NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Road-Course Ringer – Montreal Makes the Case for Twisties in NASCAR’s Chase

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 10 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 1 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.

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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