Tony Vanillo is sitting atop the grandstands at Glen Helen Raceway in Race Control, overlooking the latest addition to the tracks on which the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series runs. Tucked into a corner of the Glen Helen acreage, leaving just enough room for a fully packed paddock, grandstands and spectator amenities, it's a tight, tidy affair, and the shortest on the circuit at 0.8 of a mile.
Still, it manages to pack into that space a variety of turns, big tabletop jumps, smaller launch pads and a challenging rhythm section in which few drivers were able to find any kind of rhythm. The trucks and buggies that races in the Lucas short course off road series found plenty of air time on the circuit, which is just the way Vanillo (above), the series competition director who designs the courses, like it.
“I like a lot of air,” he says. “I like it real technical. I don't like a wide-open track. I like it to where a guy's got to think about the next jump, got to think about the next bump, the next turn. It takes a lot of driver skill. Any track that shows off driver skill, that's what I really enjoy.
“For the fans, there's nothing like watching these 4000lb. trucks flying through the air,” he adds, citing one consideration in designing tracks for short course off road racing. There are other key factors in course design, most of which are centered on the fan experience, whether it's the ones in the stands or the ones watching at home.
“That's one of our biggest deals looking at the track, giving a great fan experience. We try to pay particular attention to visibility. This course in particular really shows that off. There isn't a seat here that you can't see the entire track, and that's what we pay attention to. We've done a really good job doing that at our other tracks. This one I think shows it the best.
“The shots coming into the fans, sideways shots…you can see the angles we have instead of coming directly at them. If you look at the TV shots, that's a whole other angle you have to look at – the fan experience sitting at home, compared to the fan experience sitting here live. We work together with television to make sure we're grabbing the best essence that we possibly can.”
Aside from the fan experience, Vanillo has two main things to deal with when designing a course from scratch. The first is the physical dimensions of the space. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he had a big square parcel to work with. At Miller Motorsports Park he had a lot of room, but had to work around the existing road course and guardrails, while still trying to provide great views form the existing grandstands. And at Glen Helen, he had a relatively small, triangular plot to work within.
“We have some parameters that we have to work around, and some stipulations – you can't do this, you can't go any farther than that, It's just a matter of knowing what the parameters are, knowing where your boundaries are and then start laying it out, I draw everything in front of the computer. I sit in front of that thing for hours at a time, get frustrated, go back, relax, maybe go to bed and hit it hard the next day on another design. Sometimes I'll have to scrap the whole idea and try something different.”
The other challenge is to make a course that suits 85hp Limited Buggies while also accommodating the 900hp Pro 2 and 4 Unlimited trucks while all put on a good show for the fans. It's not always easy. “There are gives and takes. There might be a section that's perfect for a Limited Buggy, but horrible for a Pro 2. But that's another challenge for the Pro 2, or it's a challenge for the Limited Buggy,” Vanillo says.
There's seldom a course that's going to make everyone happy, and there will always be complaints. Vanillo says he takes them on a case-by-case basis, and considers the experience of the driver and team raising the issue, along with the number of drivers who object to a certain feature.
Of course, if something isn't right, the nice thing about dirt is that it can be changed – a jump can be re-profiled in a hurry, or more significant changes can e made for the next event. The Speedworld course in Surprise, Ariz., underwent some big revisions from last year to this season.
“I take the feedback according to who it is, how long they've been out there and how solid the team is,” Vanillo explains. “It's going to be a judgment call a lot of times. I think we've done a pretty good job so far.”