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Nuts for Nationwide: Put the Road Courses on Hiatus for 2011

On the surface, it sounds great. And it’s a move that I fully supported, the return of road-course racing to the Nationwide Series back in 2005. Road-course racing certainly is a motorsports discipline, and one that for the sake of diversity has a place on a national touring series schedule.

With regard to the Nationwide Series, road racing has been hit or miss. Watkins Glen, about as perfect a road course for stock cars as they come, has put on some great races. Mexico City produced exciting races, with Martin Truex Jr. holding off a hard-charging Boris Said in the inaugural event at the Autodromos Hermanos Rodriguez and Juan Pablo Montoya dumping teammate Scott Pruett to score his first NASCAR victory in 2007.

But facility challenges (read: mesa walls as track barriers) and dwindling crowds ended the south of the border venture. As for Montreal and Road America, the crowds have been there, but the on-track product has definitely illustrated that not every road course is meant to handle stock cars.

The racing product, or the rightful place of right turns on a NASCAR schedule, are not hot-button issues; they’re both pretty well accepted. That said, with the departure of Gateway International Raceway from the schedule after this season, the talk of shortening the schedule for the Nationwide Series has become a topic of discussion. And the first dates to go ought to be the road courses.

Earlier this season, I was trackside for the ARCA Racing Series’ inaugural race at Palm Beach International Raceway. The race was notable for a number of reasons, one being that it marked the first event the sanctioning body ever ran in the rain. It also marked an event that fell half a dozen cars short of a full field. And it marked an event where a number of longtime series veterans, including Brad Smith and fan favorite Darrell Basham, found themselves with no choice but to park their cars early once the rain started falling.

These guys are not start-and-parkers, but they found themselves unable to justify the expense of buying a $1,000-plus set of Hoosier rain tires, nor to upgrade their workhorse racecars to feature tail-lights and windshield wiping mechanisms that after Palm Beach would be used at most once through the rest of the 2010 season.

It wasn’t a bad race, as watching Justin Marks put on a clinic in storming through the field after an early incident to take the checkered flag was nothing short of impressive. But it also put a stark reality on the real cost of running specialty races requiring specialty racecars. The cost of running road courses effectively parked a number of series regulars that Saturday afternoon.

Granted, this was the ARCA Series, not the Nationwide Series, but the parallels between the two are rather striking. Both series feature a field that is immensely stratified in terms of haves and have-nots, with a significant number of regular teams scraping simply to get to the track each weekend. Both adopted road-course racing in the last few seasons before a lean economy and a fleeting fanbase kicked stock car racing in the teeth. Both series’ racecars require expenditures on modifications good for only a small fraction of the schedule. And let’s not forget the car count issue; the first Nationwide Series event on a road course this year drew only 43 cars, with Watkins Glen featuring only 40 before three start-and-parks came out of the woodwork middle of this week (NASCAR can’t afford to lose a TV bonus these days).

In the case of the Nationwide Series, a further point needs to be made regarding the influence road racing has on the field… the displacement of series regulars from their rides. Unlike the ARCA Series, whose Golden-A plan provides an incentive for teams to field full-time cars with a regular driver, the Nationwide Series relies solely on owner points. And since by the time the NNS schedule gets to road races the Cup regulars have already run away with the series title, there is no reason for car owners to stick with a Nationwide regular in a road course race.

Just look at this weekend: Willie Allen, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jason Keller will all be absent when the green drops at the Glen on Saturday. Dismiss those three as small potatoes all you want, the Nationwide Series needs an identity fast. That requires drivers on the regular, not rotating rosters that rival MLB free agency in terms of liquidity.

Need a stat to back that up? In the five full seasons since road racing returned to the Nationwide Series, an average of 9.8 non-Cup drivers have contested a full Nationwide Series schedule. In the five seasons prior to 2005, that average was 15.8 non-Cup drivers. The road courses certainly aren’t the only factor, but the Brian Simo for Eric McClure three-times-a-year move was not isolated.

But for all the cost figures, the identity issues, the Nationwide Series needs good racing more than anything else. And the road courses are capable of putting on exciting shows that will bring fans back. Unfortunately for road racing proponents, there are more cost-effective means to achieve this in a series where financial struggle is the theme of the 2010 season. Just look at the short-tracks… ORP and Iowa the last two weekends have put on excellent races in front of big crowds, with TV ratings that have gone up in both instances. And unlike the courses that go right-and-left, the bullrings can accommodate the workhorse racecars many small teams have to rely on week after week… and allow them to be competitive at the same time.

Down the road, should NASCAR find a sustainable model for the Nationwide Series that has the crowds and sponsors back, the cars operating at a manageable level of expense and a cultivated identity (sounds like a pipe dream doesn’t it?), road racing can and should come back to the slate.

But this is a time for austerity. And rain tires, driving schools and the like don’t mesh well with that word. I love the road courses and applaud those who can race them, but the cost/benefit analysis for today’s Nationwide Series road racing doesn’t add up.

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