HAMPTON — When Langley Speedway opens its 63rd season Saturday, all eyes will be on the track. Literally.
There is $250,000 worth of new black asphalt covering Langley's 4/10ths-of-a-mile oval, and the effect on racing is expected to be huge. The reason is that the new surface is producing faster speeds than ever in the Late Model division, which kicks off 2013 with a 150-lapper to highlight the opening night's six-race card.
How much faster? Several Late Model drivers say they're consistently turning practice laps a half-second faster than the qualifying record of 15.478 seconds held by five-time champion Danny Edwards Jr.
"Six cars that I know of had average practice speeds of 15.5," two-time champ Mark Wertz said. "That tells you right there that the track record is going to be obliterated on Saturday.
"I'm predicting a 15.22 will win the pole."
You won't get any argument from Greg Edwards, who won his third Late Model title last season. He's been turning 15.2-second laps in practice.
"I'll almost guarantee you the top 10, maybe the top 15, will break the track record," he said.
Wertz and Greg Edwards say that more in trepidation than with pride. There are lots of potential problems that come with racing so many laps so fast on a surface still treacherously slippery.
"This is nothing against Bill Mullis (the track owner), because he did a great job getting the track paved," Edwards said. "But the track still has to come in, and it only has one groove.
"If you get just out of line (of the first groove), you can wreck."
Edwards knows of what he speaks. During a practice late last week, he got into the second groove by inches, hurtled into the wall and tore up the front end of his Chevy.
Three-time champion C.E. Falk says that's because as the drivers break in the track, little dust-like bits of the surface accumulate in the high (second) groove, causing a lack of traction. As rubber and fuel gets laid down on the surface, Falk expects the second groove to gain more traction.
For the first few races, however, the slippery second groove has everyone on edge.
"I'm nervous about how fast the track is," Greg Edwards said. "If people don't use their heads, and they start acting crazy, a lot of equipment is going to get torn up."
Wertz said, "I hope everybody shows up with a good level of patience. I'd hate to see a lot of torn-up equipment on opening night."
That patience, Edwards said, will be important when the fastest cars begin lapping the slower ones. That's almost inevitable in an opening-night field Falk believes will easily exceed 20 cars.
"You can't just root people out of the way, because if something happens, it's going to be big," Edwards said. "And if you're going around a lapped car, and (a lead-lap car) tries to make it three-wide, he's not going to make it in the second groove.
"There's going to have to be a lot of respect out there."
Then there's the issue of tire wear. Edwards, Falk and Wertz acknowledge the possibility that the consistently higher speeds could cause wear and blown right fronts in the lengthy race.
Edwards thinks officials should consider stopping the race briefly at 75 laps to check for tire wear. Wertz suggests officials check tires after the final practice and, if tire wear appears to be a factor, perhaps allow the drivers to cool them in water.