NASCAR aims to cut track drying time

On Tuesday, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O’Donnell held a teleconference discuss a new NASCAR innovation — the Air Titan. This Air Titan is supposed to reduce track drying time, using compressed air to dry racing surfaces 80 percent faster than currently used methods. A Phase 1 version of the Air-Titan, which is still in the development stages, is expected to debut during Speedweeks at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. The NASCAR portion of Speedweeks kicks off Saturday with the running of the Sprint Unlimited (formerly called the Budweiser Shootout) exhibition event for the Sprint Cup Series.

During the conference, O’Donnell outlined the creation process, how Air Titan is supposed to work, and exactly what all NASCAR hopes to accomplish with it in the near future and down the road. Here’s a transcript of the news conference:

STEVE O’DONNELL: NASCAR is really excited to officially introduce our track-drying technology to you this afternoon, which we are naming NASCAR’s Air Titan, and as everyone knows, the time it takes to dry a track and the impact it’s had on our fans attending an event and those watching us on television is really the main reason our chairman Brian France tasked the folks at the R & D Center to come up with a solution to reduce trying time. And what we looked at is an 18- to 24-month process to get us to Phase 1 has really been reduced to the last six months, where we were able to design, develop and test the Air Titan and have it ready for Speedweeks in Daytona. So it’s important to note that we are still very much in Phase 1 of the process, still a great deal to learn and updates to be made, but we’re really excited about where we are today.

It’s been a thoroughly-tested scientific process that’s put us in this position. Clearly this was an internal innovation from NASCAR’s R & D Center, resulted from many long days and nights due to the tireless efforts of many talented people at the R & D Center and some of whom I want to mention today on the call. Mike Horton, Don Krueger, John Sutton and Shawn Rogers, really instrumental in the development of the Air Titan, and also Jerry Kaproth and Austin Tate, who have been instrumental in the testing process as we move forward.

And as part of the testing process, it’s good just to list out who we worked with. We enlisted the expertise of the National Center for Asphalt Technology at Auburn, Racing Surfaces Technology, which is Bob Harrington, which I’m sure some of you know has worked closely with us on track surfaces, Qualpro, the folks at Elgin, SolAir and Ring Power CAT.

The Air Titan’s ultimate goal is to reduce drying time, which you’ve heard from our chairman, by 80 percent. So we want everyone to keep in mind that this is going to be the first phase of an ongoing process, but we’re confident the drying time is going to be reduced as you see, and hopefully you won’t see, the Air Titan in use during Speedweeks. There will be tweaks along the way and technology will improve, and really our next focus for us is to optimize the power source for the Air Titan, so there’s still some work to be done there and we can get into that more in the future.

A quick description of how it works: We’ll have basically two sets of identical equipment on opposite sides of the track that will move in the same direction and do one complete pass of the racetrack, and the system basically works by having compressors feed air at a high rate of speed through a hose to the Air Titan modules, and the Air Titan is able to blow air in narrow, highly pressurized sheets over the race surface down onto the apron, and then on the apron we’ve got a regenerative air vacuum truck, which obviously absorbs the water provided by Elgin, and then we’ll have jet dryers behind each cycle, we’ll have five of those, that will move at a rate of speed at approximately 3 to 5 miles per hour, important for them to maintain a consistent speed.

Again, we’ll deploy it on two areas of the track. Tracey will give you the location on the media site when we’re done with the call where we’ve got some animation that will truly show kind of how it works, and you can picture the system in use, as well.

With that, we’re, again, really excited about the innovation from our R & D folks. We’re hoping not to see the Air Titan in play during Speedweeks, but we certainly want to show everyone how it will work during media day, and excited about that.

With that, I’ll turn it over and see if we have any questions.

Q. Did last year’s race, either the fireball incident or the rain out do anything to accelerate the plans for the new system?

STEVE O’DONNELL: We actually had plans starting prior to that, but it certainly — having the first Daytona 500 rained out certainly put more of an emphasis on the importance for the fans attending and obviously those watching, and for us to get off to a really strong start to the season.

You know, the good news with this new innovation is it will really improve safety, there won’t be any cars on the track during the track drying process, so we can avoid what happened in the past. And it certainly helped us to gain some momentum, I think, internally to make this a priority, which it was, and obviously with the speed with which our folks were able to develop it we’re happy with where we are so far.

Q. Do you plan to have this at all tracks, and will you guys just bring them from track to track until the tracks need to use it?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Great question. At this point candidly we feel like we’re a lot further ahead in the development phase than where we thought we would be, so Daytona will really give us the first chance for us to see it work. Speedweeks historically has a lot of product on the track. We felt like with the relationship with Ring Power, they were able to come to the table and help us provide some of the power for the Air Titan. So we’re going to use this as a test. We’re going to go back after Daytona, make some tweaks, see what we can do to learn from the process, and then really explore, as I said earlier, how we power the Air Titan.

We’ve still got some work to do there for the other tracks, so we’ll look at options in the future, but Daytona will just be Phase 1.

Q. And can you say how much time, how many man hours and how much money you’ve spent on it?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I’d say it’s been a significant amount of time and investment. Can’t point to a specific dollar figure, but I’d say one of our three main pillars from R & D that we’ve been working on in technology, so this certainly has been a priority for the group.

Q. To follow up, is what you’re saying then that you’ll have it at Daytona but you don’t know the next track where you’ll have it out again?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, that’s fair. I think we want to see how it goes. Keep in mind that this has never been tested during a race or during full rain conditions at a track, so we’ve still got some work to do once we see it, if we do see it in play, and we’ll learn from there and make sure we’ve got the best model going forward possible for other tracks.

Q. Do you have a time frame of when you’d maybe like to have it back out this season?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I wouldn’t point to a specific one. I would say this: If we had to we could deploy this at any racetrack, but I think we’ve still got some work to do from powering the Air Titan. There’s still some challenges there and some logistical challenges depending on where we’re racing. We’ve still got to work through those. We’ve got some relationships to develop for the racetracks, and once those are in place, we feel confident that we’ll get there.

I can tell you that the priority for us is obviously our racetracks and our fans, so as soon as we can, we’ll obviously deploy it to every track as soon as we can.

Q. It’s somewhat of a sea change since tracks are all responsible for supplying their own jet dryers. Have you started to work out with racetracks how that will be provided in the future? Will it be incumbent upon you guys to provide all of the track-drying equipment and will you share costs, or is all of that down the road at this point?

STEVE O’DONNELL: A little bit down the road, but I think it’s a fair question. I think if everything works where we see it going in the future, you could see jet dryers being a thing of the past. You could see that model where the tracks have gone out and purchased jet dryers that they now are purchasing the Air Titans and having their own air supply at each track because obviously they host more than just NASCAR events. So I think that model that’s existed in the past will continue; we’ve just got to work through some of those things to get it where it needs to be.

Q. Can you explain a little more what you mean by the power issue you have?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I think we’re able to power it right now, but when you see the animation, you’ll see how many air compressors it takes to power the Air Titan, and we know that long-term, very similar to any new invention you see, be it a computer years ago, how big and how heavy they were, to your mini-iPad that you have right now, a similar thing when you see the air compressors. There are a number of them. We’re going to have 17 of them out on the track. We have to look at how do we reduce that, how do we look at how they’re powered, are there greener technologies we can use. So we’re really excited about actually having the Air Titan out there and the fact that it works and excited to now just focus on that power aspect of it moving forward.

Q. What’s it powered by right now?

STEVE O’DONNELL: It’s just a diesel air compressor, diesel fuel working through the compressors, and they’re a product by Ring Power, who will be there in Daytona.

Q. Do these things work while it’s actually raining, or do you have to actually let it stop before — is there any way to stay ahead of the rain at all, and how much do these cost when tracks have to buy them?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I’ll answer the second one first. We haven’t established that yet, but rest assured that we know that it’s important to have a dry racetrack, so we will work closely with our tracks as we always do. And the second piece is it still remains to be seen. We’ve tested it where we’ve had water on surfaces. We have not ever had it in a downpour, so that’s part of what you’ll see. We obviously don’t want to see rain, but it’s something we could test in the event it does start raining. It would be something new, and we’ll have to see how it goes.

Q. You said 17 on the track. I think somebody at the media tour said 24.

STEVE O’DONNELL: That’s the number of actual Air Titans.

Q. With modern technology moving so fast, is there anything that is even close to a system like this that’s being used by any kind of organization today?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I think that we’ve certainly had some cooperation from folks out there with Elgin and some of the vacuum technology that’s out there. But I think it’s a testament really to our R & D folks for really solving a problem that they saw out there that’s somewhat unique to our business. Let’s be honest, the technology that exists today for jet drying was from 1976 with Roger Penske, and prior to that we were running around with trucks and tires and chains to try and dry tracks.

You know, in six months we came up with a solution that isn’t all in, but I think gives us the opportunity now to look at some potential partnerships with some best in class companies that could help us continue to the next phase.

I think we wanted to get the product out there, know that we have a challenge from a power source moving forward, but I think once people see it, I think the opportunity for us to continue to innovate in this space will be there.

Q. Going to some safety measures, going back to last year’s race, will there be cars on the track at the same time the equipment is on the track? And are there any safety measures if there are cars on the track, or will workers be required to wear firesuits, and will these new — the new track system, will it be out there for dry conditions to clear debris off the track?

STEVE O’DONNELL: I’ll answer the last one first. It will not on debris. Again, that’s something in the future that we think it has the capability to do, but at this point we won’t utilize it for that. And the first part of the question, there will not be any cars on the track while the system, if the system is put into use. Cars will either be in the garage during practice or on pit road during the race.

Q. So jet dryers will be the ones below the debris off the track; is that correct?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Correct.

Q. Are there any safety measures in place for that?

STEVE O’DONNELL: In terms of?

Q. When the jet dryers are on the track, are there going to be cars on the track, as well?

STEVE O’DONNELL: There will be, yeah, and we’ve addressed that last year with the radio communication with the teams and worked on speeds that they’re out there and feel confident in the solution based on what happened in Daytona.

Q. How is this going to help with your sponsors and everybody else that I guess needs the race to keep going?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Well, I think if you look at any racetrack alone, millions of dollars are — as an industry, it’s a big challenge for us. When fans come to the racetrack, they’ve invested a significant amount of time and money to come to a race, and understanding now that they may have the opportunity to see that race happen that day we think is huge for the industry. We also think it’s huge for our television partners. We know that when a red flag comes out, that’s a challenge, and so speeding up any downtime we think is a win-win for the entire industry, the tracks, the drivers, the race teams, the fans. That’s the goal is to get this down to as short a time as possible, and if we do that, we think it’s a benefit to the entire industry.

Q. Is there an estimate on the time that it would take for Daytona International Speedway — I know 30 minutes was a number thrown out there, but do you know an estimate on the time?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, I think 30 minutes was the ultimate goal, and when Brian France talked about an 80 percent reduction, that was 30 minutes. So as I stated on the front end of this, we’re only in Phase 1, so we’re looking at a decent reduction in time. I can’t point to an exact time because I don’t know what we’ll be facing if we’re facing a downpour or if it’s hot or if it’s cold. All those things factor into how long it takes to dry.

I can tell you one of the other benefits, though, from the Air Titan, and many of you on the call remember being out in California where it wasn’t raining and we had weepers causing a delay in the race, and we utilized heat, again, to try and dry the track, and what we found is that really doesn’t help, that actually sucks water up onto the track.

Again, the Air Titan will help us in that situation, and we think we can avoid some of the weeper issues we’ve had in the past, as well.

Q. Does NASCAR own this system? Do you own all the vehicles? Or does somebody else actually own the system?

STEVE O’DONNELL: We’ve actually patented the system through our folks at the R & D Center. The actual Air Titan is patented. The equipment that is used to power the Air Titan is being supplied by Ring Power for this event. Elgin is providing the vacuum trucks for Speedweeks, as well. It’s a combination of a number of different groups, but the actual technology through the Air Titan is owned by NASCAR.

Q. So the compressors could be built by anybody; you don’t need to have the same people building them from track to track from what I gather?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Yeah, that’s fair. The challenge for us at this point is there’s a limited number of companies that supply those, so that will be our challenge going forward is to work with those companies or potential new technology that’s out there to power the Air Titan.

Q. Just to follow up, in terms of the patents then, I see there’s a trademark from Elgin on the cross-wind specialty track sweeper. Do they own the patent on that and NASCAR owns the Air Titan patent? Is that the difference you’re talking about?

STEVE O’DONNEL: Yeah, that’s correct. And it’s a good question. I think the way the system was developed really for Phase 1 was in combination of what exists today, i.e., jet dryers, vacuums, the Air Titan, and using a combination of all of those to have the most efficient means possible to dry the track.

I think moving forward would we love to have an all-in all in one system? Absolutely, that’s the ultimate goal if we can get there. But through all the tests we did and through all the Qualpro studies, this gave us the best result using all those techniques and combinations to get the best result.

Q. Sometimes fans don’t really kind of maybe grasp all the efforts that NASCAR has done say in the last 12, 15 years with safety, with safety in the car, safety in the wall, and all the technology being on the cutting edge, now you’re getting into even more technology just to make it better, put on a better show. Could you just kind of explain how the organization comes together to find these things?

STEVE O’DONNELL: Sure. I think, and it really starts with Brian, and I think his emphasis that he’s put on all of us really in every department to have as innovative as possible and bring technology in everything we do.

You look at where consumers are today and getting younger and younger and attention spans getting shorter and shorter, so we know it’s imperative for us to innovate every day, and I think we started that from the R & D Center. As you mentioned safety, I think we’re the leaders in the world. It’s not something we’re ever going to stop doing. It’s an emphasis every day. But there are certainly other areas we could look to to innovate. So I think Brian has challenged us to deliver on that aspect. One of those is the Air Titan. We’re looking at the dashboard in each of the cars, how do we bring technology into the cars, how do we work with our partner Sprint to do that in a smart way and utilize Facebook, Twitter, whatever it may be that’s out there to bring in a younger audience and use the technology, because at the end of the day we feel like we’ve got the best story to tell when it comes to technology and involving fans, so whatever we can do in that realm, we’re going to go after it, and I think you’re going to see a heavy emphasis on everything we do moving forward.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR

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Topics: Air-Titan, Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR

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