Heartland Park in Topeka Gets Ready

Henny Ray Abrams | July 22, 2009

Heartland Park Topeka moved forward by a year a critical safety improvement in advance of next weekend’s inaugural Tornado Nationals AMA Pro Road Race event.Track management had budgeted the removal of the  very fast turn one Alpha wall for 2010, but accelerated the removal on the recommendation of Yamaha’s Josh Hayes, who’d twice visited the track. The net result is that riders will now ride on a much safer 2.5-mile road course when they arrive for next Thursday’s track day and the following race weekend.”That’s pretty much what happened,” track owner Raymond Irwin said of the improvements being made a year early. “I’m a racer myself, have been running sports cars for years and I actually owned and ran Blackhawk Farms Raceway in northern Illinois since mid-80’s, so this is not my first rodeo as far as race tracks and trying to make them as safe as possible. There’s no such thing as a perfectly safe race track, but we always have to strive to do the most we can to ensure the safety and the interest of the track, as well. And that’s been my goal since I took over here in 2003.”We’ve done probably close to $20 million worth of work since I took over in ’03 to make this track, Heartland Park, to be as good as possible. As a matter of fact, I sold Blackhawk in ’07, and this is all I’m doing is concentrating on this track now.”When the committee came from AMA to look at the place and said here’s the recommendations and things that we think would make the track better and safer, we looked at each and every one of those and discussed them and committed to making the changes as best as possible to be done. Let’s put it that way, not what we could do, but what could be done. And we just decided to do the best we could and that’s what we’ve done.”The track removed 100 yards of a poured-in-place wall that extended two feet into the ground “and so we had to bring in heavy equipment to move it and re-do the landscape to cover the areas that were damaged. Yeah, it was some work without a doubt. I always tell my people, anything is possible, just not everything is possible. And so we do the best we can with the economic situation.”Irwin didn’t have a specific number at hand, but he said the wall removal added “probably 100 some feet” of run-off. “It’s a huge amount, because the wall came in towards the track a little bit at that location. And I’m guessing, but I’d say it’s every bit of 100 feet. It’s huge.”It made sense to do it. A lot of the difficulty had to do with the fact that it was a drain catch area and things like that that we had to, I won’t say abandon, but certainly modify that we were using it. And that’s one of the issues that we didn’t want to mess that up if we got a heavy, heavy, heavy rain that might be an issue. But the drainage is still there and the out pipes and things are still there, so we don’t have to worry about that.”Hayes mentioned two other areas of concern. One was a light standard near the drag strip. The other was a slow corner near the end of the lap that would only be an issue in the wet. The light standard can’t be removed because it’s got a concrete peg that goes down in the ground, then goes eight feet into the interior of the light post. From his own experience in a GT car, Irwin said the light post shouldn’t be a concern.”And we’ve cut the walls back on the drag strip even more now to help accommodate the rider who loses it coming through one. So I don’t feel there’s much of an issue there as there was a couple years ago. I think the riders will find a high comfort level on that level.”On the slow corner, there was a discussion of placing Astroturf on the exit. Irwin said, it’s “very, very slow, in all honesty, the best way through the corner is square it off and you’re straight down the straightaway.” He added that the use of the Astroturf “would be worse in the wet than anything you could put out there. And I had concerns about that and we’ll have that corner covered, that wall covered up with air fence, foam blocks, and all kinds of things. I don’t think that’ll be an issue.”With the track now safer than it’s ever been, Irwin is “really looking forward to the AMA event being a great event for us. They used to come here before my time. [The AMA last raced in Topeka in 1991]. They did well. It was a good event for them. It was exciting. It still is today.”We think that in view of the current economy, that a great race organization like that coming in allows our local, I say our local – everything from about four hours out – to come out and see some great racing without having to go all the way to Mid-Ohio or Road America or some place out east. Or all the way out west, for that matter. We’re real pleased to put on this event. And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that it’s good for our riders and good for our fans, both.”I think it’s going to be some of the best racing you’re going to see in the Midwest. It’s a beautiful track to view from. The west berm, the south berm, the east berm will be open. We have a trolley running people all around the outside of it. Seven hundred fifty acres is a lot of acres. It’s bigger than Road America by a third or almost a half, actually, size-wise. And, we have the mechanism, places to park, for more people than we can possibly get in here.”

Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.