NASCAR will hit the track at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, marking the final 1.5-mile race of the season. The final two races will be contested on the short track at Martinsville and the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway.
Based on what we saw last week, that’s probably a good thing.
There’s some hope on the horizon: the seventh-generation NASCAR Cup Series car is due to be on track for the 2022 season, so perhaps it will address the aerodynamic dependence that’s caused so many issues with the racing in recent years.
But are we already starting to see the beginning of the end for the so called cookie-cutter racetracks—those 1.5-to-2-mile beasts that seem to race just about the same despite differences in layout, banking and pavement? Maybe we are.
There was a purpose to building all those tracks. Big enough to surround with a lot of seats—which were filled during NASCAR’s boom—and able to be raced by a variety of cars, both stock cars and lighter open-wheel machines, these tracks made some sense at the time. Charlotte Motor Speedway came first, and for many years, it produced races everyone wanted to watch.
But everyone thought the Astrodome was great, too, at first. Until they didn’t.
The 1970s saw a trend in many cities toward dual-purpose stadia—ugly, characterless affairs that could host both Major League Baseball and NFL games. They worked OK for football; every field is the same size anyway.
But in baseball, they were a disappointment. Gone were ballparks with unique quirks, a nook here, a cranny there. A few lingered, reminders of the past, but this was progress! Or so “they” (whoever they were) said.
It’s the same deal for racetracks. It turns out tracks that produce exciting open-wheel races (Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I’m looking at you), didn’t always produce great stock car races. Tracks where the stockers ran more or less safely proved deadly for open-wheel drivers.
But by then NASCAR was basically stuck with these tracks because of the markets they were in and the sport’s growing popularity. They signified westward expansion, NASCAR’s version of the gold rush, and even a foray onto hallowed ground in Indy.
But like the gold rush, the gold ran out.
And maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel. NASCAR let one cookie-cutter race go three years ago when Charlotte moved the fall race to its ROVAL. And in 2021, we’ll see five fewer points races on these tracks. Atlanta Motor Speedway gains a second date, but Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway will fall silent. Michigan International Speedway will lose one race. Texas loses a points race, replacing it with the All-Star Race there. Indianapolis will move to its infield road course.
In 2022, Auto Club Speedway will be a newly reconfigured short track, removing yet another cookie cutter from the schedule.
The 2021 schedule includes three new road-course races, an additional date at Darlington Raceway and a race at the 1.3-mile Nashville Superspeedway.
A reconfigured Atlanta down the road could see the track go back to its original true-oval layout, similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway, which races quite differently from other tracks of similar length.
We could certainly see more unique tracks in the future, especially if NASCAR is willing to work with short tracks to help them with the expense of adding SAFER barriers (and this should never be compromised) as well as solutions for pit road and garage areas to accommodate 40 Cup teams.
If that happens, will we see more of the cookie cutters go dark? Will some choose to reconfigure to survive, like Auto Club and Atlanta?
Those dual-purpose cookie-cutter stadiums that dotted the baseball landscape once? They’re all gone now, replaced by new ballparks that resemble those of yesteryear, with unique features like a nook here, a cranny there.
Are the cookie-cutter tracks far behind?