200 MPH Design Speed?

San Jose Public Works turns city streets into Grand Prix racetrack

Timm Borden
Deputy Director of Public Works
City of San Jose, California
Presenter, 2007 APWA Congress

While many race car fans have experienced that surge of adrenalin as they watch drivers approach the final turn to finish, few have had the added elation of having "lived" a race course the way staff in the City of San Jose have. For them, the thrill of the Grand Prix began in 2004 when Champ Car World Series and the Canary Fund, the event organizers, proposed to City leaders that an open-wheel street race take place in the streets of downtown San Jose. An exciting prospect, undoubtedly, but one that seemed highly improbable given that cars would be racing at 200 MPH through a fully-developed downtown on streets laid out over 100 years ago!

A view of cars screaming down Almaden Boulevard

In the spirit that is reminiscent of California's early pioneers, however, employees from all City service areas came together to form a diverse "Virtual Grand Prix Department" to work with organizers on issues such as perimeter traffic control, detours, parking, public safety, downtown business impacts, public outreach, trash and recycling, vendor permitting, etc. Public Works was assigned the fun but stressful task of being the organizer's track design consultant and learning how to design cross slopes, turns and hairpins for design speeds of 200 mph.

Public Works designers began immersing themselves in research, attempting to determine minimum criteria for the track, so that focus could be given to pavement areas that needed to be reconstructed. Staff worked closely with the French-Canadian Champ Car track experts, who were not engineers, not used to building new tracks from scratch, and not used to United States design conventions. San Jose's engineering team began researching documents such as the Federation Internationale de I'Automobile (FIA) Regulations: Procedures for Recognition of Motor Race Circuits, vertical curve information from the University of Melbourne, and physics textbooks on projectiles. Research also had to be done on asphalt pavement design. All of this information, of course, had to be balanced with such things as maintaining adequate drainage and needing to maintain pavement service life—"normal" urban street design considerations.
One track, going around the San Jose Sharks' HP Pavilion, was completely designed and construction had begun when organizers decided to move the event to the heart of downtown. San Jose officials quickly agreed with the new track location due to the significantly better television vantage points that would showcase downtown San Jose to over 150 countries.

Crews placing pavement along Almaden Boulevard Straightaway

With Champ Car telling staff that the asphalt would lift with anything less than a 90-day cure period, the new track was quickly designed. The inaugural race was set for the last weekend of July, and now it was already late-February. Champ Car ultimately would concede that a 60-day cure period would be acceptable, and the construction was completed right at the end of May.

During July, it was like a huge circus rolled into the downtown. Huge grandstands were constructed, with air conditioned suites more than thirty feet in the air. Over three miles of "block fence" (K-rails with chainlink fence on top) were installed along all of the curbs and median islands throughout the track. Pedestrian overcrossings were brought in at two locations. Still, on the morning of the first race, construction crews were doing last-minute modifications to the course, frantically working on the lightrail track crossings to smooth the pavement approaches, and the pedestrian bridges were still being completed, causing a four-hour delay for the initial race. Race fans were growing impatient, but by noon, the roar of race cars started replacing the grumbling of the race fans.

That's Racin'!
Although the Champ Car World Series was the main event, a number of other races and festivities were also held. A week of fairs, music, charity events and promotional activities also supported the Grand Prix. The three-day race brought more than 150,000 people into the streets of downtown San Jose. One newspaper referred to the race as "the most exciting event ever held in the city."

The inaugural event was an economic success for downtown and gained national recognition, but drivers and race fans declared the track a disaster. Cars were dramatically launched into the air as they crossed train tracks, and no passing could occur on the constrained turns.

A Champ Car going over the lightrail track "bump" that would send them airborne

On race weekend, many critics, including several drivers, criticized the track for being too narrow, too bumpy and dangerous. Some drivers even jokingly compared the track to a motocross track, and somewhat-seriously complained of headaches after several laps. Several modifications were made to the track following initial practice and qualifying sessions, including adding a chicane to the front stretch and moving a grandstand to make room for a bigger runoff area. Still, the crossing of the lightrail tracks on the course actually caused the Champ Cars to bounce and become airborne in a high-speed area of the track. Even pulling the chicane out of the "traffic calming tool box" didn't slow cars down enough to reduce the impact of the train track bump.

On race day, the Champ Car race was largely a battle of survival, as half the starting field failed to finish the race, most due to crashing on narrow portions of the track, or mechanical problems caused by the bumpy rail crossings. There was also very little on-track passing in the Champ Car race, with some fans calling it a "parade of real fast cars" rather than an actual race.

Construction of the "Toyota Hairpin Turn"

2006 Changes
As a result of the poor quality of racing in 2005, organizers of the San Jose Grand Prix promised that the track would be improved in the future in order to keep the race. For the 2006 event, there were several changes made to the downtown San Jose circuit. One of the major turns and straightaways where the most crashes had occurred before was widened by relocating eighteen palm trees and modifying a traffic signal. The track at the rail crossings was regraded so that there would be no issue of cars "taking off" again. Of course, just a week before the race, a maintenance crew discovered undermining in a sanitary sewer right in line with the race track. Crews worked feverishly to repair the main and backfill the hole just in time.

After many design changes involving vertical curve manuals and physics formulas, the 2006 event proved a raving success and top drivers proclaimed the new track as one of the best in the worldwide circuit. Cars went over the train tracks smoothly, and exciting passing occurred frequently. One of the circuit's biggest-name drivers, Paul Tracy, was quoted as saying, "This race track is 200% better than last year!"

After all of the difficulties and pressures that staff experienced through the two years of track design, it has been a very fun, exciting and rewarding experience that few public sector engineers ever have the opportunity to enjoy.

Timm Borden will give a presentation on this topic at the 2007 APWA Congress in San Antonio. His session is entitled "Public Works Designs Grand Prix Race Course on City Streets!" and takes place on Tuesday, September 11, at 2:30 p.m. He can be reached at (408) 535-8499 or timm.borden@sanjoseca.gov.

San Jose Grand Prix 2005 Race Information:

Construction Duration: 3 Months
Asphalt Paving Duration: 2 Weeks
New Asphalt Installed: 8,000 Tons
Concrete Blocks & Debris Fence Used: 3.5 Miles
Official Track Length: 1.448 Miles (2.33 km)
Race Length: 93 Laps; 134.664 Miles
Time of Race: 1:45:42.889 sec. - New Record
Average Speed: 76.431 mph
Fastest Race Lap: 55.083 sec. - New Record

San Jose Grand Prix 2006 Race Information:

Official Track Length: 1.448 Miles (2.33 km)
Race Length: 97 Laps; 139.971 Miles
Time of Race: 1:36:00.166 sec. - New Record
Average Speed: 65.694 mph
Margin of Victory: 6.686 sec.
Fastest Race Lap: 49.678 sec. - by car #1 (Sebastian Bourdais) - New Record