Among the dozens of variables that NASCAR drivers must deal with when they strap in to their cars, one is often overlooked, but can play a major role in the success or failure of a race for all participants – the track surface.

When the Coca-Cola 600 revs up Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the speed and skill of NASCAR’s finest will be on display, as will the hard work that goes into making the track one of the circuit’s best.

“The track will change a lot over the course of four hours and 15 minutes of race time,” says Shaun Johnson, executive director of operations at the Speedway. “We have to deliver a good, clean, race-able surface.”

It’s not as simple as lining the cars up on the track and waving the green flag to get things started. Many of NASCAR’s tracks have different styles and surfaces, and those that are too smooth or too bumpy can play havoc with the carefully calibrated cars speeding around at 200mph.

“We walk the race track at the start of each event week and periodically throughout the year,” Johnson said. “Asphalt has a natural tendency to expand and contract, and cracks and holes will pop up. It’s more preventative maintenance than anything else. We want to keep it as smooth and as solid of a surface as we possibly can.”

Coke 600

There is plenty of action on the CMS track leading up to the Coca-Cola 600, beginning Thursday with practices and qualifying, Friday’s driving school fan rides and Saturday’s Xfinity Series race and more Cup practice sessions. All that action heading into Sunday’s race means there is plenty of wear and tear for Johnson and his crew to fix – which they do in a unique manner.

“The track changes naturally,” Johnson said. “Now what happens potentially after each of those days is that any oil downs or things that may cause deterioration of the race track, we have to go out there and physically clean the track. At any point in time, we may have to do one or two turns and at times we’ve done three-quarters of the race track overnight.

“Oil actually eats the racing surface, so we use powdered (detergent) to clean it. We sprinkle it on and it gets down in the asphalt and actually binds it to the oil. We then come through with a water truck or pressure washer and wash it off.”

During the race, the Speedway has three trucks on standby with a special mix that can quickly get the surface back to racing conditions in case of an accident or serious oil spill.

Another unique factor with the Coca-Cola 600 is the fact that the race begins during the day and ends at night, which also causes changes on the track surface, forcing drivers to get creative. And Johnson, who was around when the track was resurfaced in 2008, knows where the sweet spots are.

“There are small little areas that are kind of like washboards,” he said. “I know when the cars are hitting those spots. What you can see is where the track gets a little bit dark. As the track temperature goes from really hot to cool, the cars will loosen up. They won’t get as much grip, so they’ll try different ways, different lines just to see where their cars will hook up the best.” 

Those little quirks are just some of the reasons why drivers enjoy racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway and why the Coca-Cola 600 is one of the highlight events on the NASCAR calendar.

“What’s neat about the Coca-Cola 600, it’s like the PGA tour in which you want to win certain tournaments,” Johnson said. “If you talk to any of the drivers in the garage, the Coca-Cola 600 is one of the majors. It’s one of the ones on their schedule they put a pin in and say, ‘This is one of those ones I want to win.’

He added, “Just to be the longest-running sponsor in NASCAR, it’s neat to have Coke as a partner, and we really love our partnership with Coke here at Charlotte Motor Speedway.”