Speed and stripes at Michigan International Speedway

PHOTOS COURTESY OF MICHIGAN INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY.

When Terry Remus graduated from the Michigan State golf turfgrass program more than a decade ago, he followed the path laid out for him and took a job as a course superintendent. After only six weeks there, another job caught his attention: groundskeeper at the Michigan International Speedway (MIS) in the scenic Irish Hills area.

“My advisors at Michigan State were a little upset,” Remus jokes. “They couldn’t believe I was going to leave the golf business.” As the popularity of motor racing has soared in this country, the profile of the grounds inside and outside of racetracks—once an afterthought—have become high-profile areas, maintained and striped like any top-level sports field.

MIS features a 2-mile track with 18-degree banking. It plays host to NASCAR events (this year, there are two Sprint Cup events: the LifeLock 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race on June 15 and the 3M Performance 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on August 17), as well as Craftsman Truck Series races, open-wheel racing and many other events.

Terry Remus, groundskeeper at Michigan International Speedway, keeps the turf in the 5-acre tri-oval lush and striped. This high-profile turf, complete with logos, is seen by hundreds of thousands of race fans at the track and often millions more watching at home.

The 40-year-old facility is owned by International Speedway Corp., which operates 12 other tracks around the country, including Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Darlington Speedway, Home­stead-Miami Speedway, Richmond International Raceway, Watkins Glen, Phoenix International Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway. Seating capacity at MIS is 136,384.

Remus has been at MIS since 1996—the first year of the U.S. 500, an event intentionally scheduled the same day as the Indianapolis 500 as part of a dispute taking place in the open-wheel racing community at that time. What Remus saw when he arrived on the job, just one month before the big race, wasn’t encouraging. “The grass was 18 inches tall when I walked onto the property,” he recalls. “The previous groundskeeper had left and nobody had touched the grass. So, I mowed it, and I mowed it, and I mowed it. The first time out I took it down to 4 inches, which went against everything I had just learned in school about never cutting off more than one-third of the grass plant at one time. After I got done, it looked like the Sahara out there; there was just thatch and not a bit of green anywhere. That had me worried!”

After removing the grass clippings and giving the plants some time to recover, things began to green up, but he ran into problems when striping the turf. “I was new on the job and wanted to make my mark, so I decided I would do something a little different than striping the turf parallel to the wall. I mowed at a 45-degree angle across the track. Well, it’s a long way across, and I couldn’t really see, so I just sort of ‘guesstimated’ and my lines ended up being wrong.” It took a ride up above the track in a helicopter the week before the race to help Remus see what had gone wrong and how to correct the situation. “Then, I had just three days left to fix it,” he says. “I mowed the grass about 10 times in three days, and in the end you couldn’t see any of the original lines.” That was fortunate because, in addition to the millions of spectators and TV viewers who watched the race, TIME Magazine ran a photo of the race logo on the turf.

Michigan International Speedway can seat more than 130,000 race fans and accommodate even more on the 1,400-acre site.

Things have settled down since that first year, and Remus says his groundskeeping duties now run smoothly. The MIS facility is spread over 1,400 acres and includes a campground and parking areas. He is responsible for about 20 to 25 acres of high-maintenance turf that is irrigated, fertilized, mowed and striped. Of those, the most visible turf is the 5 acres inside the tri-oval. There are several part-time and seasonal employees who focus mainly on mowing in the other large areas.

Dan Salenbien, director of facilities, oversees the groundskeeping department. The group is responsible for maintaining the lawn and landscape and for much of the post-race cleanup around the property. “We have it down to four days now,” says Remus. “When I started here it took two-and-a-half weeks, but we’ve gotten a lot more equipment. We now have four garbage trucks and Cushman utility vehicles.” In fact, cleanup begins even before the race, as fans often show up days in advance to camp and party. So, Remus has to balance those duties with his final prep work on the grass.

He says that he tries to have his work on the tri-oval done by Tuesday or Wednesday of race weekend. “I try not to go back out there after that, but sometimes my fertilizer is peaking and I have to get back out and mow again. If some dignitaries are out there or someone is giving an award, I don’t want it to look like they’re standing in knee-deep grass,” he says.

Missouri Turf handles the painting of logos at MIS. Remus admits that the logos on the turf are something of a source of pride for him: “When I got here, there were just two main logos. Now, we’ve been as high as 11. I watch other tracks to see how many they have; there are a few tracks that have so many you can hardly see the grass. I keep telling everyone here that we have plenty of grass; we’ve got room for lots more.”

In addition to the grass areas inside the track, there are hundreds of campsites and roadways running throughout the property that must be maintained.

In addition to its high-profile races, MIS also hosts Petty Driving Experience training classes at the track, and then there are testing days and practice days and many other events. “We have to schedule our maintenance around events on the track now more than we ever have,” says Remus. “I often try to mow in late afternoon or during the middle of the day, rather than trying to mow in the morning when everything is wet. I run the irrigation system at night, so if I really need to mow in the morning, I’ll skip an irrigation cycle.”

A Toro irrigation system provides water to the turf on the infield. While there is some overspray onto the inside of the track from heads covering the turf in those areas, Remus says that usually isn’t a problem. “There’s a white line at the bottom that cars are supposed to stay above. But, if there are Indy cars or NASCAR cars out there, then we can’t have any water on any part of the track; they’ve gotten very sensitive to that. To be safe, I make sure the irrigation shuts off at 7 a.m., so there’s two hours for the track to dry before they go green at 9 a.m.”

Remus uses a New Holland 34 hp compact tractor with a belly mower to mow the high-profile tri-oval. “When people see our striping, some of them don’t believe that a rotary belly mower can stripe like that, but it works great. You just have to mow it the same way a lot,” he says. “I like striping, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

He follows the direction of the pit wall and goes back and forth. “I don’t mow across [the pattern] as much as I should, but we have a lot of time constraints on us. It takes a little over an hour and a half to mow the 5-acre tri-oval, and that’s speed mowing. If I go across it, from track to wall, it takes six hours.”

Two Toro Groundsmaster 580-D rotary mowers with 14-foot cuts handle the roadside areas, while three Land Pride pull-behind units handle the big areas.

In past years, Remus has fertilized three times a year. This year he is experimenting with a one-time application of Polyon. “I’m interested to see how it works,” he says. “It’s a little more expensive, but it’s a one-time shot and it saves on labor. I think it’s going to work well.” He uses a broadcast spreader to apply the fertilizer.

At the end of the season, in November, MIS hosts its slowest race of the year. The Michigan state cross-country championships are held at the track, drawing some 2,500 runners and 15,000 to 20,000 spectators. “The racers start in the middle of the infield, and we put down dirt for them to cross the track,” Remus explains. “Then, they run out the old road course area; then they come back into the track, so we put dirt down there, as well as across pit road; and then, they finish right in front of the stands.” The grass is cut to its lowest height of the year to help the runners, he says. “I mow it down to an inch and a half, and we really roll it, too. We want them to have a good race; we’re looking for speed.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.