Atlanta Motor Speedway anything but a cookie cutter

10/24/2007 - NASCAR

To be honest, it seemed like a horrible idea. On March 10, 1997, less than 24 hours after Dale Jarrett took the checkered flag in the Primestar 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, track owner Bruton Smith sent in a fleet of bulldozers and earthmovers to reconfigure the 37-year-old racetrack.

As the machinery rolled in and started to demolish the backstretch (which would be transformed into the frontstretch by the time NASCAR returned eight months later) the noise of the diesel engines was drowned out by a rain of complaints from drivers, team owners and the motorsports media.

Why would you do this to a perfectly good track?

Why are they turning it into a double dogleg cookie cutter that looks exactly like Charlotte … and Texas … and Vegas … and … well, every other new track in the country?

Dude, this is a mistake!

Man, we were wrong.

What was once a near perfect, symmetrical oval with giant sweeping high-speed turns was flipped, kinked and repaved. The result was a wickedly fast 1.54-mile ribbon of blacktop that has managed to separate itself from every other track in the quad-oval cookie jar.

"No one was more vocal about not changing the track than me," said Jarrett, whose father Ned finished 15th in the track's inaugural '60 race. "I've literally been going down there since I was a boy and I had a lot of success on the old layout. But you certainly can't argue with the racing that we've seen there since they changed it."

The 19 races run on the new layout have produced 11 different winners, including three first-timers, an average of 26 lead changes per event, and two of the six closest finishes in NASCAR history. The last five trips alone have averaged more than 27 lead changes per visit, six more than the last five Daytona 500s.

"Usually, the faster you go the harder it is to do whatever you want to do with the car," explained Bobby Labonte, the active Atlanta wins leader with six. "But at Atlanta you can actually drive. You can put it wherever you want, which means you can actually race people."

It's a comfort level that leads to 500 miles of run-where-you-want racing. At most tracks, everyone hunts the bottom of the track and lives there all day long. At Atlanta, drivers take their pick of three -- some say four -- different lanes.

"You can change where you're running within an individual lap," said Elliott Sadler, still hunting for his first AMS win as he prepares for his 18th start. "There's something about the paint they use there that's real grippy, so I like to get way down on the bottom of Turns 1 and 2 and put my left-side tires down on the white line. But there's a series of bumps entering Turn 3 that won't let me get down there. Normally that would be a problem, but at Atlanta you just take it up high and don't lose any speed whatsoever."

Finding speed has never been the problem at Atlanta, but having the cojones to keep the throttle wide open can be. Especially for the veterans who were around for the '97 reconfiguration. They still talk about Nov. 5, 1997, the first test session on the new surface, when a handful of cars dared to take a shot at the brand-new, jet-black surface. They remember lap speeds that were threatening to top 200 mph and a surface with so much grip that it twisted tires like taffy. And they remember the sound made by ARCA champion Tim Steele's car as his tire blew apart in Turns 3 and 4 and sent him into the wall.

"It sounded like a damn missile had hit the racetrack," says Geoff Bodine, who was at the test and came back two weeks later to post a record lap of 197.478 mph. "That crash put a lot of people on edge for a while, just waiting on that new surface to be worked in a little better."

It did, much sooner than anyone expected, a fact backed up by the increasing number of passes with each passing season. Since 2000, we've also come to expect last-second passes for the lead, thanks to clock-bending wins by Dale Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick in 2001, and Carl Edwards in 2005. All three races were won with last-turn passes for the lead and by an average margin of .015 seconds.

Thanks to Atlanta's perfect blend of speed, shape and a shelfload of grooves, such recurrent amazing days have turned what once looked like a very ordinary layout into anything but a cookie cutter.

"There aren't a lot of tracks where you go in totally expecting to have 'Days of Thunder,'" said March winner Jimmie Johnson with a laugh. "You know, something crazy like 80 passes at 200 miles per hour and then it all ends with a two-wide photo finish across the line for the win. At Atlanta we always do."

Now there is talk from the AMS front office of another repaving job, the first since the now-famous extreme makeover of '97. Once again, the drivers are howling while teams and sportswriters are preparing their arguments begging Smith not to change a thing.

It can't get any racier than it already is!

Why fix what ain't broke?

Dude, this is a mistake!

Then again, maybe we should shut up and leave him alone. He sure proved us wrong last time.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."