Tom Helfrich winces at the word, avoiding it like a stray bullet: Expert. Dirt track expert.

But Helfrich has a reputation. After 15 years of preparing the dirt surface at Indiana’s Tri-State Speedway, Helfrich has become a leading authority on the art of track preparation. Fans rave about the 1/3-mile Tri-State facility, and you’ll often hear people talk of it as the best surface in the country.

Still, says Helfrich, when it comes to track prep, nobody is really an expert.

“No matter how much you try, you’re not the boss,” says Helfrich. “You just kind of tender to Mother Nature. So that’s why I don’t like the word, ‘expert.’ It makes it sound like a guy knows an awful lot more than he really does.”

Helfrich, who was a formidable touring late model racer some 20 years ago, now farms about 1,600 acres near Haubstadt, Indiana, and lives right next to Tri-State Speedway. He and his wife Loris, along with son Blake, operate Tri-State, which was operated by Tom’s father Ed for 28 years before Tom and Loris took over.

Spend much time with Tom Helfrich, and you begin to understand why fans often rave about the surface at Tri-State. Of course, Helfrich doesn’t get it exactly right every night; but he approaches the task with such fervor and dedication that fans have faith that the vast majority of the time spectators will see a good, racy surface at Tri-State.

Like every dirt track operator, Helfrich spends hours each week preparing the racetrack. But more importantly, he also spends hours and hours studying the process, asking questions of others, researching, experimenting, developing, and sharing his findings and ideas with those who ask.

In essence, Helfrich continues to search for the Holy Grail: a perfectly prepared racetrack.

But what exactly is a perfect dirt track? Smooth? Tacky? Slick? Rough? Wide? Narrow? Ask 50 racers and fans, and you’ll likely hear a broad range of answers and opinions.

Helfrich says there is no such thing as “perfect.” Instead, he says the emphasis shouldn’t be on the surface itself, but rather on what takes place on the track.

“A good racetrack is one that’s racy, and allows lots of passing,” he insists. “Now, I’ve seen dry slick tracks that were racy, and I’ve seen tacky tracks that were racy. How you get there is a pretty big matter of opinion.”

But if you can get the hyperactive Helfrich to sit still for a few moments, he offers great insight into the mysterious process of getting a track ready to race.

EACH TRACK IS DIFFERENT

“Part of the reason track preparation is so difficult is that there are few black-and-white answers,” says Helfrich. “What works for me at my track might be terrible for a track in another part of the country.”

The layout of the track, the soil, the weather patterns, the type of cars, all are factors in what is needed to prepare the track.

“A key to all of this is what kind of soil you have. It isn’t all the same, that’s for sure. The clay content of soil varies a lot by region of the country, and still varies a lot from track to track.

“I’m not at all happy with the soil we have. We have to kind of baby-sit it, because it isn’t a real good quality with a lot of clay. You want a soil that has a lot of clay content, because clay holds a lot more moisture, and holds it longer, and will be a little tackier.

“The guy who got us thinking on this is Ed Davis, from Bakersfield, California. Ed is actually a soil scientist, and you can send him a sample of your soil and he will analyze it. That tells you a lot, because based on what soil you have, you’ll have to prepare the track accordingly.

“Ed likes to see tracks with about 30 percent clay, but we only have about a 7 percent clay content. Not very good. We’ve added organic material—wood chips, decomposed hay—to the soil a couple of times to help it, because the organic material acts as little sponges to help the soil retain moisture.

“I wish I would have had Ed analyze the soil I have, before I bought it. But I just didn’t know at that time what I was getting.”

Helfrich says finding the right clay is tough in some areas.

“Some regions of the country just don’t have good clay. You can look at two different racetracks and say, ‘Hey, that one was excellent, and that one was piss-poor.’

“Well, it may not be because one promoter cared and the other didn’t; it’s just that certain soils have more forgiveness.”

If a track operator has poor clay, why don’t they replace their surface? That, says Helfrich, is an expensive proposition.

“It’s hard to believe you write a check for $15,000, maybe $20,000 for some dirt,” he says. “But that’s how it is. It’s very expensive to find good clay, get it bought, then pay for hundreds of truckloads to be hauled in.”

The reality, says Helfrich, is this: “Most tracks have got what they’ve got, and they have to learn to work with it.”

AVOID RADICAL MOVES

Helfrich says most promoters try very hard to get their surface right. The problem is, however, sometimes they try too hard.

“I believe you should try to make your moves in smaller steps, and don’t do anything radical,” he says. “Don’t dump a lot of water on; put it on in smaller doses, allowing it to soak in.

“Don’t plow and cut the track deeply; try to get your base solid and then leave it alone.

“It’s kind of like a big recipe. You add the ingredients together, work the mixture, and let it cure. The ingredients are the soil, the moisture, the wind, the sun, and the time of day.

“The key is moisture. But too much, or not enough? It’s hard to get it just right, because you don’t completely control it. Yes, you apply the water, but you can’t control the humidity, or the rainfall. Plus, the sun and wind are enemies, because they rob the soil of moisture.

“So you control what you can, which is the amount of water you put on.” You also seek to control the way moisture is absorbed by the track, he says. Sometimes an operator cuts deep, deep grooves in a track, trying to get moisture deeper into the soil. You have to be really careful with such moves, says Helfrich.

“With certain tracks, if the moisture gets down too deep, it’s marshy and soupy, like a waterbed. When you get a track spongy like that, it’s not tight enough. High-horsepower cars like sprint cars, or street stock cars with narrow tires, they will peel it and peel it, and before you know it you’ve got a pretty good sized hole or rut.”

Instead, says Helfrich, an operator should get the base hard-packed and solid, then concentrate on the top one to two inches. That way, you’re controlling the amount of the track that’s being worked. Keeping it under control is what you want, he insists.

EQUIPMENT

People are often awed by the array of equipment Helfrich uses at Tri-State. His situation is somewhat different than other operators, because he can also use his John Deere tractors on his neighboring farm, helping to justify their cost.

But like most farmers, the art of frugal buying has been ingrained in Helfrich. He is sharp and shrewd when it comes to finding and buying equipment, and he isn’t afraid of investing his own elbow grease to repair a used piece of equipment that happens to be a good buy.

The typical track operator doesn’t need a huge inventory of equipment right off the bat, says Helfrich.

A road grader is number one on the equipment list at just about any track, he says. A grader is used to smooth the surface, roll the berm back and forth, and a variety of other tasks.

Next an operator will want a sheepsfoot, a large round tool with small tines that work the soil. Those two indispensable tools mean very little, says Helfrich, without a good watering system.

“Then if he can see his way, a guy will want an older, used tractor to pull the sheepsfoot around. After that he’ll want to look into an incorporation tool, which will help him tend the surface, mixing the water and the soil effectively.”

Helfrich insists there are no magic tools in his business. But the right tools can help you control your track, and help make up for various problems.

“If you’re too wet, a disc or tiller will let you stir up the track, allowing it to dry some. If you’re too dry, you can work the surface and apply water, allowing the moisture to work into the soil better.

“You have to work the soil, no matter what. You’ve seen guys go out and dump water on an inch of dust? The mud will cake to your shoes, and there is dust underneath, right? That’s because the moisture has to be mixed into the soil. Maybe the water wasn’t applied early enough, and wasn’t mixed with the soil. Or maybe they put it on in a hurry, and didn’t let the cars work it in.

“Either way, that’s pretty risky. It’s really important to get that moisture worked properly into the racetrack.”

Helfrich utilizes the sheepsfoot quite a bit.

“We are learning more about the sheepsfoot the more we use it,” he says. “We actually use it not just to tighten the track up, but it also makes a pretty good mixing tool. It punches holes in the track, you can water a little bit, and pull the sheepsfoot around some, and it kind of pumps the track. It mixes the top inch or two, and provides a pretty good base.”

Some time ago, a new tool began appearing on the dirt track scene. Called a Lely Rotara, it is a powered rake that stirs the top inch or so of the surface as it is pulled behind a tractor.

“It kind of works in the same principle as an egg-beater,” says Helfrich. “Stirring it up, getting it mixed together. Maybe to dry the soil, or if the track glazes over you can break that glaze and get the moisture back to the top, or just let the night moisture come up.”

“Night moisture” is a huge factor at most tracks, says Helfrich.

“Something we learned with being a farmer is that when the sun goes down, moisture comes to the top of the surface,” he explains. “You have to take that into consideration. Put on too much water, and the sun goes down, and you’ve lost your racetrack, it’ll be too wet.

“That’s why you put moisture on gradually. Allow it to soak some, and let the night air be your ally, bringing the moisture back up.”

PUTTING IT BACK TOGETHER

Most people view the hours just before an event as the critical period for track preparation. That may be true, says Helfrich, but the hours following an event are also critical.

“It’s very important right after an event to get the track back in shape before it dries out,” he explains. “By the time your program is over, chances are there are some ruts, some cuts, and a berm. Again, the sun is your enemy, and when your track lies open like that, the sun will dry it out a lot. When that happens, it won’t want to naturally pack back together, and you’ll have to water it and pack it and really work with it to get it back under control.

“So you really want to avoid having your track exposed to all the elements all week, the sun and the wind. That just dries it out too much.

“At our place, let’s say we’re done racing at 10:00 or 10:30, and let’s say the track was tacky enough to build a six- to eight-inch cushion. We’ll go out after the racing is finished and try to roll it out, but maybe it’s still too sticky.

“So we’ll let it sit all night, and get out before sunrise the next morning, while it’s still wet, and get it back to normal, sheepsfoot it, and pack it a little bit, so it’s ready to sit there until next week.

“That way, the track isn’t exposed to the elements. So really, our week isn’t spent constantly working and watering, working and watering. There are weeks when it’s extremely dry, or extremely hot, for a long period of time, so we’ll work it some. I might go out on Thursday and put on maybe 8,000 to 10,000 gallons of water, just so it doesn’t get overly dry. And then I’ll do it again on Friday or Saturday night, so we don’t have to put a lot of water on it at one time.”

Helfrich has built four special vehicles he uses for pushing cars and packing the racetrack. Built on a 1978 Chevy 4x4 truck chassis, he has about $6,500 invested in each truck. He strongly believes in using his own vehicles to pack the track. Two have towing booms, and one also carries firefighting equipment.

“When I was racing, I used to get so damned tired of hearing the announcer yelling over the loudspeakers at the racers, ‘If you don’t wheel pack, you can’t race!’ Now, how many times have you heard that?

“But let me ask you: How much control over your own destiny do you have if you have to yell that over the loudspeakers? How do you know you’re going to start racing at 7 o’clock, when you’re relying on help from others to do so? You don’t, do you?

“That’s why we spend too damned much money on (equipment), trying to control the time that we pack the track, how it’s packed, trying to get it moist enough to pack, without being so sloppy that it’s soup. So there is a science to packing the track. You want it packed without all the mud sticking to the wheel wells.

“We used to overly pack our racetrack, we don’t so much any more. We don’t use as heavy equipment as we used to. I use push vehicles that don’t weigh a lot, and I also have a rubber-tired roller that weighs about what a regular vehicle weighs, in terms of pounds per square inch. If you have all the equipment, you know when it’s done, and you know how it’s done.

“And what if you get a shower right before hot laps? Maybe you can save the event because you’ve got the right equipment. It’s very expensive, but in my opinion it’s what you’ve got to do in order to do it right.”

Each Sunday night, Tri-State features a multi-class card of racing highlighted by wingless sprint cars. He’s been at this for 15 years, but Helfrich says he continues to struggle, fighting the elements, seeking to get the track in just the right condition each time out.

“You know, if a track has 20 race dates in a season, that’s only 20 opportunities to figure out what your track likes,” he says. “And if you’re looking at a special events track that runs three or four times a year, hell, they haven’t ran enough yet to even know where to get started.

“So it’s very difficult to get all this down to a good science.

“That’s why it’s risky to talk about track preparation, because some dirt reacts well to one thing, while other dirt reacts better to something else. It’s really in the operator’s best interest to figure out what soil he has, and what steps work better for his particular surface.

“There is a lot expected out of promoters. When we make one mistake, people kind of jump on us. But that’s just how it is.”

When it comes to dirt tracks, Tom Helfrich has seen it all and done it all. But don’t call him an expert. He sure hates that word.