By Steve Turner
Photography by the FSC staff
As the tree drops, more than 3,000 horsepower awaits under the composite body of a roaring Pro Mod. Unleashing it sends that thrust to two huge slicks out back. They dig into the track and propel the finely tuned machine past 60 feet in less than a second. At these lofty levels, races are won and lost in this narrow window of hundredths and thousandths of a second, and every racer is hoping that the track is up to the task.
That responsibility rests heavily on the team prepping the surface on any given weekend, but NMRA and NMCA series racers know what to expect because the same team is there every weekend ensuring the surface delivers traction that is as consistent as the conditions allow. That outfit is Total Venue Concepts, which is founded and operated by Kurt Johnson.
“Track prep is not hard. It’s easy,” Johnson stated. “It’s interfacing with the customer, who is the tuner, to perfect the situation that you have.”
Clearly, he has a passion for perfecting the racing surface, and that is attributable to a long and winding career that started in the concrete business before moving on to work with Don Schumacher Racing and the NHRA. Eventually, he would run some really prestigious racing facilities, but there was a moment back in 2007 that gave his career path a hard launch.
Having lived in Colorado, Johnson cut his teeth racing at Bandimere Speedway. He credits many of the techniques and technology used in modern track preparation to Bandimere’s Facility Manager Larry Crispe, who constructed his own rugged rotator to apply more rubber to the track surface by dragging racing slicks down the track.
Back then, the two were attending the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, and Crispe quipped a truism that became a mantra for Johnson.
“Don’t do stuff by the numbers, do it right,” Crispe opined.
“That has always stuck with me always. I know that is a simple statement, but I’m not kidding. Most everything I do is based around that statement,” Johnson revealed
Eventually, he became the track manager at Lucas Oil Raceway where he honed his track-preparation routine.
“While working with NHRA, we really had a big push, as a company, to become integrated to where all the different departments could do each other’s jobs,” Johnson said. “…That’s really where I started learning to prep racetracks and watched how they did it. I had my two cents and then the engineering side of me took over and I rebuilt some of their machinery to help it perform better.”
At Summit Motorsports Park, track owner Bill Bader inspired him to take his entrepreneurial spirit and forge out on his own. The result is Total Venue Concepts, which began with the mission to teach track personnel how to properly prep their surface, but quickly morphed into a full-service business.
“With the track-prep side, we really never thought that it the business plan would go past three years because the idea was you go to a track once or twice and now, they know how to do it,” Johnson said. “We found that it’s a worthy service, and not so much teaching, but it’s a pure service. Race track employee turnover is the reason it is difficult to teach.
Shortly after forming TVC, ProMedia Events became one of Johnson’s first customers as the Official Track Prep Service Provider of NMCA and a year later added NMRA to its roster.
“…We started our relationship with NMRA and NMCA in 2016. The goal through ProMedia was to bring consistency to the entire championship series between both race organizations. So from track to track, the racers saw the consistency that they expect from the last track,” he explained.
Initially, Johnson worked with some of his equipment and what the tracks had onsite. Eventually, he worked closely with ProMedia General Manager & National Event Director, Rollie Miller, and the two longtime associates crafted a strategy for TVC to follow the two series with its own full complement of equipment.
A significant piece of that arsenal is the TVC Hook Master 4000 rotator. The TVC rotator is built much more like a race car than an earth mover. Though it remains quite durable, this rotator features a tubular frame that reduced weight because its lot in life is traveling from track to track rather than doing the deed over and over at the same facility. These machines push rubber into the track with more than 20,000 lb-ft of torque.
“So we bring pretty much the whole gamut of equipment to an NMRA or NMCA event. That includes tractor, static drag, and rotator, which spins four, typically Good Year, Top-Fuel tires backwards…” Johnson explained. “Static drags move rubber from one place to another and deposit it in the low spots. It takes it off the high spots, and it also has the effect of smoothing the top of the track out and it’ll take a lot of the greasiness and contaminants away by removing it from the track and carrying it away on the suspended drag tires, whereas a rotator applies more rubber into the porosities of the racetrack and can chemically activate the traction compound through force and heat. So these are two tools that need to be used together.”
Having that full arsenal of equipment at the ready is not just a nicety when you are dealing with two racing series featuring a wide range of machines—from hordes of street-tire True Street rides to big-slick Pro Mod rocket ships. Instead this repertoire is a requirement to ensure the TVC team can react to the conditions and the vehicles at a given event.
“So there’s just a diverse range tires; we run the full gamut tire-wise. We do big-tire slicks. We do small-tire slicks, radials, and then we also do a lot of hard street tires. So we’ve got every kind of tire there is to deal with the goal to find that consistency,” Johnson explained. “We’re trying to provide the same racetrack that they had the week before or month or two months down the road so things tune from track to track, no matter which tire they have.”
While the hardware is certainly an important contributor to the consistent track prep, the other physical aspect of making the track work is applying the right treatments to the surface. It turns out that only two products from VP Racing Fuels are needed to get the job done.
“So, primarily with this racing organization, we use VP LC7 SLR traction compound, and then M1 methanol and we only use M1 methanol with any product that I use. M1’s a carrying agent for the traction compound. A lot of people hear that when you cut the glue, they think that a track is trying to save money, but traction compound is made to be cut,” Johnson explained. “Think of it as thinner and paint. It’s the delivery agent that evaporates away, and that’s how you control the product that you’re putting on the ground. Per tire, per heat condition, and per humidity, you change the mix of the methanol in the product and how much of the product you put onto the racetrack. So it’s a tuning agent for the for the traction compound. I find that VP products are consistent. Batch to batch and drum to drum they work well and you have two different products you can use, so they work really well in hot and cold conditions. You can create the surface compound that you want no matter what the temperatures, sun conditions, or humidity are.”
Even the amount of product applied to the track and the way it is spray has changed over the years, as racers have gained a better handle on applying all that horsepower.
“Now obviously they’re (the tuners) getting much better at the application of power, right, but they’ve been able to make 4,500 horsepower for 10 years, and they just couldn’t get it down the racetrack,” Johnson said. “I think a huge piece of that is track prep, and the amount of glue we’re putting down. So I think the, the amount of glue from 2010 up to 2015, we just kept putting more glue on it—we didn’t really change anything else. Then we started getting into issues because we’ve got so much glue down, we can’t get it to dry. So then it became combining heavy does of traction compound and rubber, creating layers of rubber and glue mixtures. Using rotators and static drags and high-atomization sprayers to create tight firm layers that are much more resistant to environmental conditions…”
Of course, the hardware and chemicals are only two parts of the equation, tuning the track is tantamount to tuning a race car. Johnson is always learning and trying things. Depending on how a track is working, he might experiment with techniques that seem counterintuitive, but for him the end result is all that matters.
“A track is no different than a race car. The people who test all the time, they perfect their craft. We do the exact same thing,” Johnson compared. “I have an advantage over some of the other guys because I built my own equipment, so I can change the equipment to what I to what I feel I need…”
He also learned a lot from racers and crews along the way. Keeping in touch with those in the know allows for keeping a pulse on tracks across the land. Johnson also picks up on what the successful teams are doing to keep their race cars going rounds. That includes things that you might not even consider, like using ultraviolet meters to gauge how the track will behave as temperatures change in reference to sun exposure and cloud cover.
“I saw the fuel teams doing it, and then I started watching it, and it comes down to more than just heat in the track. Obviously, on a clear day, your tracks are going to be hotter than on a cloudy day. It turns out that UV has a hidden impact on the track surface, making it behave as though it is warmer than a temperature gun would reveal. With optimal traction available up to around 70 to 115 degrees, the true track temperature may only be apparent by measuring the ultraviolet rays striking the surface.
“Prepping the racetrack in daylight conditions is extremely difficult, and there’s a lot of misconception on what daylight does. We use UV meters hand in hand with temperature guns. High UV affects the ambient track temperature greatly. So, what I’m trying to say is if you have a 100-degree track in the daylight with an eight UV (the scale only goes to 10), you’re going to have a much looser surface than you are at nighttime with the exact same temperature,” he added. “So daylight has a huge effect on traction compound, race surfaces, and the rubber product. I almost exclusively use LC7 for daylight racing for anytime you’re going to be in the heat. LC7 is built to give you a very firm surface even in in hot conditions, where others tend to work better at nighttime.”
While NMRA and NMCA strive to wrap events in the evening, sometimes there are other factors at play. Weather and on-track incidents are the curve balls the TVC crew must deal with during any given weekend, but moving from day racing to night racing changes more than just the track temperature.
“When you’re switching from daytime to nighttime racing, there’s quite a bit of a change in how you spray and how you mix and how much product you can put down, but you also have a huge variable of humidity that has to be taken into account. So a lot of times people think that you’re going to spray straight traction compound because it’s cool out, and that’s not always necessarily true,” Johnson elaborated. “A lot of times we cut the traction compound more at night because of humidity (Dew Point) so that the product will dry. Then we’ll even apply more and more so we still end up with the same amount of product, but the alcohol in the M1 methanol allows the product to dry completely, which is the most important aspect of good traction.”
Obviously, he has a good working relationship with VP Racing Fuels and other track chemical producers. Just as he is always trying new techniques, Johnson continues to push the sport forward by sharing what he is learned with people in the industry who can make a difference.
“That’s also the beauty of having an interface with chemists, because they don’t know this is happening,” Johnson added. “So now we can take data to them, and we can change direction if they see a reason to do it. So, the more we learn, the more it’s going to help the sport.”
The UV research is still ongoing, so it remains to be seen if traction compound formulations will change as result. However, there is home-grown science to every level of the preparation process, including how the surface is mechanically worked over and even how those VP chemicals are applied to the racing surface.
“We’ll also bring our own brand of sprayer with us typically. We have our own nozzles that I like to use. There are many different nozzles people can use. I use one set and I know that it’s always going to be the same when we have our sprayer and it’s not saying the racetrack doesn’t have a good sprayer, but we have the same sprayer race to race so that makes a big difference,” Johnson explained. “We also bring in scraping tools. Typically, we bring two trucks worth of equipment to one of the events, and NMRA and NMCA made a large investment throughout the race series to provide their customers with a consistent track throughout the championship series.”
How challenging that process is at a given track depends largely on how much traffic a racing surface sees on the regular. Even just a couple of days without race cars hurtling down a 1,320 can lead to a hard surface that is difficult to scrape. This is a costly process that contributes to a great surface, but not every track is willing to shell out $1,500 each month to have it performed. For NMRA and NMCA events, Johnson’s team does the job whether it is easy or not. What surface they begin with, however, will establish the timetable for where he believes it needs to be on race day.
“…If I went to a track that hasn’t been run on for two weeks, and I tried to scrape it, it’s a chunky, nasty scrape and then we got to rebuild the track and it’s not pliable yet,” Johnson said. “So then we have to work this non-pliable rubber that we’ve been putting down and make it pliable, which usually takes at least a day.”
While the stage gets set in those early test days, the game changes during competition depending on what cars are running. Some machines need more specific track preparation to optimize their performance, so you will see the TVC crew doing scheduled prep at certain points in the program. The track and conditions may also play a role in the run order of an event from track to track.
“The Pro Mods need wheel speed, so we’re actually trying to dumb the starting line down to about 60 feet so they can transition from flat tires to round tires,” Johnson said. “Then right after that you’ve got a class (Holley EFI Factory Super Cars) that needs a whole bunch of stickiness.”
Even moving from series to series presents different wrinkles for the TVC team, and surprisingly it is the Ford bunch that is a bit more challenging to get hooking.
“So, everybody would think the NMCA is the harder of the series, right, because you got (VP Racing Lubricants Xtreme) Pro Mod. All the big-tire classes, put a lot more rubber down for us,” Johnson said. “NMRA is all radial and small-slick cars, and they take the rubber, they don’t put any down. So it’s actually harder to keep a surface for the NMRA events. Top that off with 95 percent of the cars are the same, 100-inch wheelbase, so all those tires are leaving from the same spot.”
Of course, TVC is up to the challenge for both series, applying a passion for racing and a knowledge of how race cars work to the track preparation process. With that in mind, the dedicated racers running both national series enter each event with the confidence that they can get their cars down the track consistently, so they can focus on beating the racer in the next lane.