Last week, we discussed the curious phenomenon of suddenly disappearing swaths of NASCAR fans. NASCAR is apparently aware of and somewhat alarmed by this trend. A tiny little virus with a kick like a mule is making this a difficult time to maintain the status quo, much less overhaul the way a business entity goes about running the show. The pandemic has already pushed back the introduction to NASCAR’s much-ballyhooed “next-gen cars” to 2022. What was in fact heavily touted this year as NASCAR tried to at least staunch the bleeding was the schedule.
Perhaps the most notable change was adding four new road courses to the slate of events, bringing the total number of races with both right and left hand corners to seven. For years, the Cup schedule had only two road courses: Watkins Glen and Sonoma. Then in 2018, Charlotte began sacrificing its fall Cup date to some sort of a hybrid bastard of a race track called, awkwardly enough, “the ROVAL,” which sort of rolls off your tongue like a rusty wad of fishing hooks. Back in the days of yore, the Cup circuit used to race at Riverside, often starting their season on that road course outside of LA. Riverside hosted a second Cup event in many years as well. Already this year, we have had last weekend’s points-paying Cup race at Daytona, and prior to that the Busch Clash was run on the road course at Daytona.
Why they didn’t just go ahead and ashcan the Clash is beyond my reckoning as well. Probably has something to do with alcoholic fizzy water and excessive consumption of such.
Watkins Glen hosted a Cup race in 1957, 1964 and 1965, then took a hiatus until 1986, an event won by the late Tim Richmond in front of 88,000 fans. Yep, at a Cup race on a road course.
The other road course races include Austin, Texas (5/23); Sonoma (6/6); Elkhart Lake (Fourth of July); the Indianapolis road course (8/15); Watkins Glen (8/8) and Charlotte (10/10). That new race on the Indy road course is the only Cup event slated to start at 1 p.m. ET on a Sunday afternoon this season, so at least they got that right. Like the commercials used to say, check your local listings for details.
As an aside, another big change to the 2021 Cup schedule is Bristol hosting a race at the end of this month which will still be run on the traditional half-mile high-banked track with four left hand corners and not a right in sight, but the concrete track will be buried under a yard of dirt. (Or if it rains, acre upon acre of mud. If it rains kiss your damned shoes goodbye before trying to return to your car in the parking lot. If I may be presumptuous enough to assume there will be cars in the parking lot belonging to fans in the grandstands for the event, which is in fact not a given in the contemporary climate.)
As for the racing, I’m envisioning trying to teach hippopotamuses to line dance. It’s a waste of your time and it annoys the hippos.
I have my doubts about how the huge, heavyweight cup cars are going to perform on a half-mile dirt track. But I suppose if you must sin, sin bravely. Perhaps it will work out spectacularly, and if not, nothing ventured, nothing lost (nor gained).
So why the sudden proliferation of road course dates on the schedule? NASCAR claims it’s due to fan demand despite their track record of actually responding to fan demand. My guess it that it’s typical flawed polling where the pollster sets out to prove his solution is correct. Maybe they’re responding to fans who were less than enthusiastic about races when those fans were unhappy with the low horsepower cars with rear spoilers the size of New York City cab’s rear advertising billboards. They didn’t much care for races where once a driver got to the front, the aerodynamic advantage he had was too great to be overcome. It wasn’t racing. It was more like follow the leader, sort of like the majority of this year’s Daytona 500. “So you’d rather see road-course racing, right?” the pollster might ask. Just as long as you get rid of these damned cookie cutter tri-oval intermediate tracks, the interview subject might have snapped.
I’d probably have voted for another road course or two myself. It’s an interesting change of pace occasionally and some new names tend to run up at the front. Christopher Bell for example. But seven road course races? Might that be a bit of an overreaction?
Based on my own interactions with many fans over the years, I think most of them enjoy the occasional road race, but what they’d really like to see more of on the schedule is good old fashioned fender-banging, tempers flaring, someone getting spun off of somebody else’s front bumper for a perceived misdeed short-rack racing. 40 cars rattling other driver’s cages and perhaps launching a beverage can at that miscreant’s noggin while discussing it on pit road afterwards.
NASCAR met the demand for more short-track racing in an unusual way. They decided that tracks like Phoenix and New Hampshire were, in fact, short tracks, though they’d been labeled intermediate tracks for decades. The actual definition of a short track is a race track less than a mile in length. Don’t be fooled by the prattling publicists. There are three short tracks left on the schedule since the demise of Cup racing at North Wilkesboro: Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond.
The track at Fontana is supposedly being converted to a short track in the coming months. There wasn’t enough time to allow the new short track to be built for this year’s schedule. There’s battalions of environmental lawyers out in Southern California determined to investigate, litigate and study any earth-moving project more grandiose than a pair of kids digging with teaspoons in their backyard sandbox. We’ll see how long they might actually hold up ground-breaking for a potential new short track in Fontana.
In some ways, the conversion of Fontana to a short track is an appropriate end to a long battle for the soul of the sport that has cost NASCAR such a huge number of fans over the last couple decades, a virtual Gettysburg if you will. I know of few longtime fans who ever felt much affection for the place and was thus surprised to see Autoweek’s Matt Weaver wax poetic over the joint this weekend. Has there ever been a good race at Fontana? A few perhaps. 2011 comes to mind, but you know what they say about visually challenged hogs and their acorn retrieval rates. Fans never seemed to warm to the track. Fontana’s original GM Gillian Zucker, when asked about notable blocs of empty seats at her track, guessed aloud that all those fans were actually in the shopping concourses under the grandstand buying souvenirs. Or perhaps visiting the “misting stations,” the track’s newest innovation, allowing fans to enjoy brief cooling sessions on a hot afternoon.
But it was 2004 that drove a lifelong wedge between longtime fans and Fontana. That Labor Day weekend, Fontana hosted a Cup race. That weekend had been the traditional home of the Southern 500 at Darlington since 1950. Fans were enraged by the move and announced they were heading for the exit. On a personal level, I decided that I was no longer going to cover the Labor Day race in Fontana. That became my annual vacation, and not just because I live so close to Ocean City.
NASCAR finally saw the error of their ways. After a brief stop in Atlanta, the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend finally returned to Darlington in 2015, and that Throwback Weekend has arguably become the most popular event on the schedule. Misting stations be damned.
But back to the point at hand. As NASCAR adds road course dates to its schedule, it must also change how they officiate such races. In NASCAR oval-track racing, when a caution flag is thrown, the entire field slows for the entire track. Typically the pace car is dispatched and picks up the field. The field forms up, riding behind the pace car at a predesignated speed which can vary track to track, but is most often 60 MPH on an overage oval track. Recall 60 MPH is a mile a minute. The field travels behind the pace car, and typically drivers who wish to pit do so the next time by, followed by cars a lap or more down the next time around. And of course they have to clean up whatever wreckage bought out the caution or the car that ceased making forward progress to draw the yellow.
Some of these road courses are monsters. The Circuit of the Americas in Austin (typically abbreviated as COTA) is 3.41 miles around. (Talladega at 2.66 miles is NASCAR’s longest oval track, for comparison’s sake.)
Road America is the new correct trivia answer for NASCAR’s longest track at 4.1 miles around. Do the math. A “brief” four-lap caution period at that track would stretch on a stupefying 16 minutes and 40 seconds. The TV networks would doubtlessly welcome a chance to jam that many ads down our throat, but my guess is that fans would opt to grab their remotes and look for something else watch rather than increasingly annoying auto insurance ads. (I never got over my high school viewpoint that auto insurance companies are the folks who don’t want you to own a fast loud car or try to charge you your left nut to do so.)
How big an issue can this become at Road America? You don’t have to look too far in the rearview mirror to find out. Austin Cindric won the Xfinity race at Road America last year in early August. In that event, 15 laps of a total of 45 were run under the yellow. Over an hour of a race that only lasted two hours and 55 minutes were run under caution. When the fans allegedly voted for more road courses to be added to the schedule I don’t think that’s what they had in mind.
So what to do? While NASCAR typically throws a general (the entire circumference of the track) yellow, other forms of auto racing that compete on road courses put out localized caution flags that slow the field only in the area of the track where the issue has occurred. A yellow flag entering that zone tells drivers to slow down to caution speed until another flag indicates they are out of the caution area. The penalties for choosing to ignore that yellow flag, especially to advance your position, have to be draconian. I’ve volunteered for a few SCCA and other events as a corner worker to learn:
A) NEVER turn your back on an oncoming race car, and …
B) If you believe that a race car driver will always choose to do the stupidest possible thing at the worst possible time, you will seldom be disappointed.
Racing is allowed to continue around the rest of the course, which greatly reduces the delays in the action to the general merriment of all involved. Other than the network execs trying to sell ads, and to perdition with the lot of them.
Likewise, a caution for precipitation doesn’t have to be full course like it was last week. Perhaps the matter of when to install rain tires (recall that nobody actually did under that caution anyway) ought to be part of the winning team’s strategy, not a game of Ollie-Ollie-Oxen-Free on pit road.