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Editorial

Keep NASCAR's Road Courses

 

 by Doug Belliveau
June 28, 2001

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Bumping and banging on road courses produces some interesting results.
(all photos by Doug Belliveau)

I hope my local police department is not reading this article. After Sunday's Sears Point race, I had the urge to jump in my Grand Am GT and negotiate a few twisty roads at a rate of speed that was in excess of the legal limit. Apparently others don't get as excited as I do about road courses, as I've heard the argument that stock cars don't belong on this type of track. The cars are too big and too heavy, and it's not what the fans want to see. I say that's a bogus argument, and given a chance, it is exactly what the fans want to see. 

Winston Cup has the best stock car drivers in the world and there is no better place to see the driver's talent showcased. I want to continue to see them challenged on a road course at least twice a year.

Drivers complain that they don't have time to practice on road courses and that a poor qualifying result can doom their finishing place. Fans say that at best, the stockcars lumber along this type of track and there isn't enough passing. Owners balk at the additional costs for development of special road course cars. 

Hopefully I'm not in the minority, because I thoroughly enjoyed the Sears Point race this past weekend. I also attended Watkins Glen last year and plan to return in August again. In a world of cookie-cutter ovals, road courses bring a new level of diversity to stock car racing. Besides, Winston Cup stock cars have four gears, a clutch, a steering wheel and brakes. What's so wrong about asking the drivers to use all these components on a regular basis?


Fueling the car from the
right side at The Glen.

I want to see drivers steering to the right more often then just when they warm up their tires during a caution lap or pull out of their pit. I want to see pit crews filling up the cars with gas from the right side for a change. I want to see drivers setting up a left turn in combination with a following right turn. Did you watch FOX's footcam during the race? Kudos to the network for setting up a camera in Ricky Rudd's and Rusty Wallace's car that showed contrasting styles of braking, shifting and accelerating through the turns.

Road courses provide intangibles that many ovals cannot. They allow fan intimacy in a unique atmosphere. Many oval tracks, especially the large ones, require fans to watch races from far away and high above. Sears Point and Watkins Glen allow fans to watch races from smaller stands scattered throughout the course. Although you cannot personally watch action from all over the course, what you do see is up close and personal. At Watkins Glen, I could watch action on the front stretch and turn 1, and then catch the rest of the racing on the huge Jumbotron screens set up throughout the infield area. Another unique aspect of watching a race at a road course is that you can pick up your lawn chair and move to another section of the track to watch the race from another vantage point; try that at Charlotte or Daytona.

In the 1960's and 1970's, football and baseball teams built huge multi-purpose stadiums with playing fields made of AstroTurf. By the 1990's, team owners began to realize that fans were tired of the "sterile" atmosphere in the oversized arenas. Now the owners are trying to tear them down and build smaller, single-sport stadiums with a unique character that can attract fans. A perfect example of this trend is the construction of the new Baltimore Orioles stadium a few years ago. While only housing 40,000 fans, this stadium is a gorgeous, aesthetic park that has been filling the seats ever since it was completed. People come to the stadium as much for the environment as they do for they game.


You won't see rain tires and windshield wipers on an oval.

On the NASCAR circuit, road courses provide the unique playing fields. They are constructed amongst rolling hills, with the curves following natural vertical dips in elevation. This creates a few blind spots, which adds another variable to the race. Pitting at Sears Point was divided into two areas, including "Gilligan's Islands" where cars were serviced from the right side. The cars in these pits were held 18 seconds to make up for the additional distance cars on the other side must travel at the reduced pit road speed. Where else do you get to see this type of odd course management?

Some claim that the quality of stock car racing suffers on road courses. I say that's a bunch of nonsense. As one of our website forum members posted, "There can't be anybody who loves NASCAR that didn't like the Sears Point race". With all that bumping and banging, and the Winston Cup regulars versus the road specialists, I was glued to my seat until the very end.

What scares me these days is the ever-lengthening Winston Cup schedule and desire of new tracks to obtain race events. Don't get me wrong, I love racing on most of NASCAR's oval circuits. But how many more D-shaped ovals can they add to the schedule? NASCAR needs to maintain its two road course events because of their uniqueness and the great racing that takes place on those tracks. I hope they never sacrifice Sears Point or Watkins Glen for the purpose of giving another oval track a Winston Cup date.

And besides, I sure don't want to give open-wheel fans any more ammunition in their inflammatory argument that stock car drivers only know how to drive around in circles like water swishing around in a toilet bowl. I hope you all enjoyed the Sears Point race as much as I did and I'll see you in August at Watkins Glen!

What do you think of the road courses?
Contact me at dougb@autoracing1.com

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