How Not To Design A Great Race Track

Now that this attention-grabbing headline has done its job I'll make it simple for you: The only way not to design a great a racetrack is to "design" it in the first place. The more you design a track, the worse it is.

The idea for the post came to me during a nice sunny afternoon overlooking the Caribbean Sea, I was sitting on a gently reclined beach chair on the edge of a little island paradise known as St. Maarten — a common retreat for modern race car drivers.

Oh, wait, sorry that is where I would have liked to have been. I was actually sitting in a dark, shades-drawn closed room in my apartment sitting in my "race simulator" and talking to a friend on the popular "gaming" chat tool known as TeamSpeak.

That's right, most race car drivers are nerds just like you.

How Not To Design A Great Race Track

This friend and I were discussing current events in the F1 world when he said " I can't wait till F1 gets back to the Circuit Of Americas" to which I responded "Why?"

Other then the fact that F1 will return to the greatest country in the world, I was a little curious why he cared so much about F1 racing at COTA? Before he could defend himself I said: "Look, it's another Herman Tilke "parking lot" track, nothing special, tons of run-off, no risk for going off the track," etc.

I even challenged him to a test. I said, having not studied the track, that I could tell him what the layout was. "I bet it goes something like this: A long pit straight leading to a tight 70 degree left hander, there will be a series of meaningless esses, then there will be at least one decreasing radius corner and lastly another long straight with a tight 180 degree hairpin at the end."

My friend then started to laugh uncontrollably and exclaimed "My God, I think you just described the race tracks in China, India, New Hockenheim, New Nurburgring, Bahrain, Circuit of the Americas and Malaysia."

It's a sad fact.

How Not To Design A Great Race Track

To truly understand how not to build a great track we must look at how the best were built. I'll start with a famous little circuit just outside the outskirts of Toronto, this race track starts with a truly frightening and very fast turn one right hander that is constantly changing the banking level and width, with a wall on the inside and a wall to the outside, it gives you the illusion that you're on a street course.

Turn two is one of the most famous corners in all of racing and is truly death-defying each time, as you approach it up a hill you realize you're looking into the sky, another wall directly to the inside and a wall directly to your outside, you drag your left front tire as close to the inside wall as you can stand and suddenly realize you are dropping what feels like 5 stories to the bottom and before you even can process what has just happened you are fighting to feed more throttle as it compresses at the bottom of the hill and causes the car to gain über grip.

Now, if you were to suddenly get it wrong (up until the repave) you would find yourself feeling like you were accelerating down this same hill as you are in the grass hurtling towards a wall head-on. Two corners this intense can define a track and, for the famous Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), they do.

How Not To Design A Great Race Track

Now for the best part. The folklore of Mosport has always been that a farmer at the time was contracted to build a track, so what did he do? He pulled out a bull dozer and weaved and mowed around until the legend that is Mosport was created. No engineers, no designs just a "Hammer twice and measure once" attitude.

Is the story true? Not exactly. Yes, Mosport was built on a farm but it did have a track designer. The real story is almost as great as the original design was so fluid that when Sir Stirling Moss came to visit, during the building phase, he had them create what is now "Moss Corner" because it would take greater "driver skill." Nothing about numbers, run-off or safety. The only concern was that it would be harder. That's how you build a racetrack.

Another favorite racetrack of mine on the oval side is nestled in a small town in South Carolina and was one of NASCAR's first real purpose-built speedways. The track was built by a man named Harold Brasington, a retired race car driver, who went to the 1948 Indianapolis 500 and saw the huge crowds gathered and decided right then and there he was going to do the same in South Carolina.

How Not To Design A Great Race Track

So after purchasing 70 acres of land from a farmer, he went about building his speedway and ended up with one of the most unique designs in all of NASCAR after he realized that one side of the track would have to be a lot tighter radius, higher banked corner because he had promised the farmer that this race track wouldn't disturb the farmers beloved minnow pond.

So in turns one and two you have the fast, sweeping corner he wanted and in turns 3 and 4 you have a truly tricky and unique corner that forces you to drive inches from the wall to get the most speed. The best part of Darlington Speedway was not designed; it was just built to accommodate a farmer's desire for tranquility.

The list goes on. Spa Franchorchamps has Eau Rouge, one of the greatest corners in all of motorsports. How was Eau Rouge created? Two guys got really drunk in 1920 and decided it would be cool (or because it was the only way through the two hills on either side, either way).

How about the Circuit De La Sarthe, which is a track that some claim has you on the throttle flat-out for 85% of a lap? It combines a street course and purpose built race track with a mind-bending four-mile straight that sadly has been split into three segments to connect it all.

Even with the shortening of the Mulsanne straight that had some cars in the FIA Group C era clocked at 250MPH, if you get it wrong in the Porsche Curves section, you will hit a wall. No miles of run off, no safety enhancement, just true racetrack.

How Not To Design A Great Race Track

Lastly, there's Bathurst in Australia, known to many of you as Mount Panorama. A four-mile race track that literally winds you up a mountain and then just as you reach the summit, send you plummeting back down the mountain to end up where you started.

Technically a street course, much of the mountain part of the track is just a canyon of concrete walls that you must skim with your car each lap to achieve the best lap time. It can only be described with the title of one of my favorite movies: "The Englishman That Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain" The slightest mistake up that hill or down the mountain usually results in terrifying images of torn car shrapnel and ejected parts strewn through the walls of the monster that is Bathurst.

At this point you're probably thinking: Well, Mr. Know-It-All-Race-Car-Driver, how would you build a race track?

First off, I'd pick the most undulating piece of land I could find. I would ask "how big?" and "where do you want the pit straight?" That's all I need to know.

How Not To Design A Great Race Track

I don't care what type of car is going to be driven on it. I don't care where the fans go. If you build it right, the fans will have places to see the track. You can build bridges or tunnels to get them where they want to go.

I wouldn't have paved run-offs so large you could land a 747 on it (or so someone like Charles Pic can lose control of his Marussia and continue racing). If you make a mistake or push it too far on my track, you will pay the price.

My corners would come from my favorite corners from the streets around where I grew up, like all gearheads who have that perfect set of corners where you drop a left front a bit over a curb because the car is so loaded and think to yourself 'yup, I am the best at that.' Those segments of road that in High School you would drive and say to yourself "Man this would be one helluva race track."

Other parts of it will just happen as we realize we need to move a corner because there happens to be a boulder sitting where we wanted to build a certain section or, you know, a damn minnow pond. No leveling, just maneuvering. Oh, and lastly, will it get bumpy?

You bet it will, and each time the F1 drivers go on Twitter and complain about their manicure being destroyed or the engineers with $400 million budgets complain about it upsetting the car I'll just grin a most gratifying grin, because it should always be: "You build it, we'll race on it."

Now there will be the argument of "we can't race on that." Nothing in my racing life annoys me more than to hear someone say "we can't race on that." Racers are racers. I don't care if you give them a tricycle and a track in a swimming pool. If the prize is big enough, you will race.

Do you think the drivers at the famous Targa Florio liked racing at speeds upwards of 150 MPH only inches from certain death? Probably not, but did they do it? Of course. I don't like hearing about how it's too bumpy, or too tight, or even too dangerous. The idea of motor racing was to prove the fastest driver and car combination, but unlike other sports with standardized playing fields. Our fields are beautifully dynamic, beautifully unique, so don't say "it cant be raced on" because, as Bill France Sr. said in 1969, when then drivers in NASCAR at the time had a strike over the safety of Talladega: "No problem, we'll just find someone else to race" and they did.

So if you want to build a racetrack, don't design it, don't think about it. Just build it. It's how the very best were made.

Parker Kligerman is a professional race car driver currently competing full-time in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, while also jumping into just about any car anyone will let him drive.