Editorial

Stock car champions must prove themselves on road courses
by Doug Belliveau
June 24, 2003

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Infineon Raceway

It seems that every summer there is a rekindling of the debate as to whether NASCAR should be racing on road courses. Heated discussions on this topic reach a frenzy as the Winston Cup circuit heads for the hills in Sonoma, California to take on the twists and turns at Infineon Raceway, and continues on through August when they compete at Watkins Glen. I say there is no debate – the best stock car drivers must prove they can drive on a wide variety of tracks if they want to be crowned a champion.

The opponents of road courses don't get as excited as I do about turning right as well as left. 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 real racing 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 sometimes 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.

Again this year, I thoroughly enjoyed the Infineon race this past weekend shown on FOX, and I’ve been thrilled in person by the racing provided at Watkins Glen. In a world of cookie-cutter ovals, road courses bring a greater level of diversity to stock car racing. Besides, stock cars have four gears, a clutch, a steering wheel and brakes. Is it wrong to ask the drivers to be challenged by using all these components on a regular basis? Bobby Labonte highlighted the challenges of Infineon prior to the race: “You need to be patient and very strategic when planning a pass there. There is no chance for your brain to get a break like you might get at some tracks going down a backstretch or something. With all the turns and the elevation changes and such, you can never stop concentrating on anything. It happens too fast and you’ll end up getting in trouble if you do lose focus.”

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 Mark Martin’s car that showed braking, shifting and accelerating through the turns.

One might ask whether or not these road courses affect the outcome of the championship hunt at the end of the year. Can a driver win a Winston Cup Championship without performing well on road courses? Statistics indicate that in general, champions perform well on road courses in addition to the ovals. With the tightness of recent points battles, one cannot afford to give up a hundred or so points by finishing poorly during these two races every year. Of the eight drivers who have won five or more career road course races, five of them have won at least one championship. And those five drivers have won a whopping total of 15 titles between them. Repeat champions like Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty have proved themselves on road courses. Of the champions from the past ten years, only Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte have no road course victories. This shows that a champion must be a well-rounded driver. And isn’t that the characteristic we want in any series champion?

Road courses also 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. Sonoma 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, you can catch most of the remote area racing on the huge Jumbotron screens set up throughout the course.

In the 1970's, football and baseball teams built huge multi-purpose stadiums with playing fields made of AstroTurf. By the 1990's, teams began to realize that fans were tired of the "sterile" atmosphere in the oversized arenas. Now many teams are tearing them down and building 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 and the Philadelphia Phillies stadium that will house the team starting when complete next year. Housing 40,000+ fans, these stadiums provide an aesthetic environment that gets fans into the seats.

On the NASCAR circuit, road courses provide the unique playing fields. Sonoma is 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.

Some claim that the quality of stock car racing suffers on road courses. I say that's a bunch of nonsense. 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. It doesn’t get much better than seeing one Gordon trying to reel in another Gordon during the final laps.

It seems that the tide of opinion amongst drivers may now be turning in favor of road courses. I think this is a result of younger drivers on the circuit and their acceptance of this type of track. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has struggled on road courses in the past, remarked on his enthusiasm at this year’s Sonoma race: “We worked hard for that 11th-place finish. This is a track where we knew we had to improve, and I think we showed that we’re here to stay as a championship contender. I wanted a top-10 so bad and we had the car to do it. I want to thank the guys for a car that was the best I’ve had on a road course. We came, we conquered, we kicked some butt. That was a knock-down drag-out, and I had some fun!”


Watkins Glen Aerial Photo

Don't get me wrong, I love racing on most of NASCAR's oval circuits. But how many more D-shaped ovals do we need? 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 Sonoma 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 argument that stock car drivers are one-dimensional and only know how to drive around in circles like fish swimming around in a bowl. I hope you all enjoyed the Sonoma race as much as I did and I can’t wait for Watkins Glen in August!

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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