A World-Class Racetrack in the Desert Goes Full-Throttle on Water Efficiency
Water conservation is a hot issue in Utah, home of the new Miller Motorsports Park. And a 526-acre, world-class racetrack needs water—for racers and spectators to drink, fire protection, and vegetation to help control dust in the arid, windy climate and to create a comfortable environment for the public.
What happens when a high-profile business mogul sets out to create North America’s largest road racing track on the outskirts of a water-starved town in the second driest state in the country in the midst of a prolonged drought? It draws attention—a lot of attention—and exposes you to opposition. When you spend $80 million (and counting) to build a state-of-the-art Formula One Superbike, Grand Prix, and go-kart racing facility, you want to attract the attention of racing enthusiasts, not environmental activists. And you definitely don’t want opposition to throw a wrench into the works.
Located in the Tooele Valley, a short drive from Salt Lake City, the park is the brainchild of prominent Utah entrepreneur and native son, Larry Miller. Miller, a former professional drag racer and fast-pitch softball player, owns the NBA’s Utah Jazz team, a local TV station, a chain of sports fan apparel retail stores, movie theaters, auto dealerships, restaurants, upscale housing developments, and other enterprises. It is worthwhile to note that Miller’s business interests tend to attract attention, not all of it positive, and that a few of his businesses have taken some heat from activists. So any new Larry Miller venture is likely to be scrutinized by certain folks.
Then there is the attention-grabbing nature of the project itself. Road racing is one of the world’s most popular spectator sports, and there is a lack of high-quality Formula One racetracks in the United States. Given the interest in Miller Motorsports Park, there was no way it was going to fly in under the radar. Miller knew he had to do it right from the starting line—and that included being water wise.
As a smart businessman, Miller realized not only the public relations benefit of water conservation but also the economic benefits, in terms of lower installation and operating costs. As a philanthropist, father, and lifetime resident of Utah with deep family roots in the state, he also had personal and altruistic interests in providing economic opportunities for the community and in conserving a scarce natural resource in his home state—water. Miller and his associates accomplished those multiple objectives by applying advanced technologies to create a technically superior motorsports complex in the desert.
Show Me the Water!
Before Miller and his design team could tackle water management issues, they first had to find a source of water for the facility. The complex is sited on land that 18,000 years ago was the floor of a 20,000-mile salt lake. The largest remnant of that prehistoric inland sea, now referred to as Lake Bonneville, is the Great Salt Lake, which lies about 45 miles northeast of Miller Motorsports Park. Consequently, the racetrack sits on what is essentially a salt flat. The only available water at the site is very salty groundwater. In fact, groundwater is the only source of water in the entire Tooele Valley, and much of it contains high concentrations of TCE, arsenic, nitrate, and total dissolved solids, making it unsuitable for public use without extensive treatment. What little groundwater there is also feeds fragile wetlands in the northern part of the valley.
Still, Miller and his design team did consider drilling a well on the property and filtering enough salt out of the water that it could be used to irrigate the grass and other vegetation they’d need for the road racing park. They also looked into diluting the salt water by mixing it with culinary (drinkable) water piped into a holding pond. As a third option, they considered using reclaimed water from a sewage treatment plant 10 miles away. Of course, none of those elaborate and expensive options addressed the need to provide clean drinking water for public consumption. Finally, they looked into tapping into the municipal water system in nearby Grantsville, which gets its culinary water from wells drilled deep into rock. However, the city didn’t have enough water to keep up with the area’s burgeoning population growth, much less supply the racetrack with the water it would need for the park’s landscape irrigation, concession stands, public restrooms, drinking fountains, clubhouse, and garages for the racers.
In a win-win solution, Toelle County and Larry Miller each purchased rights to an existing well in Grantsville by buying property surrounding the well. State regulations require that the property owner acquire 3 acre-feet of water shares for each acre of ground to be irrigated. Current plans are to irrigate about 43 landscaped acres of the motorsports park, and there are tentative expansion plans. So Miller had to purchase sufficient shares to meet the park’s long-term water needs, which was somewhat difficult to predict, given he could only guesstimate the number of spectators the facility would have over time.
Miller then drilled a new well on the Grantsville property, which substantially increased the city’s water supply. “Opening up another well enabled Larry not only to get the drinkable water he needed at the racetrack; it also supplied the city with the additional water it needed for its residents,” says John Petersen, owner of Conservation Sprinkler Supply.
“He essentially upgraded the city’s water system—and on his own dime,” adds Ed Mathieu of Baseline.
Grantsville’s municipal water system now supplies culinary water for the racetrack’s public use and landscape irrigation needs as well as for numerous fire hydrants located throughout the facility. A well at the racing complex provides salty water for dust control. Of course, one of the best ways to control dust is with vegetative ground cover—and that requires fresh water.
Creating a Water-Wise Oasis
Miller’s directive to landscape designers Eric and Ben (Jr.) Behunin of Behunin Horticulture was to use drought-tolerant plant material throughout the complex. At the same time, however, he wanted the spectator portions of the park to be “oasis” areas, with more lush vegetation and green grass to stand on. An oasis occurs naturally when the desert floor drops to or below the level of the water table. Even if there were such a spring on the Miller Motorsports Park grounds, and there is not, the water would be salty, not fresh, as in an oasis.
The challenge, then, was to create oasis areas that required minimal irrigation. The landscape design team—which included the Behunins as well as John Petersen and David Ferguson of Conservation Sprinkler Supply—applied a three-pronged solution to this dual challenge: (1) water-wise plants, (2) innovative landscaping methodology, and (3) advanced irrigation technology.
The 180-acre infield is planted with crested wheatgrass and inland salt grass, which require no irrigation whatsoever. Although this non-native ground cover is golden, rather than green, much of the year, it is reasonably attractive, is easy and cost-effective to maintain, and does a good job of curbing dust and soil erosion. The oasis areas include drip-irrigated beds landscaped with drought-tolerant plants as well as wide strips of irrigated “lawns.”
“Because the soil in the Tooele Valley is very alkaline, the plants that normally do well in the Salt Lake Valley don’t do well here. So we couldn’t use many of the plants we usually have in our palette and had to do some research to find plant material that could tolerate a high pH and required minimal water,” explains Ben Behunin Jr.
Photo: Miller Motorsports Park
Newly planted annuals in mulched beds with bubblers add spots of color to the track at Miller Motorsports Park.
Behunin Horticulture chose Scotch pine, pinion pine, flowering pear, cottonwood, hackberry, and several varieties of locust trees as well as various drought-tolerant shrubs and flowers, both perennials and shrubs. The walkways surrounding the large garden beds in the oasis areas are made of crushed rock with a polymer mixed into it.
“When polymer is put down correctly, with the right amount of moisture content and a roller, it dries hard, and so it meets ADA requirements. It’s also porous, allowing water to drain through, which enabled us to plant trees in areas where we couldn’t have if it were all concrete,” explains Ben Behunin Jr.
The porous polymer-gravel surface also facilitates water efficiency, ensuring that water seeps into the ground where it’s needed, to water plants, and doesn’t run off. All of the tree beds are drip irrigated, with two bubbler heads, each inside a 6-inch valve box, at the base of each tree. For aesthetics, the valve box is the same color as the crushed rock. The boxed bubblers not only look better than exposed ones; they are safer and easier to maintain.
“The valve boxes eliminate the safety hazard and the maintenance problem of people tripping over sprinklers and hurting themselves and breaking the bubblers,” Eric Behunin says. “Because the bubbler heads stick up out of the soil, which the valve box allows us to do, the heads don’t get plugged up with dirt and grime the way many other drip systems do.”
Behunin Horticulture also used a more efficient planting method for the trees. The standard of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is to dig a hole three times the width of the ball of the tree being planted. The majority of root growth occurs on the first 12 to 14 inches of the root ball, which can be 18 to 20 inches on a 10-gallon tree. Per the ISA standard for planting a 10-gallon tree, you would dig a hole 30 gallons wide and 20 inches deep, which forces you to stake the tree to keep it from swaying until sufficient root growth occurs. At Miller Motorsports Park, the bottom 6 to 10 inches of the hole are dug to the width of the existing root ball and only the top 12 inches are dug to a width of three times the size of the root ball. “This allows the native soil to give it a nice tight fit at the bottom so the tree doesn’t sway or need staking, which is healthier for the tree,” explains Eric Behunin. “It also allows the tree to have good root growth as it comes up through the top 12 inches of looser amended soil and to develop a good strong root taper, which makes for a structurally stronger tree five years down the road.” This planting method also requires less water to establish the trees.
Equal consideration was given to the spectator lawns. A year before the landscaping went in, test patches of grass were grown in different areas throughout the site. “We planted 24 types of grass seed using different planting methods—with and without mulch, with hydroseeding and drilling, with different fertilizers and different types of water, and with different rates of seed and water distribution—until we found the combination that gave optimum growth,” says Ben Behunin Jr.
They settled on Kentucky blue and perennial rye grass, which provides year-round greenery, since the park is open 12 months of the year. Their tests revealed that over-seeding, seed-drilling, nitrogen-based fertilizer, and ample watering provided the fastest, thickest growth. For nitrogen, they selected a bio-mulch from a local sewage treatment plant—composted sewer sludge that is baked at 2,000 degrees for “days and days,” until the bacteria are gone, and then mixed with wood chips. The mulch was spread out to serve as a seedbed, and the seed was distributed at a rate of 9.6 pounds per 1,000 square feet, rather than the recommended 5 to 7 pounds, using a seed drill.
“Normally we hydroseed, but seed-drilling is faster and we were under a short time frame,” Eric Behunin explains. “Because this was a high-priority project, Larry wanted to make sure he got the very best coming out of the gate, so we kicked up the seed distribution to help compensate for seed loss due to rodents, birds, and the wind.”
They also kept the ground moist until the grass was well established. The faster the grass “took,” the sooner they could reduce the water use too. Their strategy worked. “We saw good growth within five days. Within two weeks, it looked almost like a sodded lawn, even and thick. After three weeks, it was ready to mow—as a result of this combination of using the proper mulch, seed distribution, and watering,” Ben Behunin Jr. adds. “Now that the grass is in on the major spectator areas, the computer-controlled irrigation system can kick in.”
The drip system in the oasis areas is also computer-controlled. While the landscaping at Miller Motorsports Park is a work of both art and science, the irrigation system is pure state-of-the-art science, but a beauty in its own way.
The Most Efficiency Technology Can Provide
Larry Miller allowed the designers at Conservation Sprinkler Supply a unique opportunity that few in the industry get when he signaled the green light to use the most technologically advanced irrigation practices and products available today. That meant a system comprising two integral parts: the mechanics—the pipe, connectors, sprinklers, bubblers, and other working components—and the brains—the computerized control system.
“For six months, we did extensive research on all the manufacturers out there, evaluating timers to determine their capability, reliability, user-friendliness, and water-efficiency,” Petersen says. “We found that only one timer fit all those criteria, and that was Baseline.”
They chose the BaseStation 6000 controller, a PC-based, site-managed system that allows for remote control via a laptop or cell phone. The proprietary BaseVision Software is an intuitive Windows-based program that enables maintenance personnel to monitor and manage water flow throughout the system. The controller’s integral flow meter specifies the number of valves that can be turned on at one time to achieve optimal flow. The BaseStation will also detect any leaks or breaks in the irrigation system and will then either issue a warning or shut down the system.
The ultimate power under the hood of the BaseStation 6000 is its two-wire communications path. With a traditional system, each valve on a site has a unique positive wire and a common wire that runs between all the valves; so a 200-valve site could have up to 210 wires. The BaseStation 6000 features biCoders, each of which is encoded with the serial number of the valve it is tied to, enabling the entire 200-valve system to be run on a two-wire configuration.
“One advantage of the two-wire system is that it cuts down on both labor and materials costs,” says Mathieu of Baseline. “If you look at the cost of copper wiring—the price of copper tripled in the first half of 2006—and the amount of wiring that would have gone into this system, it is a significant savings. A two-wire system is also faster and easier to install than a 210-wire system, which saves on labor costs.”
Another significant cost- and water-saving feature of the BaseStation 6000 is its superior soil-moisture sensing capability. The system features an air temperature sensor and a rain sensor, which work in conjunction with the patented biSensor soil-moisture and soil-temperature sensors. The system also factors in water evaporation from wind. Each biSensor controls the lower limit (50% depletion point) and upper limit (field capacity, or saturation, point) for that zone. The biSensors are placed in zones, each of which is based on the plant type, irrigation type, and micro-climate in that area. This enables the maintenance personnel at Miller Motorsports Park to take readings of current moisture levels of any zone on the site at any time. They can use this tool in one of two ways: (1) to make watering decisions manually based on this information, or (2) to turn the system to automatic and let the sensors determine watering needs based on moisture thresholds.
“With a time-based irrigation system, you’re making assumptions about the rate at which water leaves the soil and about when it reaches saturation. The sensors tell you where you actually are: Here’s the field capacity and here’s the 50% depletion,” explains Mathieu. “It takes away the guesswork so that you water much closer to the plant’s needs—before it gets too dry and without overwatering. This allows you to facilitate plant health and growth while controlling runoff and eliminating waste.”
The BaseStation 6000 utilizes one moisture sensor for every eight to 10 zones. Initially, Miller Motorsports Park will have about 300 zones, or 25 to 30 biSensors. The designers knew upfront that the facility might be expanded in the future; if and when that happens, the irrigation system will also need to be expanded. Each Baseline unit can control 200 valves, and that capability can be expanded to support over 4,000 watering zones simply by adding additional Baseline units and extending the two-wire configuration.
“When we were evaluating systems, the expandability of the two-wire system fit the project scope nicely,” Petersen says. So did the system’s functionality and reliability.
The Baseline system has been around since 1998 and has a solid track record of successful installations ranging from smaller residential to large industrial sites. “The Baseline moisture sensors should be good in the ground for 20-plus years,” adds Mathieu.
Behunin Horticulture will be maintaining the infield as well as the 43 acres of landscaped grounds at Miller Motorsports Park. The Baseline system’s extensive capabilities coupled with its user-friendliness are sure to make that huge job much easier. According to Petersen, most other computerized irrigation systems are so complicated that it takes “hours and hours” of training to learn how to use them. Consequently, most groundskeepers utilize only about one-quarter of what the system is capable of doing. “This controller is so easy to understand and use, you basically put in the parameters you want in the early stages, and the system does the rest for you; it fills in the blanks. So you can get full use of the timer’s capabilities,” says Petersen.
The mechanical components of the irrigation system at Miller Motorsports Park provide even more efficiency advantages. The water pressure on the main line is regulated at 80 psi, and each Weathermatic valve is also pressure-regulated. Depending on the zone, the water is distributed with Weathermatic sprayheads, rotors, or bubblers. To provide optimal distribution and to extend the life of the sprinklers, the designers chose Weathermatic brass nozzles.
“The distribution uniformity of brass is far superior to plastic,” Ferguson says. “An even spray means you ultimately use less water, because you’re not overwatering areas that are already saturated in order to get sufficient water on areas that are getting low spray. By regulating the pressure on each valve, you’re able to better control where the water is being distributed as well as how much and how fast it’s going down. So you’re not throwing too much water out there.”
With many miles of pipe to install, BaseLine's two-wire irrigation system saved time.
According to Mathieu, the biggest failings of many irrigation systems are that the pressures are too high and the water doesn’t go where it’s supposed to go and at the most efficient amount and rate of distribution. The Miller Motorsports Park design team avoided that mistake—and the resultant waste of water—by taking the extra step of incorporating pressure regulation throughout the system so that water would flow at the correct speed and at the proper distribution in each zone.
Build It and They Will Come
Miller Motorsports Park opened its gates on June 10, 2006, when racing enthusiasts gathered for the Western-Eastern Roadracing Association’s motorcycle road racing regional event. A full lineup of motorcycle, car, and kart racing immediately followed. The racetrack—with its “4.5 miles of paper-smooth asphalt with more turns than a nest of snakes, more buildings that a small town, more potential than oil stock” (according to Ray Grass, Deseret News, Salt Lake City, April 27, 2006)—is already, as described on motorsport.com, “considered by many to be the premier road racing facility in the United States.” And a huge and growing crowd of fans has been filling the six spectator oases, enjoying their lush greenery, the clubhouse and cafes, and the spectacular views of the racetrack with its golden infield.
“By using advanced irrigation technologies and drought-resistant plants, we were able to create the paradise-like environment Larry Miller wanted while maintaining the water efficiency he needed,” says Eric Behunin.
The result is a world-class water-wise racetrack that can stand the heat of the Utah desert and all the limelight the Miller Motorsports Park is attracting.
Author's Bio: Colleen Sell is a writer and sustainable-living advocate residing in Oregon.