The Frontstretch: They Come In All Shapes And Sizes: Ranking The Types of NASCAR Tracks Across America by Danny Peters -- Tuesday May 6, 2008

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They Come In All Shapes And Sizes: Ranking The Types of NASCAR Tracks Across America

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday May 6, 2008


“If God had made us all the same, life would have been boring, Daniel”.

So said my dearly departed Grandfather, the legend that was William Peters. And the old boy was right; he usually was, to be fair. And if it’s true about people, it’s certainly true about sport and NASCAR, in particular.

Can you imagine how mind numbing it would be to watch 36 races in a row at Fontana, or a season composed entirely of 500-mile Sunday afternoon races at Pocono – about a third of which would probably be blighted by poor weather? Even the best tracks in that scenario would get dull awful quick. Fans across the country would be turning off in droves after watching week after week of “The Big One.” And they’d be equally bored with ten months straight of high-banked half-mile racing at Thunder Valley, regardless of how much beatin’ and bangin’ there was on offer.

Variety, as the old cliché goes, truly is the spice of life.

In the last couple of weeks here on Frontstretch, there’s been some healthy debate about the relative merits of restrictor plate racing. I’ve fallen on the “pro” side but others – Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Smith especially – make persuasive arguments for the “con” side. The nature of the debate and, shall we say, spirited commentary from readers got me thinking — of the different types of tracks we see across the NASCAR schedule, which form of racing do I enjoy the most?

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to divide the 22 tracks on the 36-race slate into seven categories based solely on track length. No doubt, some of you will be horrified by how I did it; but as a few of you have done in the past, please feel free to tell why I am a moron in the comments section below.

Here’s how I’m splitting up each venue, with Sprint Cup race dates in parentheses:

Short Tracks: 6 – Bristol (2), Martinsville (2), Richmond (2)
1 milers: 6 – Phoenix (2), Dover (2), Loudon (2)
1.5 milers: 11 – Atlanta (2), Darlington (1), Texas (2), Lowe’s (2), Las Vegas (1) Miami (1), Kansas (1), Chicagoland (1)
2 milers: 4 – Fontana (2), Michigan (2)
2.5 milers: 3 – Pocono (2), Indianapolis (1)
Plate Tracks: 4 – Daytona (2), Talladega (2)
Road Courses: 2 – Watkins Glen (1), Sonoma (1)

But before I start, I want to make two exceptions; neither Darlington nor Indianapolis truly belongs in their respective category. It seems wholly unfair to consider that icon of motorsport, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, alongside the “quainter” charms of Pocono Raceway. Likewise for Darlington – comparing the Lady in Black to Kansas, Vegas, and Chicagoland just doesn’t feel right. So, I’m taking Darlington and Indianapolis out of consideration, giving them both very honorable mentions as two of the best and most unique stops on the circuit.

Without further ado, let’s get down to the serious business of grading the remaining twenty tracks.

Last Place – 2 milers: Fontana, Michigan
I’m being a little harsh to Michigan – it’s guilt by association to some degree – but my choice for last place was a no-brainer. I saw my first race and also my worst race (this year’s 24 hours of California) at Fontana, and I can honestly say I’ve yet to see a race there I actively enjoyed. Coming right on the heels of the Daytona 500 and immediately before the race at the infinitely more exciting Las Vegas Motor Speedway doesn’t help their cause, and “taking” Darlington’s Labor Day is the perennial nail in their coffin. Next…

Sixth Place – 2.5 milers: Pocono
A thousand miles at Pocono – what is that, some kind of an inside joke? I’m sure TV commitments would preclude any kind of change at this stage of the game, but why not have one or both of the two dates be 400-mile affairs? There has to be a way. Pocono avoids finishing last by a simple process of elimination. I dislike the track just a little less than Fontana, solely because my favorite driver runs better in Pennsylvania than he does in California.

Fifth Place – 1.5 milers: Atlanta, Texas, Lowe’s, Las Vegas, Miami, Kansas, Chicagoland
The biggest category on this list sucks up a whopping 11 races – give or take a percentage point or two – 30 percent of the schedule. The route to the Sprint Cup begins with these tracks; in that, there’s no question. I won’t deny individually each track can produce great racing, but as a group they’re just, well, a little bit ho-hum compared to the remaining four categories.

As a whole, the one mile tracks may not rate at the top of the list; but Dover’s unique configuration and trophy put it above the others.

Here’s where it’s starts to get a little tougher…

Fourth Place – 1 Milers: Phoenix, Dover, Loudon
Dover has to be one of the most underrated tracks on the circuit. I love watching races at the Monster Mile, and that Monster trophy has to be the most ridiculous yet brilliant trophy in all of Motorsports. This was the hardest choice in the entire list, as this trio of tracks is a fine group. Fourth, but narrowly.

Third Place – Road Courses: Watkins Glen, Sonoma
I have to admit, I absolutely love the road courses in both Cup and Nationwide. Maybe it’s growing up with Formula One, but any race with Boris Said in the field is fine by me. I think, to some extent, feast is famine; with only two dates on the Sprint Cup schedule, you’re always left wanting more. If I had any say in the matter, I’d find a way to add a road course to the Chase.

Second Place – Plate Tracks: Daytona, Talladega
I think I made my positive point of view on plate racing crystal clear last week. Yes, I know even the great Dale Earnhardt said it wasn’t real racing; but it’s pure racing excitement nonetheless. For the 30-car packs, the epic scale of the Great American Race, those fans in Alabama, and, quite frankly, the sheer spectacle of any of the four races either trackside or on TV, plate tracks finish second on my list.

First Place – Short Tracks: Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond
It seems appropriate that the three tracks in first place on my list are steeped in the history and roots of our great sport. Martinsville is one of the original eight circuits, and they’ve been turning laps at Richmond since 1953; Bristol is the junior member of the trio, with racing at Thunder Valley starting back in 1961. I know not every race is an instant classic, but as we saw on Saturday night – and also on Friday night in the Nationwide race – at Richmond, just like at Bristol and Martinsville, anything can and usually does happen.

So, that’s my list. If you see it differently then let me know…

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©2000 - 2008 Danny Peters and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Kevin in SoCal
05/06/2008 03:01 AM

Dont blame California for what NASCAR gave them, blame NASCAR, and blame the people in the Southeast who didnt support Darlington and Rockingham enough. And I’m seeing a trend here. Its not so much of a dislike for California for no reason, but for the simple fact that it was given the Labor Day date. I just might believe you would hate Bristol if it was on Labor Day.
On the other hand, I cant disagree much with your list. I like Pocono though, for its uniqueness and its challenge to the drivers and crew chiefs.

05/06/2008 07:16 AM

The Pocono races used to be more interesting when drivers could shift to a lower gear to handle the corners. It brought out a different aspect of driving skill – more than just gas pedal and steering. A few years ago NASCAR mandated a different rear end gear that effectively did away with this – no more down-shifting for the corners at Pocono. I never understood why NASCAR made this change.

Mike in NH
05/06/2008 07:56 AM

I agree with the list mostly, and wish there were more road courses. NASCAR likes to play up its bootlegging roots – bootleggers didn’t run on ovals. Add a road course to the Chase – I think it’s the only type of course not in those last 10 – and consider a rotating schedule that visits different road courses each year. Wouldn’t it be fun to see Cup cars running the Daytona road course? How about VIR?

Mark in Pa.
05/06/2008 12:51 PM

I’ve attended stock car races at Pocono starting in 1972. I could leave work now and be there in under 40 minutes. Back then the USAC stock car series raced there and Petty, Allison, Pearson and Yarbrough were paid to come up and race. The first problem with Pocono is it was never meant for stock cars. The track was designed for Indy cars and was part of the Indy car triple crown back in the 70’s along with Indy and the long gone Ontario, Ca. raceway. Pocono is very unique and far from a cookie cutter but on it’s best day is a BIG 170 mph track. When the tires fall off cars travel at 159 mph. For a track this big and spread out the racing falls off quickly. Pocono needs the Mattioli’s to let loose with some serious money. Pocono need three things.
1. A completely new surface.
2. More banking, track is BIG and FLAT.
3. Lights. To see a night race at a track in the middle of the woods on a summer night with a breeze coming thru and the frogs chirpin’ away at night in the ponds behind turn 2 would make this track come to life instead of being on life support.

Kevin in SoCal
05/06/2008 01:12 PM

A rotating schedule would be awesome! That way every track could have at least one race, and we would rotate which tracks got two dates. Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Bristol, Richmond, and Martinsville always get two, the other tracks get at least one. Darlington should probably get two, but at the very least it will get one on Labor Day every year. We could start going to Iowa, Milwaukee, Kentucky, Gateway, Rockingham at least once a year and sometimes twice.

Evil Olivia
05/06/2008 03:28 PM

Yet another great article, gov’ner. Personally, I would gladly see Dover fall off the radar completely as it is one of the more boring races (and a horrible tailgate), but as you said it does have the best trophey in all of professional sports. I like your list and your top two. Nothing beats wiping rubber from your face from the intimacy at Martinsville or the roar you can physically feel at Dega, but I agree with Mike in NH. NASCAR needs to ditch the freshly pressed khakis and embrace their roots. The fascination with motorsports lies in the drama, the suspense and the history. Maybe its also the drinking in the sun that draws a crowd…which brings us back to bootlegging.

05/06/2008 03:36 PM

I’d love to see a Cup race at Gateway (St Louis). I admit being selfish since it’s only 10 minutes from my home, but putting that aside, it’s another unique course. It’s sort of shaped like Darlington, with flatter turns, it definitely would be nice to see a race there rather than a repeat of Fontana.

05/06/2008 03:43 PM

Another good article. I agree with you on road courses, I think there should be just one more, in the chase. Pocono needs some changes to improve the race, either to the track or cars (I don’t understand how they can justify not allowing shifting, why not just use an automatic tranny then?!) but it isn’t a lost cause just yet.

Kevin in SoCal
05/06/2008 07:38 PM

Zane, they dont shift on any other ovals, so why do you want shifting at Pocono? Stick it in high gear and mash the throttle. Save the shifting for the road courses.

05/06/2008 09:42 PM

Fine article Danny, even if I disagree with some of your points. I will always rank plate racing at the very bottom, for many of the same reasons Mr. Smith detailed in the column that you so graciously linked to. I love Dover too, but I also LOVE Pocono. I know I’m in the minority there, but I think it’s an awesome track.

05/07/2008 04:01 AM

Daniel, since when did you grow up with F1 !!!? On a more serious point, any reason why NASCAR couldn’t run at Road America or Laguna Seca, the two finest American tracks ?

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