Track workers complete costly undertaking

HAMPTON, Ga. -- For the president of Atlanta Motor Speedway,
it's one of the nicest compliments he can get: Hey, everything
looks the same.

Ed Clark knows just how much work it took to put this place back together.

The 1.54-mile speedway south of Atlanta, which hosts a crucial
race Sunday in NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup championship,
sustained major damage when a tornado spun off from the remnants of
Tropical Storm Cindy on July 6.

When the dark clouds cleared, the track looked as though it had been in a high-speed crash.

Entire sections of its grandstand and luxury boxes were
shredded. Oak trees, flagpoles and light towers were snapped.
Portions of the outside wall were damaged. The roof caved in and
windows shattered on some luxury condominiums that tower over the
fourth turn.

"Every single thing on our property, with the exception of the
racetrack, had some damage," said Clark, the facility's president
and general manager.

Clark and his staff didn't have long to fret. They quickly put
together a plan, brought in more than 1,000 workers, and made sure
close to $40 million in repairs and improvements were made in time
for the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 and other events this weekend.

"As crazy and warped as this sounds, it was actually a pretty
neat adventure," Clark said. "You have a bounce in your step when
you come in every day knowing you've got that kind of challenge."

Jeff Gordon, who tested at the track earlier this month, was
impressed by the speed of the repairs.

"Looking around, I'm seeing a few changes," Gordon said. "You
can tell they have done an awesome job getting it back to where it
was before the storm."

Clark got similar assessments from Mark Martin and Kurt Busch,
who tested at the track last week.

"They both asked us to tell them exactly what was damaged,
because they couldn't tell," Clark said. "That's as good a
compliment as we could have."

Clark came out to inspect the track shortly after the tornado
went through. It was dark, all the power was out, and he stumbled
through the grounds with a flashlight. But he knew things were bad
when he came across a cushion from one of the suites, sitting in
the road about a quarter-mile away.

Once the sun came up, there were some amazing vignettes: a
bottle of wine that had blown from the suites, sitting in a parking
lot unbroken; a half-filled can of gas that never budged from its
spot in the infield amid all the swirling debris; the shattered
windows of the suites heading into turn one forming the perfect
outline of a 3 -- Dale Earnhardt's number.

"He never liked the fact that we changed the track," Clark
said, referring to the project that turned it from an oval to a
trioval and reversed the front and back stretches. "That would
have been turn three on the old track. … My hair stood up when I
saw that."

Among the work that was done: 92 suites were totally rebuilt;
more than eight miles of fencing was installed, 129 flag poles went
up, 10,000 tons of asphalt were poured, and more than 12,000 square
yards of carpet went down.

In addition to repairing the damage, track officials took
advantage of the chance to make other needed improvements such as
new entrances and sidewalks, upgraded restrooms and 45 additional
acres of camping facilities.

The biggest thing the track needed was a new highway to
alleviate the nightmarish traffic that always plagued race
weekends. Until now, there was only one major highway funneling
into the speedway, leaving fans to sit in bumper-to-bumper jams for
several hours before and after races.

Even before the tornado struck, work was being done on a
10-mile-long, four-lane highway that runs from Interstate 75,
bypasses the town of Hampton and comes out at the backstretch of
the track.

The $35 million state project, named Bruton Smith Parkway in
honor of the track's owner, was dedicated two weeks ago.

"Traffic has always been an issue for us," Clark said. "I
think it's the biggest thing that's happened to track since we took
over in 1990."

A few things didn't get fixed. The towering scoreboard in turn
one had to be taken down, and a replacement won't be installed
until next year. The corporate hospitality pavilions in turn three
were bulldozed, and a temporary arrangement -- tents in a gravel lot
-- will be used for this race.

"I can tell you that we're 90 percent completed, plus a lot of
improvements," Clark said. "It's a tribute to the workers.
Thankfully, many of them are good race fans."

Of course, some things are beyond the scope of schedules and
construction crews. Many of the huge oak trees -- some of them 70
and 80 years old -- were blown down in the storm.

"That bothered me more than anything," Clark said. "You just
can't replace those."