Scott Pruett. Tommy Kendall. Ron Fellows. The names slip through the tongue like alphabet soup, and for NASCAR fans their presence was deliciously devoured for decades. Each year, when the Cup Series stopped at their two road courses, these names would appear out of the woodwork, special guest stars bent on beating stock car racing’s best at their own game. Appearing from all types of series, from the old IMSA to IndyCar their presence was guaranteed not just on the entry list but up front, leading laps and challenging for victories that always appeared just a few right turns away. There was Kendall’s shocking performance, subbing for Kyle Petty in 1991, that came three laps short of a victory at Sonoma. Five years later, Fellows ran second to Jeff Gordon at Watkins Glen; he would later win in the Nationwide Series as these hard-nosed racers kept nipping at the door of the sport’s top trophies.
Sadly, those memories have faded further into the background with each passing year; like NASCAR’s popularity these days, road course ringers in Cup are a dying breed. Just two find themselves on the entry list for Sunday’s race at Sonoma, both of whom have little to no chance of contending. Justin Marks, paired with Front Row Motorsports, is more of a stock car driver anyway, once trying his hand at NASCAR’s Truck Series; the other, Boris Said has his devoted legion of “Said Heads” who must admit their hair is graying right along with their driver’s age (52). Said, who taught a whole generation of Sprint Cup drivers how to handle right turns now sees the pupils run circles around the professor.
It doesn’t help Said’s car, the No. 32 owned by GO FAS Racing, is lucky to run 30th on a good day. Top-tier equipment is no longer available for these part-time performers, a casualty of NASCAR’s Chase, the four-team limit and an increasing insistence by sponsors to hold on to their brand… err, drivers. No longer does summertime come with a handful of driver changes, opening the door for a quickie sub while a top-tier organization, say Stewart-Haas Racing debates the car’s future. The lure of the Chase means that even a bad season, like Tony Stewart‘s can be salvageable with a win and the rules mean every race must be attempted… no exceptions. (Ha, ha). So the ringers are forced into desperate situations, paired with rides that have no chance to make the postseason and therefore don’t have the horsepower for even the most talented right-turn racer to take them to the front.
NASCAR’s new rules, creating a much different feel inside a stock car don’t help either. And even for those brave souls still looking to defy the odds, how can Hendrick Motorsports, say field a car for a curious Helio Castroneves? The sport’s four-team rule makes a fifth car impossible except in the case of a rookie looking to run the full schedule. The money won’t be spent there, especially when “regular season” races don’t matter as much as the final 10. The value in experimenting with a one-off is no longer there under this system; what do you get if a ringer wins a race? You may have locked someone else from your own team outside of that oh-so-special Chase.
That leaves the specialists getting squeezed out to dry, men like Fellows sitting on the sidelines while other interested parties, like old Cup Rookie of the Year Andy Lally sit out altogether. How much does it matter? Some might say the presence of the ringers is irrelevant, especially with a new crop of “underdogs” rising within the context of trying to make the Chase. For drivers like AJ Allmendinger, Sam Hornish Jr. and even Danica Patrick, Sunday could be one of their few chances to pull an upset. Their presence near the front brings a new layer to storylines, fans hoping for a few new faces mixing it up with a dominant Chevy-powered crowd up front.
But here’s where the sport misses the boat. While it’s great for an Allmendinger to win he’s also not bringing any new fans to the table. Nobody that loves IndyCar or the United SportsCar Series is going to perk up and take a look at stock car racing because he’s not from their series. Now a Juan Pablo Montoya, mixing it up with Team Penske? That would raise a few eyebrows. Pruett running a third entry for Chip Ganassi Racing? Some sports car fans would come take a look. And what they would see, in this era of aerodynamic awfulness is two races that are… pretty much guaranteed to be exciting. You see, the road-course events have always been this way, but now the lack of passing elsewhere have given them an added sense of importance. NASCAR fans look at them with a sense of relief, knowing the need to apply things like a brake pedal will bring driver skill back into the equation. Add in that extra Chase desperation and there will be bumping, there will be on-track passing for the lead and maybe there might even be a few tempers flaring.
It’s a good weekend to showcase the sport to some other fans that might be paying attention elsewhere. In a country where racing is suffering, why not capitalize on the recent momentum of IndyCar? Why not force that small, dedicated cult of sports car racing fans to turn their heads? Right now, this sport in general needs as much working together as it can muster to help recapture its relevance in America. Creating good rides, like future Hall of Fame promoter Humpy Wheeler used to do back in the day for Charlotte Motor Speedway and adding a $1 million bonus for any driver that can sweep both road-course races ($500,000 for one) would provide some incentive. Robby Gordon, Scott Speed… you put up the money and these names will find a way. These names have fan bases behind them, people that will buy tickets and fill seats that have sat empty for far too long. It’s not like FOX and NBC are paying a nickel a year in rights fees; it’s not like Sprint has a “cheap” title sponsorship deal. Take the money, pour it back into the purses of the sport and use it to spur marketing and growth.
Yes, the ringers will still have a large hill to climb; it’s harder than ever to climb into these cars and excel when you’re not driving them every single week. But it might get a top-tier team to bend, someone like Penske to offer a ride and stir up the pot at one of the few places outside of the Indy/Charlotte double different racing series can work together. Someone like Pruett contending for the win helps all involved; it teaches the NASCAR fans a little about sports car racing while perhaps causing those fans to stick around another week or two. What’s next? Daytona, a good chance to be great as it runs Sunday night under the lights on NBC. After that? Kentucky with a “wild card” rules package that should add excitement to an aging 1.5-mile track.
The stage would be set for some dramatic crossover appeal. Instead? All the drama will revolve around full-timers we already see. But take a look at the stands on Sunday. If you pay attention, there’s still a large number of black “Said head fros” in attendance even though their driver doesn’t have a ghost of a chance. It was their excitement over him and the other ringers that once gave these two races a very special flavor.
Now, the taste is different, still better than the average NASCAR race these days. It just could be so much better. Hopefully, these types of fresh ideas will start flowing in the coming months as both the Drivers’ Council and the Race Team Alliance put pressure on to think outside the box. Fresh faces need to be a part of NASCAR Sundays, and there’s no better place to experiment than here, a place where special guests helped make the racing extra special… and a place where they could one day thrive again.