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.”
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
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
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!”
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!
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