The Frontstretch: Road Course Ringer: Montreal Makes The Case for Twisties In The Chase by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday September 1, 2010

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Road Course Ringer: Montreal Makes The Case for Twisties In The Chase

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday September 1, 2010


During the past few weeks, the NASCAR topics of conversation have centered around the Chase — who’s in, who’s not, who’s trying to make it — and the impending changes to the schedule for 2011 and beyond. One of the recurring narratives of the Chase convo has to do with the tracks involved and if a road course should be made part of the final ten playoff races – or if more road racing should be added to the schedule in general.

Well, following last weekend’s NAPA Auto Parts 200 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, if there is to be a push for such a measure, now would be the time to get cracking on it.

The attendance figures for the crowd on hand for a Nationwide event – not a Sprint Cup race – was 70,000. To put that in perspective, Chicagoland, the new kickoff venue for the Chase in 2011, attracted less than 68,000 in July for its lone Cup event. While virtually every track on the tour struggles with attendance, Canadians poured out in droves on a stiflingly humid 90-degree day to see a field comprised largely of Nationwide regulars and road course ringers (particularly favorite son Jacques Villeneuve, son of Gilles for whom the track is named) that put on a fantastic show on one of the finest road courses in motorsports.

It’s one thing to have a couple of Formula One drivers in the NASCAR ranks, but quite another to race on the same track that hosts the premier form of auto racing on the planet.

Boris Said was just one of the road course stars that put on a clinic, and an entertaining one at that, on Montreal’s road course this past Sunday.

For the third consecutive year, Montreal was the site of a highlight reel competition, not just the finish, between Robby Gordon, Max Papis, Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, and eventual winner Boris Said. While fuel mileage did help determine the eventual finish for hard-luck Robby, the final lap was a dogfight between Said, Villeneuve and Papis, who staged a valiant charge entering the penultimate set of turns to set up a drag race to the finish line between he and Said.

It was road racing done right, with three of the best in the business. No dirty driving. No bump and runs. No turning the leader in front of the field. “Have at it, Boys!” was held in check. In short, it provided one of the best races in recent memory.

The entire day reminded me of a Cup race from the early 1990s. Cars were beat up and showed damage, but able to continue and not detrimentally affected. If somebody did get spun, it was either due to a lack of talent or over-exuberance, not out of premeditated malice. There was racing to be had throughout the pack, pit strategy, tire conservation, and fuel mileage issues, but the final laps were down to three cars, all about the same, with three of the best drivers to ever heel-toe a 3,300-pound stock car on 15” wheels.

Some fans and drivers bristle at the notion that there should be more road courses in NASCAR. This is an argument that I have never understood. Given a choice, would one prefer more of the same 1.5-mile tracks that have been deemed cookie-cutters? That produce strewn out, three-and-a-half hour parades of single-groove, follow-the-leader racing which fail to produce what Atlanta and Charlotte have offered for decades? How about going to a track that never fails to generate great racing, a memorable finish, and fans that go berserk over the chance to see a NASCAR event held on their turf? I know that many will cite Mexico City as a foreign track this sport traveled to with mixed results, but this city is a different story altogether. Mainly because there are a lot less kidnappings in Montreal, with the only shootouts that take place being those in overtime during an NHL Canadiens game.

Perhaps some of the reason NASCAR fans rebel against road courses is due to the current tracks on the schedule. Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Ca., used to be a fantastic venue for stock cars, until they cobbled it up with that stupid “chute,” which only serves as an excuse to alter the track to build more grandstand seating capacity. In turn, they eliminated the carousel and Turn 7, which remains as part of the Sports Car and Indy Car circuit but is foolishly omitted once NASCAR comes to town. As a result, they’ve created a neutered and bastardized 1.99-mile track (cut down from 2.52 miles) that surrenders two prime passing zones, and with it, much of the heart, soul, and character of its former glory.

For shame.

Watkins Glen is a classic road course with more of a fast-sweeping layout than a tight technical one such as those in Sonoma and Montreal. I believe it would make a great Chase venue, particularly if held in the early Fall, with compliant weather and the backdrop of Fall foliage set against the blue Armco barriers that surround the track. Montreal would fare well in the summer months, though a track may need to lose a date to give them an opportunity for success. There are a couple of tracks with two dates that might be able to give one up – Pocono and New Hampshire spring to mind – though I am not prepared to see Dover or Martinsville go down to one date.

We’re all familiar with the old adage that, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” It is well known, but becoming a much-lamented phrase with NASCAR and the direction it has been plodding along in since 2004. Running the same tracks – or same types of tracks – each time every year has gotten a bit boring, and if a playoff system such as the Chase must be used, adjusting the schedule accordingly should be considered and acted upon. While throwing in another road course may fly in the face of tradition, so does fielding prime races at locations that really don’t do much to further the cause of the sport (namely, Chicagoland).

The combined 21 championships won by Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and even Jeff Gordon all included performances on road courses, so why shouldn’t the ones of today do the same? While we’re at it, why not add another road course in the mix of 36 races altogether?

Now, I’m not advocating that NASCAR go SCCA on us, but there needs to be a little more balance and variety in what determines a season and its champion. Restrictor plate races are among the most popular events, but there are only four of them all season, so why not have three road courses to spice things up? If going north of the border is an action to be explored, I’m all for it. These days, NASCAR needs to go where it’s wanted, rather than trying to force people to like it by trying to disguise itself as the NFL’s twin sister.

You can’t fake a good race or make an ugly one look pretty. In that same vein, you can’t deny a great race when you see one, and for the third consecutive year, our neighbors to the north were host to yet another event that was a throwback of sorts that didn’t require intentional wrecks or finger pointing in the pits. Montreal has made no secret about its desire to host a Cup race; perhaps it’s time they are given the same consideration that some of the underperforming sites on the Sprint Cup circuit are given as well.

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09/01/2010 08:07 AM

Not a big fan of the Montreal Race, probably not the tracks fault, to many LONG CAUTIONS when local cautions could work.

I had a brainstorm this morning and wondered if nascar wanted to be like the other sports with the Chase(Playoff) why not

1. Limit each team to say 2 or 3 cars for whole chase(must have Primary and if you change cars or engines 100 point penalty. If the team used all it cars up they would be done for the Chase (kind of like if Lebron or Peyton got hurt and missed the NBA Finals or Superbowl).

2. 2 or 3 races a week, so teams do not have time to fix damaged cars. (Like a team getting tired from overtime or a extremely tough series.

3. This would be the toughest. But let Leader of Regular Season or say Daytona in July pick between say 2 or 3 different Chase Schedules(home field advantage)

1. Martinsville, New Hampshire, Dover, Phoenix, Fontana, Kansas, Texas, Dega, Charlotte, Homestead.

or say

2.Dega, Kansas, Texas, Phoenix, Fontana, New Hampshire, Dover, Charlotte, Homestead, Martinsville.

The leader could pick the schedule that best suits their style to start Chase.(Remember no one knows who will play in NBA Finals or World Series until only weeks before those games and still the fans can get Rooms and Tickets.

Just an Idea

09/01/2010 04:16 PM

You say we need more unique tracks, but then you say Pocono or Loudon should be the ones to give up dates to make room for them. Hard to argue we need more unique tracks while saying we need to get rid of races at unique tracks.

I like road course races in moderation, but some of the same criticism can be made for road races and plate races: races are likely to wreck up a large number of cars, and collateral damage is guaranteed. We saw a big wreck at Montreal this year, and both Sears Point and Watkins Glen have had big ones in the last couple of years because the track is so narrow. And since so many cars stay on the lead lap the whole race, a late spin might send a good driver from the top 5 or 10 back to outside of the top 30… it’s bound to happen, as Bowyer and Busch can tell you from this year’s race at Sonoma. Luck is important in sports, but a championship being decided because someone’s brakes failed at the end of a race and spun the points leader… well, that would leave a bad taste on the season.

I’d like to see a road race count for a championship, but the way to do that isn’t going to Montreal (which was a good race mostly because the best cars had problems and therefore couldn’t stink up the show), it’s by expanding the Chase to more races. 36 would be a good number.

09/02/2010 12:01 AM

I agree with your suggestion that more road courses would be a nice addition to the schedule. I’ll disagree on Montreal being one of the courses to be considered. Granted, the Canadians turn out for this once a year event that usually features several Canadian drivers who are “road course ringers”. But as you point out in your article, the Montreal course is too “technical” for the large body stock cars. I found the latest race there difficult to watch. To me, it was kind of like watching Charlie Daniels play a Stradivarius…painful to endure. It was a great finish until you realize that it was a manipulated finish because of the green/white/checker rule. The race would have never ended as it did without the G/W/C and the double file restart. Because “the show” is more important than “the race”, Robby Gordon was not the race winner.

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