For the first time in nearly two decades, AMA Pro Road Racing’s premier class American Superbike and Daytona SportBike teams and riders took to Heartland Park Topeka on Friday and plenty of positive reports came in about the 2.5-mile road course that has recently been put through a full complement of improvements and safety enhancements.
Track officials have continued to work on the Heartland Park facility through as recently as today’s early morning hours. The improvements have just been the latest developments in what have been extensive and ongoing efforts from Heartland Park officials, the AMA Pro Rider Safety Committee and AMA Pro Road Racing to make the Topeka circuit suitable for today’s premier motorcycle divisions. The improvements, which benefit not only the competitors but fans as well, are a full year ahead of schedule and are indicative of the long-term commitment by Heartland Park management to AMA Pro Road Racing. The process began soon after the Rider Safety Committee first visited Heartland Park last November and few areas of the circuit were untouched.
"We have gone and continue to go to great lengths to make the track as safe as possible for all riders," said Heartland Park Topeka owner Raymond Irwin. "We have met or exceeded every safety issue that AMA Pro Road Racing and the AMA Pro Rider Safety Committee have raised. Some changes, like removing the wall in Turn Alpha, we’ve made a year in advance. We are looking forward to a great weekend of motorcycle racing that will feature four of AMA Pro Road Racing’s top series."
Among the riders on the AMA Pro Rider Safety Committee who were instrumental in working with the track for the last few months is Factory Yamaha rider Josh Hayes. He has won three AMA Pro National Guard American Superbike presented by Parts Unlimited races this year on his No. 4 Yamaha Motor Corp. USA Yamaha R1, including a sweep of both finals this past weekend at Mid-Ohio.
"We are pretty fortunate that the people who run the track are racers also," Hayes said. "They get out there and if they are not on motorcycles, they are driving cars. They understand the dangers of what is going on, they understand the speeds, they are out watching us while we are riding and they have treated us like professionals. They have taken our input, and they have to decide economically if they can make the changes and when they can do them, but they are pretty forward thinking. They are moving fast, and they are trying to help us have a good event."
Hayes was particularly impressed that Heartland Park management made so many changes before the first motorcycle even rolled in Topeka.
"The event hasn’t even happened, and they have made quite an investment," said Hayes, who is married to Daytona SportBike rider Melissa Paris. "It is not going to be perfect for this weekend, but it is an improvement, and we have a venue that we can race at. We will continue to work with the track in the future to make this one of our premier tracks. The track offers a lot. The Superbikes are a bit tough to get around here so it will probably be pretty exciting to watch on the 1000s, because the Superbikes are a handful around here. So far the times seem to be pretty close so the track should offer some exciting racing and have some good passing opportunities. The fans are going to get to see a really good show."
Foremost Insurance Pegram Ducati rider Larry Pegram went on record earlier in the week in support of Heartland Park and continues to be fully supportive of the Topeka track on the first official day of activity.
"I don’t have any reservations about racing here at all, especially since they took that wall out in Turn 1," Pegram said. "That was my one spot that I was really concerned about and the track owner went out last night and got that wall the rest of the way out. Obviously, there’s a lot of changes that need to be made but as proactive as this promoter and track owner is, I think when we come back here next year we are going to have a race track that is one of the best, as far as safety, that we are going to have."
This weekend’s Tornado Nationals presented BriggsAuto.com is the first major motorcycle event to be run at Heartland Park Topeka since 1991 when former Superbike Champion Scott Russell won two of the weekend’s three finals. Russell is back this weekend as the lead analyst for SPEED’s dual same-day telecasts of the Tornado Nationals on Saturday and Sunday. He joined the current crop of AMA Pro Road Racing riders in having a favorable impression of the improved Heartland Park circuit.
"The track has definitely changed a lot over the years," Russell said. "I had a great time racing here, and I thought it was a fun track. Back then safety really wasn’t a concern of mine. I didn’t see the dangers in race tracks back then, but what I see out here today is that you have motorcycles going a lot faster than we were back in those days. Looking at the hard work that the track people have done, I think it is a great effort by them. When a track goes to that much trouble to try to make changes in such a short period of time here, you have got to respect that and go out and put your best foot forward. You just want to try and put on a good show and leave a little bit in reserve if there are areas that are bothering you as a rider. The track has done as much as they can in the time that they have had and the riders are out there riding. If both sides keep working together we won’t have any problems in the future."
In AMA Pro Daytona SportBike presented by AMSOIL, Factory Aprilia Millennium Technologies Team Manager Chip Spalding saw his pair of Aprilia RSV1000R riders Chaz Davies and Aaron Gobert take an immediate liking to the track and find a comfort level with Heartland Park.
"Our riders like the track, and the layout is really good," Spalding said. "There were some safety issues but the track should be commended. They have gone through extraordinary efforts to accommodate us, to accommodate motorcycle racing here at this facility. It is an unprecedented effort and we have yet to go to tracks that have taken such drastic steps during the actual weekend. I think it is very positive, and we really appreciate all of the stuff they have done so far."
Spalding was quick to point out that no race track will ever be entirely risk free but believes that Heartland Park is quickly going in the right direction.
"There is no perfect race track but the big issues have been addressed," Spalding said. "In a perfect world we would never have a wall around a race track, but it is not a perfect world. It is workable right now. Both of our riders knew that if they didn’t feel safe, we could go home, but both of them went out and said it was good. Both of them are extraordinarily experienced, they have been every place around the world, they have seen dangerous race tracks and they are both ready to go this weekend."
The highlight of the Tornado Nationals will be dual Saturday and Sunday races for the premier AMA Pro National Guard American Superbike presented by Parts Unlimited and AMA Pro Daytona SportBike presented by AMSOIL divisions. Also on the card is the season-ending event for the West-division riders of AMA Pro SuperSport presented by Shoei, who will compete head-to-head with their counterparts from the East in the last of this season’s three dual-championship shoot outs. The jam-packed schedule also includes a two-hour AMA Pro SunTrust Moto-GT race that is the only event of the weekend featuring scheduled pit stops and rider changes.
The Tornado Nationals will be featured in a pair of same-day telecasts on SPEED. Saturday’s American Superbike and Daytona SportBike finals will be shown that night in a two-hour show at 10:30 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. PT) while Sunday’s premier class races and other highlights will air in a two-hour show that evening at Midnight ET (9 p.m. PT).