iowa winters. Once smooth and grippy, it’s now bumpy and slippery. Once easy to drive, it’s now difficult.

In other words, Iowa Speedway has personality. Some drivers like it, some don’t, and some are on the fence. But whether it’s ready for a repave was among the topics of conversation Friday as drivers prepared for tonight’s Iowa 300.

“It’s a fine line, because the bumps certainly give this place a lot of character,” said James Hinchcliffe, who won here last year and will start fifth tonight in the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. “Repaving racetracks usually leads to a year or two of not the best racing. Obviously, we’ve got a great product here at Iowa Speedway, so we’ll have to see what they decide to do.

“I like it. I think it’s got a lot of character. It’s not undrivable or dangerous by any stretch of the imagination. As long as we’re putting on good shows, I think we should hang on to it as long as we can.”

The track, which opened in 2006 and was purchased by NASCAR in November 2013, underwent extensive repairs to the area over the infield tunnel in Turns 1 and 2 shortly after the sale. Track officials monitor the tunnel bump and other seasonal changes with GPS-equipped devices that can measure changes within fractions of an inch, then repair as warranted.

While a repave isn’t in the works yet, the seven-eighths-mile oval is approaching the time in which it will need one.

“At some point, it’s going to have to be repaved,” Iowa Speedway president David Hyatt said. “We’re probably approaching that window not too far ahead of us. Our biggest benefit would be that we would be able to fix some of groundwater issues and weepers that we occasionally experience.”

For some drivers, the repave can’t come soon enough.

“We keep complaining, but nothing has been done,” said Tony Kanaan, who will start 13th tonight in the No. 14 ABC A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet. “It’s frustrating because it’s such a fun oval to drive. We’re not going to be here in a couple of years if somebody doesn’t do something about it. It’s extremely rough. We can’t go as fast as we used to. You get bounced around a lot. They have rough winters here, and it’s been deteriorating, so hopefully they do something about it. I love the place, but it needs to be fixed.”

Adding to the challenges of the bumps is the return to night racing at Iowa Speedway, something the NTT IndyCar Series hasn’t done since 2015. That, along with the extreme heat this weekend, the short practice time and the challenges of qualifying during the day and racing at night, make this a particularly difficult race in which to nail the setup.

“It’s definitely a moving target right now,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won at Iowa in 2012, 2014 and 2015. “As we keep coming back, the bumps are worse, so we come back with different tire compounds and different times of day for racing. It’s just a really big moving target for the teams. People don’t want to repave because it gets too gripped up, but at some point it’s a pill you have to take.”

That pill would cost between $3.5 million and $10 million, Hyatt said, depending on the extent of the repave.

“When it does happen, we’ll deal with what it does to the racing for a couple of years and then we’ll see it come back, as it has with many other racetracks,” Hyatt said. “Overall, we’re not anxious to get it repaved because we hear more positive than negative comments.”

Some of those positive comments come from a driver who hasn’t experienced the track for four years. Sage Karam, who’ll start 14th tonight in the No. 31 SmartStop Carlin Chevrolet tonight, hasn’t raced at Iowa Speedway since he finished third in 2015 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“When I drove here in the past, there was only a bump in (Turns) 1 and 2,” Karam said. “Now both ends have bumps, and they’re different styles of bumps. It makes it really challenging. I think it’s good for a driver. You have to work woth it and around it. You have to Take it into account when you’re trying to set your car up. I enjoy it.”

So, too, does Ed Carpenter, whose team brings a five-race streak of top-five finishes into Saturday’s race.

“Weathered ovals produce better racing than ones that are new and really grippy,” Carpenter said. “Even if you go back and look at our early races here, you could run multiple lanes, but the bottom lane was dominant. It was hard to even go around someone just because the distance was shorter. When tracks get like this, it just makes it more of a challenge for the teams and drivers. It produces multiple lanes and cresates good cars and bad cars. It spices up the racing.”

The repairs to the surface are more concerning to some drivers than the bumps.

“There are a lot of big patches around this place -- big concrete or sealant patches,” Hunter-Reay said. “Those are the issues. I’m not worried about the bumps. It’s more the big patches that make for consistent levels of grip. Bumps are fun. Patches are not. At some point, paving is inevitable.”

Here’s what’s also inevitable: Iowa’s aging surface will play a role in tonight’s race. Some drivers embrace that. Others don’t.

“Some people like white chocolate, but I like dark chocolate,” Kanaan says with a laugh. “I don’t like bumps.”

From the fans