NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Richmond International Raceway the Best of the Rest!

These five weeks of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing that started at Texas Motor Speedway and run through May 10 are about as good as the schedule gets on a race-by-race basis. It’s a real chance to give fans a diverse look at the different styles of racing – with the exception of a road-course event – that showcase why stock cars have become the pinnacle of American motorsports today.

It’s ironic that the Texas race begins this stretch, because it’s perhaps the track that produces the most negative reviews by fans. Most are dissatisfied with the “cookie-cutter,” generic 1.5-mile race facilities that dominate the Sprint Cup Series. I, too, find myself less enthused on race weekends scheduled at these tracks, which are designed to be multi-functional in that they can easily host a number of different race series. However, you can’t deny each one does call on teams and drivers to change up their equipment and driving styles to accommodate them; and with the way Texas’s second groove has come into its own these past few years, it’s one of the more unique “cookie-cutter” tracks to prepare for.

Then, we head to the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway, no cheap knock-off of another track on the schedule; it’s a unique oval that’s become downright racy, with a character all its own. Not officially a short track because of its size, Phoenix still has some of the best features of short-track racing, as side-by-side action is a regularity – even with speeds 22-25 mph faster than a Bristol or Martinsville. Yet, while the almost triangular-shaped, relatively flat track produces speeds which are far below a Daytona, Talladega, or for that matter a Darlington, it always produces competitive finishes. Again, this is another track that calls on crews and drivers to retool for race conditions specific to Phoenix – and Phoenix alone.

And then, of course, there is Talladega, the track that many profess to dislike due to its restrictor-plate racing. The engine package produces a different style, one that allows for no competitor to run off from the field and condenses the 43 cars into one big pack. Indeed, Talladega produces large groups of cars three-wide, bumper-to-bumper at speeds of up to 200 mph. The racing means that almost to a person (anti-restrictor plate fans included), fans don’t sit, but stand in nail-biting anticipation while watching drivers negotiate the draft to gain positions. Love it or hate it, ‘Dega – along with its restrictor-plate racing cousin Daytona – calls on drivers to employ a whole different set of driving skills not required by any other racecar drivers… anywhere.

Now, everyone worships at their own church, so to speak, when it comes to personal preference of tracks and styles of stock car racing. Some would argue that oval racing itself is an abomination to motorsports and that road-course racing is real auto racing. Others are quick to point out that the superspeedways consistently draw huge crowds because they are the fastest and most thrilling of the NASCAR venues. But I seriously doubt that anyone can seriously object to what the next two race dates are offering. What we’re about to see is old-school NASCAR, with Richmond International Raceway and Darlington Raceway roaring to life the next two Saturday evenings under the lights.

Skipping Richmond for a moment, Darlington will finish out the five-week variety-packed racing with the Dodge Challenger 500 on May 10. Following the theme of Phoenix and Talladega, there is no other Darlington, as well. At 1.366 miles in length, the egg-shaped track is technically a superspeedway, but… not like any other, as the oval’s treacherous turns will attest to. The track, also known as “Too Tough To Tame,” has required mechanical dependability and skilled driving to be successful at the venue since 1950. When viewing a Mother’s Day weekend race at the track, one is immediately reminded of the grittiness and toughness that crews and drivers competing in NASCAR have been required to possess there since the dawn of the sport. At Darlington, no win has ever been a fluke; only the best can succeed at the “Lady in Black.”

However, for me, no other track personifies what good stock car racing should be more than what fans will see Saturday from Richmond, Va. Richmond International Raceway just always seems to please; at ¾ of a mile, the track almost seems too small for average speeds of more than 125 mph. But certainly, it’s never too big to provide the kind of fender-rubbing, door-banging action that made people want to see stock cars race in the first place.

Sure, at its core Richmond is your basic type of short-track racing. But Richmond is not just short-track racing… it’s good short-track racing!

I have often been critical in my opinion of the two smallest tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Bristol and Martinsville, for what I view as a bastardized form of auto racing due to both tracks’ infamous passing tactics, caused primarily by the absence of a second groove to provide the opportunity for drivers to execute skillful passing opportunities. Though Bristol has made great strides in alleviating the problem with the newly configured variable degree banking, Richmond has been the class act of the NASCAR short tracks for many years.

With speeds topping those of the other two short tracks by almost 20 mph, and enough room on the outside to make for exciting roughhouse passing without the need of wrecking an opponent, the 54-year-old track at Richmond easily has the best combination of speed and action today. It has been a winning formula that seems to never disappoint, and keeps its 112,000-plus fans coming back two times a year… and the following year… and the following year…

No question about it, Richmond International Raceway has it all.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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