Be careful what you wish for… you just might get it, or so I’m told. After all, when you asked your parents for a pony, you didn’t specify you wanted a pet you could ride, not a freezer full of equine meat with a little belled collar added for irony. When you told your dad you really needed a car of your own, because only the dregs of society rode the school bus, you didn’t add “any car besides an Edsel station wagon” now, did you? (Relax, Blue Oval fans. I’d happily cruise a Bermuda wagon as long as it had Cragars and an FE engine.)
NASCAR officialdom swears that fans have been asking, nay, demanding, a road course be added to the playoffs/Chase/whatever they call it since the whole unholy mess of a system to decide an annual Cup champion was dumped unwanted into their laps all those years ago. (It’s proof positive Brian France’s flirtation with mind-altering substances didn’t start this summer out in the Hamptons.)
For all I know, it very well may be a substantial number of fans do want a road course race in the Cup Series playoffs. I’m kind of an outlier when it comes to road course racing and NASCAR. For a long time, I despised it, but I’ve been coming around to a more positive attitude toward the discipline. That’s especially given the racing at Watkins Glen or Sonoma often is, in fact, better than on some of the cookie-cutter ovals.
I guess my main knock against road courses is back when a lot of NASCAR drivers weren’t very good at it. As a kid, I got to go to some road course races featuring the Trans Am series in its prime (1967-1970) or the unholy beasts that made up the Can-Am field. Guys like Mark Donohue and George Follmer just flat got it and it was an incredible thing to watch. Still, my recollections of what most NASCAR fans wanted to see since the Chase was first introduced was the Chase done away with. That the playoffs would be totally and completely removed and the pages involving it deleted from NASCAR’s historical archives.
Well, if you were one of those folks that voted early and often that NASCAR ought to add a road course to the playoffs next week, your wish will be granted… kinda, sorta. Ting-a-ling-a-ling.
The race will be held right at Charlotte Motor Speedway, right where they’ve been hosting autumnal NASCAR Cup races every year since 1960.
That track, originally the product of the combined talents of O. Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner, was born under a shroud of controversy. The project went way over budget and took far longer than originally envisioned due to extensive rock formations that had to be dynamited out of the way. The UAW (and allegedly some of their mobster pals) stepped in to provide gap funding. They did so under the condition that Smith and Turner appeal to NASCAR senior honcho Bill France Sr. he allow pari-mutuel betting on his stock car races; you know, just as the horsey set allowed betting at their events. France was decidedly not on board with the idea, fearing mob influence. At one point, he threatened to run everyone who joined the driver’s union or spoke in favor of betting off “his” property at gunpoint. (Yes, the subtle irony was apparently lost on Big Bill. The Frances to a man have never much appreciated subtlety. )
Anyway, the track got built. Turner got banned from NASCAR racing for life, or at the very least right up until NASCAR needed him again to help sell tickets as the factory boycotts threatened to deep-six NASCAR once and for all. The new track opened with a bold concept for its first race. That event on June, 19, 1960 was scheduled for a full 600 miles. The only problem was the track had been poorly paved and chunks of asphalt the size of your fist were coming up off the track surface like missiles. Drivers and teams were forced to run heavy grates over their windshields to protect the glass and their grilles to protect their radiators.
But they did, in fact, compete for 600 miles. Or at least Joe Lee Johnson (no relation to the seven-time champ) did. Second place Johnny Beauchamp was four laps behind when the event ended after a mind-numbing five and a half hours plus of racing.
Despite its inauspicious start, the 600-mile race at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend became a fixture on the NASCAR Cup schedule. In addition, a 500-mile fall race was run annually at the track since 1966. The track has also hosted the NASCAR All-Star Race (under its variety of names) every year since 1985 save one. (The 1986 All-Star race was run at Atlanta on Mother’s Day Weekend. It was not well received.)
Over the years, the Charlotte track has seen some unique experiments. It was the first major oval track to sell naming rights to the venue when it became Lowe’s Motor Speedway for awhile. Looking for a unique twist to the All-Star Race under the threat of it being dropped, Humpy Wheeler went ahead and had lights added to his track, the first time that was done in the modern era on a superspeedway. It was considered a major engineering achievement back in 1992. (Fun fact: It only cost $200 in electricity to run the World 600 under the lights, according to Humpy Wheeler. And he should know. Wheeler did everything at Charlotte except mop the bathroom floors after the race for decades.)
There has been an infield road course at Charlotte for some time now but it’s rarely been utilized for any major events as it wasn’t a very good road course. But it’s the road course, not the oval, that will be used for Sunday’s race (Sept. 30). There’s a lot of trepidation among the competitors, especially those of them who are in the playoffs because the first round of this year’s playoffs ends at Charlotte next week. It’s billed as a ROVAL although I’ve also seen it spelled as “Roval” and “ROVAL™.”
Well, whichever you prefer, it’s somebody’s idea of a clever combination of “road course” and “oval.” At least on paper, the track itself looks a bit less clever. (See diagram.)
Oh, I’ll try to keep an open mind until after the fact because back in 1992 a whole lot of people swore the idea of illuminating a track the size of Charlotte was never going to work, either. Either the lights would blind the drivers or they’d be unable to see in darker sections. The fans wouldn’t be able to see the cars or the huge demand for power would cause a blackout while the cars were out there cruising at 150 MPH – not a good state of affairs.
But I’m not the only one with at least some reservations heading into this inaugural ROVAL event. As its name implies, the new course is neither an oval or a road course, just as a platypus is only a barely passable mammal, a very poor duck and not at all a reptile.
See the diagram which I have included (and was distributed before the race name and length were updated). The ROVAL starts at the traditional start/finish line along the frontstretch opposite the General Motors Grandstands. The drivers will then take a hard left in front of the Ford Grandstands at what will be termed Turn 1 (of 17 at present) to enter the infield portion of the course. That infield section is shaped rather like a wine glass or a mushroom if you prefer (a nuclear mushroom?) and it encompasses Turns 1 through 8. Turn 8 is a hard left-hander that takes the competitors back onto the traditional oval course entering into the traditional first and second turn, an area which will now become turns 9 and 10. (Hey. I’m just trying to describe it. I didn’t design this mess.)
That Turn 8 is potentially a real problem. Drivers will be accelerating hard out of 7 preparing to reenter the oval part of the course. If they were to have a brake failure or something, they’ll plow dead on into the outside wall and the results aren’t likely to be pretty.
Drivers will have a moment to catch their breath as they drive through Turns 9 and 10 (Turns 1 and 2 on the oval) and down the traditional backstretch. I suppose it’s still the backstretch if only with a new twist. Shortly before the entry to Turn 13 (the oval Turn 3) there’s a chicane that forces the drivers to take a quick left followed by another quick left to return to the oval portion of the track. What used to be Turn 4 is now Turn 14 but with a twist on the exit. (Not to mention the entrance to pit road, shaded red in the above diagram.) There’s another chicane requiring the drivers to take a hard right (stock cars turning right? How did God in his Heavens ever allow this?) followed by a hard left and a quick jaunt past the start/finish line. You then take a hard left back into the infield portion at Turn 1.
Rinse, race and repeat, as necessary, just as long as you and your equipment are still in one piece and no backmarker has spun out in front of you. Some of the current crop of backmarkers really frighten me, though giving their haplessness on road courses. I believe at least some of them could get lost on a drag strip.
If the above diagram looks different than what you’ve seen, know it’s actually ROVAL version 2.0. Between Turns 7 and 8, there used to be something similar to the bus stop at Watkins Glen on steroids. It looked like the track had somehow gone and herniated itself.
That little asphalt hiccup has been removed from the course out of fears lap times would be far longer than intended. I’m told the change saves 10 to 15 seconds a lap at speed. It also brings up one of the bugaboos of road course races in modern NASCAR, not just at Charlotte, but everywhere. When the field runs under caution at pace car speed, it takes bloody forever. And since NASCAR seems unable to end a stage, get the cars pitted and get things going again in under 6 to 7 laps there’s a notable lull in the action that results. Great for selling beer to the unwashed masses on hand, I suppose. But it’s not so good for sustaining interest in the race, especially for viewers at home.)
It all seems very much a work in progress along the lines of Spanky and Our Gang deciding to throw a backyard circus. Not only has the course been shortened by removing that one section of the track, so has the race length. The fall race at Charlotte used to be 500 miles, so somebody decided it would be cute to have the ROVAL race at 500 km until someone did the math and saw that the race might drag on into Monday. Now, it’s tentatively billed as a 400 km race which equates to 310 miles for those of us intelligent to get into the right side of our cars which is, of course, the left side. Either way, I suppose they’ll run the race and if many (or in fact any) cars are still running when it gets to be too late they’ll wave the checkers and tell the crew chiefs to let their drivers know that the festivities are over. They should stop driving fast and prepare to smile pretty for the cameras and say good things about this oversized science experiment run amuck.
Of course, no one will know who actually won until any unserved penalties for cutting through one of the chicanes are accessed. In professional auto racing (as opposed to NASCAR) typically if a driver shortcuts the course, he or she may re-enter the track but must yield position to any other driver(s) he might have passed by taking the short cut. That’s how it’s supposed to work; we’ll see how it actually goes next weekend.
“Just wing it, Alfalfa.” “O-Tay, Bug-weed.”
I am writing this column on a Sunday and there’s still a chance there could be changes made to the race course before the event itself (or even during it). In what practice they’ve been able to have on ROVAL 1.0 and ROVAL 2.0 there have been some major incidents. One of them involved Darrell Wallace Jr. who isn’t putting up stellar numbers quite yet but already has a starring role in this year’s “And They Walked Away!” videos. (And a second in the Daytona 500, of course.)
Some drivers would like to see some changes made to the course and I suppose that’s human nature. “Here’s the portion of the track I’m struggling with. Change it so I can go faster given my driving style and that will be fair for everyone.” But almost to a man the drivers are all expressing a great deal of trepidation about how this new idea is going to work and what sort of race it will produce. (Saturday after the race, Kevin Harvick even admitted to being “terrified” about the upcoming ROVAL event.)
They say a camel is a horse designed by committee but what’s a camel designed by committee? I dunno, but I bet its nickname is ROVAL. The race course could still be changed and the race distance lengthened or even shortened if Rick Allen runs out of superlatives to laud the Toyota Camry pace car before halfway. (Thank goodness it gets great mileage! It sure has been leading the field a lot tonight.)
Then, to add even more to the merriment and multiply the unknowns, some weather forecasts indicate a chance of rain all this weekend. Yes, Goodyear will have rain tires on hand for that eventuality. (Kevin Harvick will probably still call them “piece of crap rain tires.”)
The good Piarist fathers once tried to teach me, “If you must sin, sin bravely.” The fall 500-mile race hasn’t always been a very good event or highly anticipated by the fans who have chosen not to show up in record numbers. Perhaps NASCAR is just trying to spice things up a bit or is, in fact, paying lip service to what the fans are saying they want. More power to them if that’s the case.
But the playoffs were a pre-existing condition when the ROVAL idea came along. Thus, this “experiment” isn’t one of 36 races this season or even one of 10 events in the playoffs. The results of the ROVAL will, in fact, eliminate four drivers from title contention. And nobody knows right now if it will be an epic race or a disaster.
I’m just not sure anyone’s playoff hopes should be decided by a “Rarce”. (That’s my own half-clever combination of a “race” and a “farce.”) Yet that’s what the first ROVAL race appears destined to be.
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