Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Room for 1 More – Road Courses Prove Their Place in NASCAR

I know that as I sit down to write this article, I am in the minority. No, not because of my name, but because I like road racing in NASCAR. I do feel a bit vindicated however, as this past weekend’s events in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series proved why we need more of them and why there needs to be a road course in the Chase for the Championship. With as much beating, banging and retribution that took place over two days, road courses have in fact become what short-track racing used to be in NASCAR.

Sure, this kind of story has been regurgitated before, and usually pops up the week before/after Infineon or Watkins Glen. The arguments for are as follows: Every type of track should be represented in the final 10 races to determine the champion and only one style of track is currently missing (a road course). For a driver to be a true champion of a series, he should be well-versed in all types and disciplines of racing in the series, not just be with a team that has a lights-out intermediate track program.

Those against it are familiar and have not changed since 2004 – this isn’t Formula 1, too much of a wildcard (because Talladega isn’t??), and the ever acid reflux-inducing “what about the road-course ringers ?!?”

Well, what about them?

When was the last time one really came close to winning a Cup race? The last time a road course-only specialist really had a shot at winning a Cup race was in 1991 when Tommy Kendall was leading with a lap to go at Infineon (then Sears Point – and in its proper carousel configuration), and suffered a flat tire – and hooked Mark Martin in the process of being passed for the lead.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Road Course Ringers Running Short On Wins

Ninety percent of the time the road-course specialists suffer from poor pit stops by an inexperienced or under-funded team, something breaks, or the only reason why they’re in the top 10 to begin with is because they’re that good and are carrying an uncompetitive car on their back, praying to God and all that is holy that it holds together for two hours.

As for it being a wildcard and risky – uh, yeah? So? Think maybe people might tune in then instead of ignoring it because football or talk of football is on?

Take a look at Road America this past weekend. Where else can you see a Camaro SS get launched out of the stadium, multiple passes every lap throughout the field, guys sliding through the grass, dirt, gravel, while on a track that is literally twice as big as the one they were at a week earlier, Michigan International Speedway? Unless it’s in Germany and there is graffiti all over the pavement, it turns out it’s in Wisconsin.

Think of what a gorgeous scene that would make as well during the Chase; cars coming to take the green flag, cresting the hill on the frontstretch at Road America, amidst the back drop of an autumn color change in the northern Midwest. Weather would not be an obstacle in the middle of Indian Summer; the only other addition the cars would need would not be windshield wipers or defrosters, but deer whistles.

By comparison what is the first race for the Chase in 2011? Right, Chicagoland. After 10 years now, I get it; drive around in a circle for 267 laps, nobody shows up and it usually sucks. Great.

Now consider the marketing strategies and rationale that conjured up the notion of launching your much-maligned title playoff series right when the NFL and NCAA football is in full swing at the most useless and sparsely-attended track on the circuit. I guess they didn’t want to truck everybody out to California for a race that hardly anybody shows up to.

It’s usually not a good sign when the city hosting the race is known primarily for its prison. What, Folsom and Attica didn’t have an open date on the schedule this year? Mixing it up with some different tracks and venues would be a boon for both competition and viewership.

If NASCAR insists on changing the format for the figuring out a champion every other year, it better pepper the docket with some new dates and places, and stop pandering to places where it isn’t well received. Fifty-thousand people showed up for a Nationwide race this weekend – that is more than a 10% increase over those who showed up at Charlotte last month, smack dab in the middle of NASCAR’s CENTCOM.

Now imagine a Cup race the first couple of weeks of fall in a championship format. It would definitely draw more than 50,000 people – and I would venture to say more than the less than 68,000 who inconvenienced themselves to go to Chicagoland last June.

That is not to say that everything is pristine and perfect when viewed through my road-course-colored glasses. Sunday’s race at Infineon Raceway confirmed yet again that the current configuration isn’t working, and they need to go back to the carousel course – the proper layout for the track – and ditch this current set up. If Infineon had it’s former layout, you’d have two more passing zones, less guys getting fed up and dumping people, and ultimately a race that is more competitive, interesting; more tactical, less strategic.

The same goes for Watkins Glen. Yes the Bus Stop chicane is probably a prudent safety measure and adds passing opportunities. The former F1 course however is one that adds a new look and dimension to the track, as well as opens up new avenues and angles of attack. “The Boot” course of Watkins Glen extends the current 2.45-mile track to 3.4 miles and many say would be an improvement over the traditional NASCAR layout. Tony Stewart echoed this same sentiment while swapping rides with 2008 F1 champion Lewis Hamilton a couple of weeks ago.

“I enjoyed the long course,” Stewart said. “I’d never been around it till today. I told (NASCAR executive and pace car driver) Brett Bodine when we got out of the car after our setup runs that I would like the opportunity to see us having a shot at running the long course.

“I think it would create more passing opportunities, for sure, and it’s just such a historic racetrack, and there are some really cool corners down there that we don’t get a shot to run on a Cup weekend.”

As long in the tooth as the Chase has become with the different tweakings and trimmings that have been tried in vain to make it work, as well as avoid appearing to be something other than a gimmick to compete with the NFL and lure in a few casual fans, it is time to do something meaningful to the very nature of the beast. With as much effort and time as teams put into running just two events a year, a third race would help justify the cost and effort involved – not unlike the four restrictor-plate races that are ran.

That, coupled with a unique and unfamiliar venue such as Elkhart Lake’s Road America, would be a welcome addition, refreshing site and something somewhat more compelling than the same tracks and types of racing that we’ve become accustomed to during the past seven seasons of Chase competition.

Besides, if Stewart thinks it makes sense on a road course, then I’m all for it. Otherwise, whoever disagrees is probably going to get punted into a stack of tires.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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