By Michael Davis
It may have fewer seats when NASCAR comes back around in October, but the race will go on, Atlanta Motor Speedway's president and general manager said Thursday.
Structures around the 1.54-mile speedway west of Hampton were heavily damaged by a July 6 tornado spawned in the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy. Condos and suites were blown apart, lights were thrown off their stands, poles were snapped in half, vertical scoreboards were toppled and debris was strewn across the track's 870 acres.
"Pretty much everything but the track surface has been damaged," said speedway president Ed Clark.
The Weaver grandstands, some of the oldest around the track, were heavily damaged when suites around the upper levels were blown apart. Thursday, crews were still working around the track to assess damage and remove debris. Clark said that while he hopes to replace all of the grandstand seats before the fall race, some sections of seats in the middle of Weaver, along the back straight-away, may have to remain closed.
"We may not build back that section, but if there are areas where two rows are damaged and the next 10 are good, we'll probably try to go in and repair those two rows," he said. More than 9,000 seats will need to be replaced in the Weaver grandstand, about 1,000 in the Earnhardt grandstands along the front stretch.
The damage may take up to a year or more to completely repair, but Clark said that over the next three months leading up to the NASCAR Nextel Cup weekend Oct. 28-30, crews will be able to make significant headway in getting things back in shape. He said race weekend should go off with little or no inconvenience to fans, but cleanup and rebuilding may be further rushed by the NOPI Nationals, an import tuner car show, scheduled for the middle of September.
"In a year, an year and a half, two years from now, you'll drive in and say the place looks better than it did before," Clark said.
Thursday, the first car to return to the track was a BMW used in brake tests by a company hoping to market products to the German auto manufacturer. The track was described as "smooth and clean," by Performance Friction Brakes president Don Burgoon, who barreled around the oval, much quieter than the high-horsepower Nextel Cup cars. "They just swept it off," he said.
Phil Gilsdorf, a spokesman for the company, said Friction Brakes booked the track to test their brakes before last week's storms, and were worried they would have to cancel the test. "We began scrambling to find a different venue when we heard about the damage, but they got it together pretty quickly," he said.
Thursday, track personnel were expected to return to some of their office space, and crews were still cleaning up debris on campgrounds and parking lots. Cranes were removing debris and air-conditioning units from the roof of the Champion suites. Clark said within weeks, the speedway will be taking bids on contractors to demolish and rebuild.
Though power had been restored in many areas, in some areas, Clark said, it might be months before they can turn lights and phones back on.
And for now, the Thursday Thunder Legends racing series is on hold, having been canceled through July 21.
Damage estimates reach up to $40 million, though Clark said he won't know for sure until all of the bills are paid.
"It's a $220-250 million property and just about everything has sustained damage," he said.
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