Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Should NASCAR Impose Track Limits on Road Courses?

Over the course of the last two weeks, the NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series have been making left and right turns on windy road courses at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen International.

While the Xfinity Series put on great shows toward the end of its races, the Cup Series had just two combined cautions over 172 laps and about 421 miles of racing.

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However, one thing that some noticed in both series, at Watkins Glen in particular, was just how much racetrack the cars were using. Cars were more likely to use runoff areas instead of the actual racetrack, which led to an interesting debate about whether or not track limits should be utilized.

In the FIA, there are strict track limits that have penalties if a driver exceeds them. In NASCAR, no such rule exists, and drivers have a tendency to use as much runoff as possible in an attempt to get as much speed off of a tight corner as possible.

This issue is especially prevalent at Watkins Glen and Circuit of the Americas, as both tracks have slow and tight corners. Other road courses that NASCAR races on usually have grass runoff areas that discourage drivers from going wide there. Other specific areas with track limit issues include turn 4a at Sonoma Raceway and the switchback section at Indianapolis.

The calls for NASCAR to impose track limits are very fair — why have a track layout where part of the actual racing surface isn’t being used? Plus, the runoffs are supposed to be there for safety reasons instead of as a part of the racetrack itself.

Throughout the years, particularly at Watkins Glen, drivers are using so much runoff that it could end up becoming dangerous due to the awkward angles of the walls throughout the track. These danger of these angles were somewhat on display after David Reutimann’s scary accident there in 2011, that started when David Ragan took a massive hit to the outside wall entering the esses. Reutimann’s flip began after he, too, suffered a massive hit to the awkwardly angled inside wall.

Watkins Glen used to have grass for all its runoff areas but soon paved over all of them because it was a lot easier to slow down on asphalt in the event of a blown corner or mechanical failure. Not to mention all the gravel traps that awaited the drivers should they have missed the corner, almost guaranteeing a caution because drivers would need help getting out of the trap.

The cries for NASCAR to not impose limits also have some validity in them — stock cars are inherently heavier than Formula 1 cars, so they need a little bit more of a radius to make the corner to avoid taking corners at less than 50 mph.

But NASCAR has raced at Watkins Glen before runoffs were paved, and drivers had no issue making corners tighter. Plus, the tighter corners puts drivers in a position to handle their cars better, and if that can’t happen, it could allow for more racing in the passing zones.

In the same vein, the Chicago street course mostly proved that the Next Gen cars in particular are capable of navigating through tight corners — it’s dependent on the driver to be able to steer it.

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The issue with enforcing track limits also entails the idea that a small penalty is given, which is hard to do on a road course. In the FIA, if track limits are exceeded, time penalties are usually are given that are enforced at the end of the respective race. NASCAR has never been in the business of giving out time penalties, save for last year’s race at Indianapolis, when Ross Chastain was handed a 30-second penalty for cutting the course in turn 1 on the final restart, a move that saw him vault to the lead.

But a pass-through penalty on pit road would be too harsh. Penalizing a driver for slightly overcooking a corner doesn’t really warrant such a long penalty such as a pass-through. The time lost on a pass-through vs. exceeding track limits is not very balanced.

In a way, NASCAR also has its own version of track limits that we will see on full display this weekend with the good ol’ double-yellow line rule at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway. If you go below the double-yellow line to advance your position, it is a pass-through penalty.

Many have strong opinions on the double-yellow line rule, but it also draws attention to the fact that NASCAR is no stranger to its own track limits, so maybe it can design its own version of track limits separate from the FIA to penalize drivers for not using the track surface.

So perhaps it’s as simple as making a complete stop in places where you’re able to do so, much like a driver does when they miss a chicane or bus stop. If you exceed track limits, you must come to a complete stop in a bus stop or inner loop within a lap to make up for it. But again, that seems difficult to enforce, and on tracks with no alternate courses, finding a place to stop could prove nightmarish to do.

The truth is it actually might be more difficult for NASCAR to impose track limits than we think. There might be some preventative measures to discourage using the runoff — for example, what if Watkins Glen diamond-grinds the runoff areas around the track to give it a surface like Indianapolis? Sure, you can still use the runoff, but doing so will wear out your tires and might force a little bit more pit strategy.

Or maybe it’s a three-strike rule. For every three times you exceed track limits, you incur a pass-through penalty (or restarting at the tail end of the field if the yellow comes out before you can serve it under green). Or there’s some other way to keep drivers on the actual racing surface.

NASCAR has several ways that it could enforce track limits, and the sanctioning body has to have noticed the issue at hand, especially this weekend. That’s why it needs to limit this issue now before a safety incident forces its hand.

In short: NASCAR, be proactive, not reactive.

About the author

Frontstretch.com

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. 

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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4 Comments
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Sean

Try steering one of those brick like car around some of those corners while staying within the typical track confines. Two turns into the race there’d be a pile up that would take a “week” to sort out.

sb

I like the idea of having to come to a full stop if you exceed track limits. If they have to get to a chicane to do so that’s fine. The paved runoffs make the track way too forgiving and encourage sloppiness.

wildcats2016

short answer from me is NO. If it’s paved, let them race on it. If they don’t want them to race on it, add the gravel pits back in.

Logan

They desperately need to enforce some kind of track limits on road courses. I love nascar on road courses but watching them drive completely off the track, 2 or 3 cars wide sometimes, when making turns is just flat out embarrassing. If you’re a race car driver you should be able to stay on the racing surface or face consequences. I’m not asking for a drive through penalty but at least make people give back passes they made abusing the track limits. But that’s just my perspective as an indycar fan who also really enjoys nascar.

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