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Iowa Speedway Project Races to Finish Line

Mon October 23, 2006 - Midwest Edition
Kathie Sutin

It all started with a dream seven years ago.

And last month — just 15 months after construction began — the green flag went down on what some are calling the nation’s state-of-the-art racetrack, the Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa.

The track has been hailed for several innovations and its unique layout and design, driven in part by input from NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver Rusty Wallace, making it the first track design based on driver suggestions.

In fact, Wallace himself drove a big dozer to officially break the ground on the .875-mi. asphalt oval track project in June 2005 during ceremonies that included hundreds of racing fans, racing dignitaries and others.

The Speedway, built by U.S. Motorsport Corp., has several distinctive features, including a New Age Safer Barrier System, three tunnels under the track and cameras in the track so viewers can see the cars from below.

The Safer Barrier System, developed by NASCAR and the Indy Racing League and crash tested by the University of Nebraska, is considered one of the most effective safety measures in the racing industry in recent years. The Safer Barrier “cushions” the blow to drivers when an impact with the outside retaining wall occurs. It absorbs the impact of the crash and lessens the risk of injury to the driver.

While older tracks have been “retro-fitted” with the system on existing concrete walls, mainly in the turns, the Iowa Speedway is the first to install the system — without a concrete wall behind it — in a new track. And, it is around the track’s entire perimeter.

The track has a seating capacity of 40,000 with 25,000 permanent seats and 15,000 festival seats.

It has eight courses from an eighth of a mile drag strip to the .875-mi. oval to a 1.3 road course, and courses of a fifth-mi., quarter-mi. and .438-mi. In the center is a police training academy for the Iowa State Police and other law enforcement agencies.

The speedway was the dream of Stan Clement, who is now president of the Iowa Speedway, said Andy Vertrees, chief operating officer for the Speedway.

Just 15 months later, construction was virtually complete. Although events have been held at the speedway for some time, a “soft opening” with the track’s first race was held last month while workers continued to finish details of the project.

“That’s a short time to build a project of this size,” Vertrees said. “Trying to get it done in 15 months is a big challenge with the winters here and everything. But we’re getting there. The place is coming together great. We’ve got some great companies working on it.”

He listed among them Neumann, the general contractor; Meisner Construction, the electrical contractor, and Proctor Mechanical, which has done a lot of the mechanical work.

“They’ve all been great people to work for, and they did a good job building this place,” Vertrees said. “It’s a showplace. It’s really built well.”

Of Meisner, a Newton-based company, Vertrees said, “I just can’t tell you how well they’ve done for us. Another great company was McAninch Corp. out of Des Moines. They moved all the dirt — more than 2 million yards of dirt, plus they did the sewer piping, the whole nine yards.”

Vertrees came to Iowa from Kentucky Speedway, a mile-and-a-half super speedway in Sparta, Ky., halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville.

“I came here to build the track,” he said. “I’ve built several tracks. That’s what I do.”

The $80 million speedway is built on 270 acres of farmland right next to an airport. “That’s a big plus for it,” Vertrees said.

Vertrees said the field in Iowa was a perfect place for the new speedway because racing is popular here and the market looks good.

“Iowa is known for auto racing,” he said. “It has 57 race tracks, all successful. There are a lot of people here into racing.”

Another plus for the Iowa track is the lack of many other entertainment venues close by, he said.

“It’s is not like the area where the Kentucky speedway is located,” he said. “You have the Bengals, the Reds, six or eight water parks, a lot of entertainment,” Vertrees said. “We’re all after the same leisure or entertainment dollar whether it be soft entertainment like casinos or picture shows or hard entertainment like auto racing, horse tracks. We felt like it was really good here in this state. We felt like the area was starving for entertainment venues. It would be a perfect spot for the track.”

Vertrees is pleased with the local support for the speedway.

“The state of Iowa has received this with open arms and the city of Newton has backed it and helped financially,” he said. “The state has helped financially with the road infrastructure.”

Power to the area had to be increased to handle the lighting requirements of the speedway, he said. That includes high performance lighting that puts out uniform light for nighttime broadcast of races for television coverage and tall overhead stadium-type lights.

“We could light an Interstate from here to Chicago with just the lights in this place, and there’s enough wire in this track right here to light the interstate from here to Chicago,” Vertrees said.

The project went over budget, due in large part to price hikes and fallout from the hurricanes.

“Think about it,” said Vertrees. “You get a set price on building the place and then the price of gas goes to $2.75 a gallon where it was a buck 98. And the copper prices went up three times while we were building. Steel has gone through the roof.

“We are a little bit like everybody on overruns because of the cost but it’s going to be a top-notch facility. And we think it’ll be the nicest one in America.

“We thought we could do it for $70 million but then we added some luxury items too — cameras in the track, something a lot of other tracks don’t have,” Vertrees said.

Of all the special features, Vertrees is especially proud of the Safer Barrier System. “Here, our whole track is done with a Safer Barrier with no concrete wall behind it. This is the first track to ever do that.”

“The traditional method is where you have a concrete footing and a concrete retaining wall and you had the safer wall installed inside of that system,” said Kevin W. Clements, P.E., project manager of Neuman. “The new generation uses a concrete foundation and attaches the safer wall with a steel reinforcement structure behind that right on that footing. You can basically pour the concrete footing at grade and it eliminates the excavation of the forming of the wall around the track.

“The safer wall is made with eight-by-eight steel tubes that are installed in front of Styrofoam standoffs, between the support and tube is Styrofoam and then in between the Styrofoam supports they have nylon straps that attach to it. So, when there’s an impact, it’s a big tension thing. Part of it goes into compression and then the straps, when the tube bulges out, they go into tension and hold it in place. It’s similar to the highway barriers at overpasses and the sand barrels and the steel pinulators you see. It’s the same kind of thing only it’s more than that and for racing.”

The system has five tubes stacked on top of each other 40 in. (102 cm) high continuously all the way around the track, he said.

The track surface itself is polymerized asphalt with granite aggregate for traction and sliding, he said.

“The granite has more surface for the asphalt to bind to so when the car comes around and they have a suction force on it, and you don’t pull the aggregate out of the surface,” said Clements. “The track has compound tracking with 12, 13 and 14 degree banking. It’s not all the same angle. There’s three grooves — the lower groove is at 12 degrees from horizontal, the middle is 13 and the 14 degrees at the top in the turns.”

That promotes side-by-side racing, he said.

“Another great construction element that we used was blocks of geofoam 4 foot by 4 foot by 20 foot long.”

The geofoam, a type of Styrofoam, has the same compaction as dirt.

“We stacked it up over our tunnel, and it softens the walls because of less concrete,” said Vertrees. “It doesn’t freeze and thaw. We run outside a foot each way so it does not heave in the winter like other tunnels and roadways. It’s a pretty unique design. It’s the first time it’s ever been used on a race track.”

Vertrees also is proud of the cameras in the track.

“We’re the first track in America to implant cameras in the track,” he said. “We have four cameras, and it is pretty neat to see a car coming out of a turn and running right over the camera. It also beeps when the car runs over it.”

Vertrees said the .875-mi. track has banked turns of 12, 13 and 14 degrees, which made construction a challenge.

Another unusual feature is the three tunnels under the track.

“There is one walk-through tunnel and two drive-through tunnels,” he said.

Also, officials and others can get in and out of the track without stopping the race, he said. “That’s very critical. We have a fan-walk where fans can come down and watch the cars being teched and watch the race from the infield, which is very exciting for a lot of people.”

The track was paved with a special mix of asphalt that includes polymer. “It was developed to take freezing, thawing, giving so it stretches,” he said, adding that tires adhere to the surface better and that less cracking occurs in harsh winter conditions.”

The track was paved with two layers by the same company that did Talladega Speedway at the same time. Gene Harrington did the design mix which was put down by Manatt Corporation, Vertrees said.

Donn Eide, area manager of Manatt, said paving the track was different from paving a roadway. It was the first time his company paved a racetrack.

“It was interesting,” he said. “One of our rollers couldn’t operate on those slopes, but we did have other rollers in our fleet that could handle it. The track was up to 14 degrees of banking. There’s just a lot more slope to the track and that makes it harder to pave.”

The special mix required granite imported from Minnesota, which was required for the hardness of the track, Eide said.

“So 65 percent of the surface course was imported on rail cars from Minnesota to Des Moines and then we trucked it out,” he said. “Granite’s not readily available in Iowa. It’s usually limestone and gravel.”

Constructing in a largely rural area also impacted the project.

“In a metropolitan area, most of the time they have plants, but in rural Iowa, it’s a little different,” he said. “We actually used two different asphalt plants on the project. We do have a commercial plant near Newton so we used that for all the roadways and parking lots, but the track itself was a portable plant, which we had in Kellogg, Iowa, a few miles away.”

The liquid asphalt in the mix was “different,” Eide said. “It was 82 minus 22. That means it’s a real stiff liquid asphalt. That makes it a little more challenging to handle in the mix.”

The company used two different pavers on the project — a RoadTec RP-195 and a Vogele paver.

“We were having some trouble with density, and they offered us this paver that has a high density screen,” said Eide. “It has stiffer bars and pressure bars so we used it, but we also used our RoadTek 195. We had a Cat roller out there; we had a Hamm and we had an Ingersoll Rand out there.”

Eide said the actual construction of the pavement was different. “We had to take and cut off each open edge of the pavement four to six inches and use a joint seal material to adhere the next joint to it. That’s something unique to this versus roadway paving.”

Clements also explored use of geofoam, including over the tunnels.

“With the banking of the tracks, we have basically a wedge of dirt three feet at one end and approximately 20 feet high at the other,” he said. “Instead of putting it all in earth and having all that weight, we used geofoam — big Styrofoam blocks with similar density characteristics. We used that as filler material in that wedge, so we kept the weight down on the tunnel, which reduced the design requirements of the tunnel.

“We built a triple barrel tunnel for vehicle and pedestrian traffic and then above the roof of that tunnel we used the geofoam in a pyramid-type shape to displace additional dirt and then put a constant thickness of dirt over that.

“Then we have a sub base and the asphalt for the track. It reduced the weight on the tunnel structure, which cut down on the design requirements and reduced the thickness of the roof and the sidewall and the reinforcing.”

Clements said the biggest challenge was the construction timeline. “Building a full facility in 15 months and going through the winter was a real challenge,” he said.

McIninch, which did the earthwork and the utilities, used GPS technology on the earthwork reducing the survey requirement enormously for the grading, Bob Tometich of McIninch said.

The company used Cat equipment including off-load trucks, excavators and a 385 C with a large custom-made bucket.

The company also used belly dumps and side dumps.

“That was one of the neat things — they were placing rock on the track out of the belly dumps and they had to go fast enough that the belly dump wouldn’t slide down the slope but not so fast that they were out of control. The trucks were moving probably 50 or 60 miles an hour or better,” he said.

Another special feature of the speedway is the Newton Club, an air-conditioned, full-service indoor club and 2,000 chair back seats right outside the door.

While the speedway was built for racing, it’s “more than a race track,” Vertrees said. Everything from driving schools to concerts will be held there.

“The funny thing that people think about race tracks is that you run seven or eight weekends a year and that’s not so,” Vertrees said. “We will run 220 events here in ’07. It may be anything from weddings to company team building programs.

“Believe it or not, a lot of people have gotten married in Victory Lane and then have their reception here,” he said. “People who really love racing think it’s the perfect place for a wedding.”

The Newton Club overlooking the track seats 2,000 people and is perfect for team-building programs, Vertrees said.

“John Deere, for example, can come in and do a team-building meeting and bring all their Deere distributorships from the region and introduce their new products. Then at the end of the day, they could take a Richard Petty Driving Experience as a perk for the upper execs.”

Approximately 30,000 seats are being completed this year with plans to add another 10,000 for 2007.

“The bigger the races, the more seats you need,” Vertrees said. “We’ll be right back doing construction work here.”

He said plans are to install the additional seating for the Indy Racing League that will race at the speedway June 24. That’s a major series on national and worldwide TV, he added.

The track already has a busy schedule ahead, Vertrees said. “We’re running two race weekends this year with the Indy Race League already scheduled for ’07, and the Rolex Series is scheduled on the Roads course.” CEG

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