Infield turf adds green touch to speedway

Nearly 150,000 fans, and millions more watching on television, get a glimpse of the infield turf at Las Vegas Motor Speedway each February when the NASCAR Cup series rolls into town.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force /Chief Master Sgt. Gary Emery.

Other than the money in the casinos, there isn’t a whole lot in Las Vegas that’s green. An aerial view of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, for example, reveals a purely desert panorama with just a small oasis of lushness: the turf infield between pit road and the front straightaway.

The infield grass separates pit road from the front stretch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The heat buildup from the asphalt, along with the wind and heat, present the biggest maintenance challenges.

That grass is under the purview of Bobby McKenna, director of facility operations at the Speedway. While other turfgrass managers worry about things like divots or dandelions, McKenna is faced with the prospect of an out-of-control race car tearing the turf to pieces. Just how much damage the cars do to the grass depends on how wet or soft it is at the time, he explains. “During the truck race in September, it’s pretty dry, so they sometimes just slip across the top of the grass without doing much damage at all. At the NASCAR race in late February, it can really tear the grass up.”

He says it’s not the fan-favorite donuts done by the winner that create the most damage to the grass, but rather a car that’s gotten a flat tire at high speed and shoots off the track, sliding sideways across the turf. “You can get a 6-inch rut that’s 200 feet long when that happens,” McKenna says.

With practice on Friday and a Nationwide Series race on Saturday, it’s sometimes necessary to quickly repair damage to the grass from these events before as many as 150,000 fans, and millions more watching on television, arrive for the main NASCAR feature on Sunday. “We want it looking good for Sunday, so sometimes we’re at the mercy of what happens leading up to that. We don’t have pallets of sod on hand, so we do what we can to try to rake out any damage that’s occurred,” McKenna says. “The logo painter does touch-up work, as well. If a rut is painted, you can’t really tell it’s there.”

Logos on the infield turf have become a familiar part of NASCAR race tracks, and Las Vegas Motor Speedway is no different. An outside contractor handles the painting, but it’s up to McKenna to get the grass ready for the decoration. NASCAR requires four logos for every race, and three more are added at Las Vegas. “It’s probably a little less than 1 acre of the total 4 acres of grass that gets paint,” says McKenna. “They start Sunday night and hope to be done by Thursday morning, so we’ll mow it and roll the stripes Sunday afternoon, and then we can’t get on it again until after the race. We can water the grass, but we can’t get out there on it,” says McKenna.

Intricate painted logos have become a familiar part of the turf at NASCAR races. At Las Vegas, Bobby McKenna mows the grass lower than normal following race weekend to remove the black paint, which generates heat that can quickly kill the turf.

The infield contains 4 acres of fescue turf, maintained by a two-man crew. In preparation for the NASCAR weekend, McKenna calls in a friend, P.J. McGuire of Par 3 Landscape. “He has expertise, and some equipment that I don’t need often enough to buy,” McKenna explains. “For example, this year he brought in a sprayer and sprayed the turf three times with ferrous sulfate and ammonium nitrate just to feed the turf a little and keep the color in the grass so it’s a nice, dark green.”

A 6-foot Toro Z mower is used to mow the grass at 3.25 inches leading up to big races, and anywhere from 3.5 to 3.75 inches the rest of the year. Immediately following the NASCAR race, McKenna mows at an even lower height to try to remove the logos. “The black paint will generate heat and that can kill the grass pretty quickly, so we cut it down to about 2.5 inches to get rid of it, then we aerify everything.”

After the truck race in September, the grass is overseeded lightly (4 pounds per 1,000 square feet) with Palmer Prelude, “just to give us something that will stripe for the NASCAR race, because the fescue really won’t stripe,” says McKenna.

His approach to striping is to keep things relatively simple, without any intricate designs. “We do two sets of lines to checkerboard it,” he explains. “I mow the stripes in and then P.J. … brings in a mower with heavy rollers on it, and he just rolls the stripes three times in each direction without even engaging the blades.”

Starting around Memorial Day, the irrigation system operates just about every single day to help combat the Las Vegas heat. “We’re just trying to keep the grass alive throughout the summer. When the truck race comes in September, it will all be green, but there may be some burned out edges,” says McKenna. The wind out at the track is just as big a challenge as the heat, he adds. “If the irrigation is running and there’s a 30 mph wind for three or four days in a row, there are going to be brown spots.”

The irrigation runs at night, and doesn’t interfere with use of the track. Scheduling mowing and other maintenance takes a little more coordination. “I’m never out there when there are cars at speed. It’s one thing if there’s a track tour going on or something like that, but if there’s a real car out there running hot laps, I’m not going to be anywhere out there,” says McKenna. “I don’t like to mow when it’s wet. I don’t like to go out there at 6 a.m. and just make a mess, so sometimes I can only get out there once a week during daylight hours to mow.”

The clippings are never bagged. “Once you start doing that, you have to feed the grass so much more,” says McKenna. With the dry conditions and wind, he says that by the time he finishes mowing the last section of turf, the clippings on the first section have already “shriveled up and just about turned to dust.” Some clippings do blow onto the track, which is just about unavoidable. To help minimize this, McKenna says he makes the first two passes alongside the track with the mower’s deck oriented to blow clippings away from the paved surface.

The grass is surrounded by asphalt, and it’s said to get close to 140 degrees on the track, making heat build-up a challenge on the turf.
Photos courtesy of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, unless otherwise noted.

The grass in the infield surrounds a tri-oval, which gets used for races at times of the year beyond the major events on the big oval. The cars racing around the .25-mile tri-oval actually do more damage than the larger, faster NASCAR cars, says McKenna. “Sometimes the guys on there short-track it a little bit and hit the edge of the grass or the irrigation heads a little bit,” he says. “The apron on the big track is 20 feet wide, so they don’t get anywhere near the grass. At least not on purpose.”

Amazingly, even with race cars on the big track skidding sideways across the turf on occasion, McKenna says he’s never lost an irrigation head to a tire. “They can dig down deep enough to get to them, but we’ve been lucky so far.” The water supply to the irrigation system is shut off outside of the infield, so there is no chance of a car striking a head and creating a geyser on race day.

In the past, there was additional grass to care for around the gates and administration building, but that was replaced with artificial turf recently to cut down on maintenance and water usage. “The water authority paid us about $1 a square foot to take the grass out, and man, does it cut down on maintenance. I go out there about once a year with a pressure washer and that blows the loose debris and dust off,” McKenna says.

That gives him more time to focus on maintaining the highly visible infield turf. Beyond that, the biggest landscaping challenge he faces is caring for the 1,200 palm trees on property. “They are cut back really well in September for the truck race, and they usually still look pretty good for the Cup race in February, but we still have to go out and cut back anything that’s drooping or dead, just a light cut back.” Most are outside of the track itself, but there are a few in the infield and RV areas.

Aside from steering clear of thundering race cars, McKenna says that heat buildup is the most challenging part of maintaining grass at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “The grass is surrounded by asphalt, and we’ve got a glass-walled building that also reflects heat back down on the grass,” he explains. “They tell me it gets to 140 degrees down there in the summer. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a tough environment. Still, we’ve found that if we take care of the grass and give it water at night, it can make it 24 hours until the next night.”

Does McKenna get nervous as the big races approach, knowing that millions of people in the stands and at home watching on TV will be seeing the grass he’s spent a year maintaining? “Sure, you bet,” he says. It’s a safe bet the grass will be looking green and great.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.