Road racing in the Cup Series had always been a decided break from the ups and downs of normal oval track competition. Earlier in the sport’s history, NASCAR’s top touring divisions had hit a variety of them, including Watkins Glen, what’s now Mid-Ohio, a few airports and the renowned Daytona Beach road course.
Once the sport entered the modern era, cutting the schedule down to 31 races with Winston’s sponsorship in 1972 right-turn racing was all but eliminated. The series did keep winding Riverside International Raceway out on the left coast, adding The Glen back into the fold in 1986. Once Riverside fell victim to the developer’s wrecking ball, it was replaced by Sonoma in 1989. Since then, it’s been two road course races a year for decades now, a mere 5.5 percent of the overall schedule.
That’s about to change.
Truthfully, the two road course dates used to be the red-headed stepchildren of the schedule. Despite maximum effort from the broadcasting networks, back in the day when tracks sold their own TV rights these places were the “Little Stinkers” in the deck. They’re more difficult (and thus expensive) to cover and the ratings were typically a good deal lower than the oval tracks. NASCAR once had to intervene by saying if a network wanted broadcast rights to a big event, say, the Southern 500 at Darlington, they had to accept a package deal that included Watkins Glen, too.
But over the last decade and a half, there’s been a shift in NASCAR fans’ tastes. As that “dreaded aero push” began turning more and more oval track races into single-car parades, the road courses started looking better by comparison. Driver skill also factored into the equation far more as NASCAR rules evened out competition on oval tracks.
Some diversity in Victory Lane helped, too. For years, one or two drivers dominated on the road courses, legends like Tim Richmond, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart. A lot of teams pretty much wrote off their chances by comparison, bringing along a tired old short track car they fully expected to get beat to death rather than a specially-prepared one built for road course racing. Likewise, they’d sometimes leave their full-time drivers who were hapless at these places and enlist a “hired gun” road racing expert. Realistically, while the ringers might have known the terrain, getting used to driving a heavyweight Cup car with only two chances a year to compete wasn’t very realistic.
But while the ringer concept has faded away somewhat, fan interest in road courses certainly hasn’t (Watkins Glen had their third straight sellout this weekend.) With fans expressing interest in seeing more of them on the schedule, Charlotte Motor Speedway has already announced a switch of their own. They intend to run next autumn’s fall “Playoff” race on their road course, a track which utilizes the oval and an infield section of left and right turns.
Indianapolis has also expressed an interest in staging the “Brickyard 400” on the track’s road course as well, having come to the realization (only 13 years too late) the flat corners combined with the comparatively narrow tires on Cup cars at Indy make for extremely boring oval stock car races at the track. Rather than gracefully dumping the date at Indy, citing the best of intentions but a fatally flawed execution, that appears to be the next step. It would seem both sides would rather have to endure eight to ten years of really bad road course racing before they finally pull the plug on the venture.
Then, somewhere out of the right field bleachers Pocono Raceway track management said they’d be willing to run one of their scheduled two Cup dates next year on their road course as well. The timing of the announcement is curious. Previous track head honcho Brandon Igdalsky just took a job with NASCAR as Director of Event Marketing and Promotion. That sounds like a make-work job title to me if one has ever been coined. His brother Nick (both Igdalskys are grandsons of the Mattioli family, which developed Pocono) made the announcement about being willing to hold an event on the road course shortly thereafter with the stipulation he’d only do so if the track kept both its annual dates.
That’s an odd proclamation in that under a concord agreement signed a year ago, the tracks on the schedule were promised they wouldn’t lose a race date. If a track-owning entity chose to, they could shift a race date from one track to another (as SMI did with New Hampshire and Las Vegas) but Pocono is somewhat unique in that it is independently owned and operated. This announcement, then might be a hint at some sort of seismic upheaval about to occur under the very ground that forms the foundation of the Cup schedule.
Add those tracks up and there’s three more potential road course dates that could be added to the normal slate of two a season. A lot of other tracks, ranging from Daytona to New Hampshire, have road courses designed into their track layout as well. According to NASCAR, these changes are being considered because fans expressed a strong desire to see a road course event added to what was the Chase. (Oddly enough, what I heard from most fans is that they wanted to see the “Chase” scrapped, but I suppose as dumb as we all are now that they’ve renamed the “Chase” the “Playoffs” we’ll just assume the silly thing is gone.)
But there’s at least one key difference between the two road courses we have, Sonoma and Watkins Glen, and the new ones being proposed as possible additions to the schedule. Both existing road courses are what’s called “natural terrain.” When the tracks were laid out, the designers used natural elevation changes and topography of the property to lay out a proper race course. Tracks like Charlotte and Indy took an existing oval track and sort of penciled a half-assed road course into the infield. That tends to provide better sightlines for the fans but absolutely horrid racing for spectators and drivers alike.
There’s a third sort of road course, I suppose, usually seen in open-wheel racing wherein city streets and parking lots are used to slap together a race. As it turns out, this street course idea is a fine way for promoters to lose oodles of money while providing absolutely horrifically bad competition and seriously injuring a bunch of drivers. This sort of racing, I suppose, is supposed to emulate the wildly popular and historic Grand Prix of Monaco. (Here’s a hint: races like Long Beach aren’t Monaco. Even the homeless wear designer fashions in Monaco. Or so I’m told. I’ve never been to Monaco, but I’ve been to Oklahoma….)
Hasn’t NASCAR learned a lesson by now? It’s one most of us have to learn as children and again as adolescents.
Growing up, we think, if something is good, having more of it is even better.
That might actually be true up to a point in some instances. But of course, the morning after Halloween many children wake with upset stomachs caused by too much of a good thing. They learn quickly that sweets are all that much sweeter when they’re eaten in moderation. (Sadly, the rest of them start on their way to a lifetime of battling obesity and Type II diabetes.)
Then, when teenagers start experimenting with drinking, you often get the same result. A couple sips from that bottle and I’m feeling fine. A few more long drags and I’m the life of the party. But a couple hours later, I’m waking up in someone’s hedges, my field jacket splattered in puke, retching like a hound dog that just ate a yellow jacket and unable to tell the cross police officer with the very bright flashlight my own name.
I can’t even look at a bottle of Southern Comfort since that night without feeling ill.
Sadly, NASCAR once again seems bent on overdoing things just as I once did with SoCo. Night races are a perfect example of past missteps in this direction. Once upon a time, they were cool, a welcome break from the ordinary. The Bristol night race (first run way back in 1978) was an absolute fan favorite. Lighting up Charlotte for The Winston (1992) was like the grandest science fair project ever.
But NASCAR kept adding night races to the schedule and they became not only ordinary but a pain in the ass. There’s problems associated with moving tens of thousands of fans out of an area as the witching hour (or dawn, in the case of one fateful Daytona race) looms.
I’m going to let you in on a terrible little secret that heretofore everyone has agreed never to discuss out of concern for the sport’s future. Some NASCAR fans drink beer, in some cases to excess. I know you’re shocked, but I’ve seen this behavior with my very own two eyes (sometimes while double-fisting a couple tallboys myself) and it does happen. Give some of these fans all afternoon (and in some cases, morning), then all evening and into the night to imbibe and they can turn getting to your car and leaving the parking lot at a race into a combination of Frogger and Death Race 2000.
But as of late, it seems that NASCAR and the networks are determined to start races later and later in the day. It’s another decision they insist their legion of fans were allegedly demanding. But I have yet to talk to a single fan, right coast or left, who likes these twilight events. It’s why I always get nervous when I hear NASCAR or network types telling me what fans are asking for. It’s like a guy who uses the word “tidy” constantly, a preacher who takes credit cards or a “Buy Here, Pay Here” used car lot.
So just as NASCAR overdid it with the night races, causing them to lose their luster, I fear that too many road courses will spoil the occasional fun change of pace. Though if there is any solace in their choices, at least to date I haven’t heard anyone proposing they run some road course races at night. (Give it a few years. They’ll be proposing dropping a date at Dover and running the Cup Series in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (France… not the Pontiac mid-sized car.) Or Monaco, for that matter. The only places on earth where a 12-ounce Coke is more expensive than Monaco is at a NASCAR concession stand.)
In the end, the real trick to fixing the schedule doesn’t come in adding more races, road course or oval. In an era of declining interest, attendance, and TV viewership it would seem the basic laws of supply and demand would indicate the schedule should be trimmed, perhaps radically. Absence makes the heart grow fonder while a surplus can make one nauseous. In some cases, when enough is enough more can be better but invariably too much is still too much.
Pass the SoCo, wouldja?