By Michael Davis
Atlanta Motor Speedway may not exactly resemble the one seen during March's race weekend. But track officials hope some portions will be better after its repair from destructive Tropical Storm Cindy in early July.
Approaching the half-way point between a July 6 tornado that nearly decimated the track and the Oct. 28-30 race weekend, work is well under way to restore damaged portions of the nine-story condominium building, grandstands, seats and infield area at the 1.54-mile track.
This week, crews were repairing fences, replacing the damaged exteriors of some buildings, and rebuilding ticket booths that had been blown apart in the storms. During a press conference last month, NASCAR President Mike Helton told reporters the damage was the worst he's seen at a racetrack.
Track personnel, however, were in the midst of an effort to make improvements at the track, even before the tornado damage. Grading work was in progress for acres of new campgrounds and parking in conjunction with the rerouting of Ga. Highway 20. A new portion of the highway will connect with Richard Petty Boulevard behind the east turn of the track.
Dorothy Daniel, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said Friday that crews still expect to open the road, which will be four lanes from the track to Interstate 75, in time for race traffic.
Some items that fans might miss however, won't be replaced in time for the race.
The suites above the Weaver grandstand, one of the oldest around the track, rises like an iron skeleton above thousands of seats along the back straight-away. One of the most heavily damaged areas around the track, debris from the suites, which were all but blown apart in the storm, once lay scattered in the stands.
Crews gutted the Weaver suites last week, said Marcy Scott, a spokeswoman for Atlanta Motor Speedway, leaving the metal frame standing, which will likely be wrapped in advertising like a giant four-sided billboard. The suites there will not be rebuilt until after the fall race.
Likewise, a scoring tower that once rose out of the first turn but was toppled as the storm made its way across the track will not be replaced in time for the race. The tower in the fourth turn however, Scott said, should be sufficient until the toppled tower is rebuilt. "When that one comes back, it will be bigger and better," Scott said.
While Weaver will remain a reminder of the damage wreaked by Cindy, the tropical system that spawned the tornado and heavily damaged other areas of Henry County, the suites above the start/finish line however, have all been gutted and re-framed and will be refurbished with new carpet, tile and other accouterments. "They'll be as if they were brand new," Scott said.
There will also be a handful of smaller suites offered for the fall race. Some of the boxes that once held up to 32 people were split in half to offer 16-person accommodations for smaller crowds.
During the October race weekend, track officials will also close down some of the internal streets around the outside of the track that fans once used to get from one side to another. Scott said closing the streets, and the track's plans to run trams across the property, will make the speedway more pedestrian friendly.
Other improvements could be announced in coming weeks as the track approaches the half-way point of cleanup and rebuilding.
While rebuilding has continued since the days after the tornado, activity on the track itself, which AMS President and General Manager Ed Clark said appeared to be the only undamaged portion of the property, has hardly been interrupted.
Less than 10 days after the storms, the track was used for testing by a South Carolina brake manufacturer. The nighttime Thursday Thunder series however, suffered weeks of setbacks because of damage to lights and fan grandstands, but daytime testing and driving schools, including one held Friday, have continued.