The debate concerning road-course racing and how it should or shouldn’t fit into the historically circle track-dominated world of NASCAR has heated up, as it routinely does twice a year leading up to and immediately following the sanctioning body’s only two events with right turns — Infineon and Watkins Glen. One issue is that some do not believe that the racing is particularly interesting, as passing is infrequent and at considerably slower speeds than the 200 mph exhibitions that fans have become accustomed to. But the second major point of disagreement – and more frequently argued one – is whether NASCAR should allow road-course “ringers” – drivers brought in by team owners for their expertise in a particular form of motorsports – to participate in the races.
Let’s deal with these one at a time. First, the boring part; I can tell you that if you ever so much as stepped foot across the Atlantic Ocean, most racing fanatics would beg to differ with that unflattering assessment. Road-course racing, though the rage in Europe and much of the rest of the world, has taken a backseat to oval-track racing in the United States since the advent of automobiles in this country – probably out of necessity more than anything else. Initially, horse-racing tracks were all the rage here, in part because they just seemed more practical than rutted and narrow wagon trails to test the mettle of drivers and machine. And even in the early 1900s, when capitalism in the U.S. was alive and thriving, racing promoters figured out early on that it was easier to collect admission fees from spectators as they entered the gates of a track than from race viewers sitting on grassy knolls that they owned along country trails.
I, like many others, grew up around the local circle tracks and was never properly introduced to road-course competition; thus, I also never acquired an understanding or appreciation for it. That is, not until the 1993 spring race at Sonoma, Calif. – almost 30 years after my love affair with auto racing began. That day, I became a fan of road-course racing as well, after watching an event that was won by Geoff Bodine in a hotly contested battle with Ernie Irvan in the yellow Kodak No. 4 and Ricky Rudd in the No. 5 Tide ride.
What I learned from that experience is that although I had watched television broadcasts of previous road-course events, it was impossible for me to fully appreciate the patience, strategy and car control required by teams and drivers until I witnessed it live and in person. In the end, that point of view is not so unlike road-course fans who follow various sports car racing series, then profess the same type of dislike mentioned above for oval tracks. With limited knowledge and without seeing a circular speedway in person, they simply refuse to believe there is anything exciting about racers turning left all the time.
Considering the different challenges associated with driving on a road course, there is certainly room on the Sprint Cup circuit for those type of competitions; and in my mind, it would be a legitimate discussion as to whether only two such events is enough. Certainly, one such race would be appropriate as part of the 10-week Chase to the Sprint Cup championship. There’s no question different disciplines of racing provided during the first 26 races of the Sprint Cup schedule should be fairly represented in NASCAR’s version of a playoff system. Short tracks, intermediates – including the mile and a half ovals – and road courses during the final events best assure that the ultimate championship driver and team were truly the best… no matter what type of track the series raced on that year.
Perhaps just as surprising as no road course in the Chase is the fact that for as infrequently that Cup teams run the closed circuit events, they are very good at it. No better example of that statement needs to be made than to point out that road course “ringers” have never won a Cup race at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen. They have been competitive and have challenged for victories – as would be expected – but a Cup regular has always prevailed over world-renown drivers such as Ron Fellows, PJ Jones, Scott Pruett and Boris Said.
And that brings us to our second point. Sunday’s running of the Centurion Boats at the Glen at Watkins Glen International will find the “ringers” once again in attendance, with the likes of the aforementioned Fellows, Jones, Pruett and Said being joined by other road course specialists such as Max Papis and Brian Simo. All of them are steadfastly intent on beating NASCAR’s best; but should one of them prevail, all that will be proven is that one of the experts at road-course racing won one of nearly 100 road races run since the beginning of the modern era. In all honesty, their three-decade shutout from victory lane is no bigger testament to how tough the going has been for them over the years.
And while their participation has hardly led to dominance, NASCAR has been dead on in its non-decision to exclude these world-class drivers from plying their expertise against American stock car oval racing’s top drivers. Unlike the ban on professional basketball players in international competition until 1989 and the Olympics in 1992, stock car racers have never been deprived of competing against the best. One only needs to look at the improvement by numerous other countries – countries that now play shot-for-shot against American professional basketball players – to know that given an opportunity, athletes will always rise to the level of competition.
Today, the stats are so skewed towards the NASCAR regulars that the specialists are only brought in almost exclusively by owners desperately needing a decent finishing position, and the accompanying owner points in order to maintain their precarious perch within the Top 35 – not by a top team looking to cash in with a surprise upset. These ringers’ presence in the race only serves as a fairly accurate barometer as to the proficiency of NASCAR’s best in a discipline of racing that they are less experienced in. That NASCAR regulars consistently perform well lends credence to the belief held by many, including myself, that these stock car drivers are among the most talented chauffeurs in the world.
And that’s my view from turn 5.