COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ For Darlington Raceway President Chris Browning, about the only thing better than seeing Nextel Cup cars and NASCAR haulers at the track is watching cranes and construction trucks work on the superspeedway.
Browning has seen a small construction yard go up right alongside NASCAR's oldest superspeedway as it begins $10 million worth of projects that include repaving the track surface and adding a third access tunnel to the infield.
``I think it's great,'' Browning said Thursday. ``It means a lot for our future.''
Work started this week with crews removing the track's SAFER barrier walls. Next comes construction of the access tunnel between turns three and four. Finally, in August, work will begin on repaving the track. Browning said workers will mill off about 3 inches of the track, replacing it with new asphalt _ and guaranteeing a much slicker surface when the Nextel Cup series returns.
Browning has received a preliminary copy of the track's NASCAR sanctioning agreement for next year that calls for a fourth-straight Mother's Day weekend race. But after three straight sellouts, Browning wasn't as worried about Darlington's future as he was a few years ago.
So secure, in fact, Darlington put up a billboard outside the track with next year's dates and ``New Asphalt, Same Attitude.''
Leaders at International Speedway Corp., Darlington's owners, have been very positive about the track's resurgence.
``Everybody's really, really pleased with the way things are going,'' Browning said. ``We're appreciative of the support that we can keep building this place.''
The track hadn't been paved since 1995. Ruts and cracks had worn into the surface that, if not repaired, could've made for a dangerous situation.
``Everybody knew the track had to be done,'' Browning said.
When racers return next spring, they're sure to face a fresher, faster challenge than last month's Dodge Avenger 500. Ward Burton set Darlington's qualifying record of 173.797 mph at the TranSouth 400 in 1996, the first event after a repaving.
This year's pole winner, Clint Bowyer, won with a speed of 164.987 mph.
Browning expects repaving to finish in November. Then he'll give the track over to several driving schools the next few months to help break the new surface in before May.
Browning also plans a deal for those ticket buyers who renew quickly: They'll get the opportunity to bring their cars out on Darlington's resurfaced roadway. Browning says the rides will be led by the track's pace car at controlled speeds.
The smoother surface could be a boon to the potential return of a U.S. Auto Club event. Browning has talked with USAC leaders about bringing the open-wheel circuit back for a second straight season, most likely on the Thursday before the Nextel Cup event.
The biggest complaint Browning got from fans who attended the USAC race was the race had too few cars (15 started) and was too short (50 laps). Both had to do with Darlington's worn surface. ``We'll have that taken care of this time,'' Browning said.
The completed tunnel will let the track dedicate an access tunnel beneath turn 1 for pedestrians only. That could allow Darlington to add 2,000 to 3,000 seats in that area, Browning said.
Darlington officials have prepared for another round of capital funding for ISC tracks later this year. While not expecting the large amounts that have let Darlington install the 6,300-seat Brasington Tower or this latest project, Browning's hopeful the track can earn enough to continue its progress.
Browning wants to next redo the garage area, remapping the infield and installing improved structures for fans and racers.
``In order for us to continue to grow and to make it more enjoyable for everyone, we need to do these things,'' Browning said.