Race Weekend Central

Holding A Pretty Wheel: Texas Can’t Afford To Hold ‘Em if NASCAR Is in the Future

Chase Elliott’s victory Sunday (April 14) in the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 (there’s a limit on how long a race name can be before it gets ridiculous, and this one has crossed it, but that’s a whole other story) was a long time coming.

And because of that, and a few wild late restarts, a lot of people are going to look at the latest show from Texas Motor Speedway as a success. And that might be going too far.

It’s possible to have a good race with an anticlimactic ending, and it’s also possible to have a dud of a race with a decent finish.

Sunday was the latter, and on its own? That’s totally OK. Over the course of a season, you’re going to have some great races and some real clunkers and a whole of them somewhere between those.

Before Elliott became the lipstick on Sunday’s pig of a race, a lot of fans and also a lot of drivers were ready to see the current Texas configuration ride off into the sunset (or maybe just be crushed by an Acme anvil launched by an overzealous coyote). 

The Next Gen car has helped the racing on the mile-and-a-half tracks considerably. A couple of years ago, everyone was just trying to figure out the car. If you want to understand how much they’ve learned over the last couple of years, look at Jimmie Johnson’s effort on Sunday. Where he is now is where the full-timers were then. 

Anyway, the racing on the intermediates is generally better than a few years ago, but some tracks are better than others. And they’re all better than Texas.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: Is Chase Elliott Back?

Giving credit where it’s due, part of that is a reconfiguration that Speedway Motorsports unveiled in 2018. In an attempt to make the track different from its cookie-cutter counterparts, the idea was to make the two ends of the track completely different from each other. That’s a lot of what makes Darlington Raceway so good, so in itself it wasn’t a terrible idea at all — kudos for the track for trying something to make the races better at a time when the intermediate races were less than compelling.

In practice, though, and especially combined with years of spreading on traction compound like jelly on toast, it didn’t work. 

Racing the track is good. It puts races in the drivers’ hands. But multiple cars hitting the wall because the surface is a bumpy disaster isn’t that. There were times on Sunday when it looked like cars couldn’t race side-by-side because the track was so aero-dependent that they’d wreck trying without so much as caressing each other gently.

The ending doesn’t make the current configuration better. It doesn’t undo years of mediocre-at-best racing. Texas needs an upgrade.

The good news is that Speedway Motorsports has shown a commitment to upgrading its tracks, and some of those upgrades have been outstanding. North Wilkesboro Speedway was a shell, and now it’s a racetrack again, so I’m sure Texas could be improved.

The bad news is that in general, recent reconfigurations in the name of better racing have not produced better racing. So where does Texas go from here?

The easiest solutions would be to … well, un-reconfigure the track. Certainly removing the nasty bumps would be better than nothing. Going back to the original banking with new pavement sans traction compound would make the track … a lot like the other intermediates. That might be better than it is now, but probably wouldn’t be a magic bullet.

Where reality hits is the speedway’s footprint. It would be nearly impossible to make the track bigger, so there are two options.

One is to shorten the track considerably. Maybe not to a half-mile, but somewhere between three-quarters of a mile and a mile-and-an-eighth.

On paper, that sounds good. Except … the Next Gen is anything but a short-track car, and with NASCAR seemingly unwilling to make any meaningful change, it may be that way for years. There are already rumblings of Richmond Raceway losing a date, so building another one might just be an expensive lateral pass.

See also
The Underdog House: Carson Hocevar Earns a Lone Star Top 10 in Texas

It’s not much better on the flat one-mile tracks or the high-banked mile at Dover Motor Speedway. Although World Wide Technology Raceway has seen some good shows, and Iowa Speedway is an unknown until the NASCAR Cup Series cars visit in June.

Some would like to see Rockingham Speedway resurrected again, and Texas has the infrastructure that the Rock doesn’t. But the longing for Rockingham may be based more on nostalgia than racing.

There are options for a shorter Texas, especially looking at it with an eye to the future, because the Next Gen will someday be another past gen. But it would need to be different to work.

The other possibility, which I’m fairly sure Speedway Motorsports has to be at least thinking about, it to configure the mile-and-a-half track like Atlanta Motor Speedway, which after its own facelift races somewhere between Talladega Superspeedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. It can put on a great show, but it can also host a wreck-fest just one step up from the demolition derby at your local county fair.

Atlanta is fun and getting better as the pavement ages. But part of the reason it’s fun is that it’s unique. And there are still enough multi-car crashes that adding more tracks just like it seems excessive and also expensive.

A third option would be for NASCAR to offer SMI some kind of carrot to drop the race and take it somewhere else. The issue there is that it would have to be a big carrot, and NASCAR doesn’t really have one that huge.

They’ve moved races away from New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Kentucky Speedway already, so getting one back isn’t a huge incentive. Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is buried in so much red tape it may never see the light of day. Right now, the best NASCAR might have to offer is a points race at North Wilkesboro, but until the short-track package improves, that’s more like a baby carrot.

Texas is teetering on the brink. It can certainly have a future in NASCAR’s top series, and it’s a nice enough facility for the fans. But for that to be a certainty, the track needs to put on a better show than it does right now, and drivers have to want to race there. 

There are options. They’re all big gambles, though, with no guarantee of a payoff at the end. But it feels like something needs to change, or the tumbleweeds will be the only thing rolling off pit road. That shouldn’t happen. Texas should take the gamble, because holding is for sure a losing move.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Charlie

Sell it to a developer. If anything, try again in Kentucky or add a date to Sears Point.

Kevin in SoCal

I don’t know why they left Kentucky in the first place.

Tony

I went to every race in Kentucky and the racing was crap in the cup series that’s why. But they want to leave a great racing track like Texas. What a joke.

WJW Motorsports

Or perhaps a driver could say, slow down? I know when I’m driving and I know there is a type of problem on a road I frequent, I adjust my driving to suit. I’m thinking a professional could adapt over a few hundred miles – or here’s a thought as well. You mentioned the word “practice” in a different context above – but perhaps real practices again might allow a professional to learn and adjust prior to the main event? Can’t help but notice a golfer on the range or getting a feel for the speed of the greens prior to a round.. But nah – let’s just tear down every track and make them pool tables when it gets hard.

DoninAjax

Turn the mile and a half tri-ovals into mile and a quarter OVALS! It doesn’t look like they need the greedy extra seating from the D shape.

wildcatsfan2016

Texas has been a problematical track since it’s inception. They tried to make it a track that would allow for all kinds of racing on it and I understand that from an economic point of view. Watching all of the crashes was tough especially when as you say, many of them were not related to contact but definitely aero related. NASCAR, as always, think they are smarter than everyone but history does not show this to be true. Right now they have a car that works best on only a few tracks. IMO they need to stop providing an IROC car and allow the teams to work on the car so that the racing will be better. I’ve never been a fan of Texas and IMO the racing at Richmond hasn’t been all that great for the past decade. Certainly I don’t have the answers but I’ll bet if NASCAR asked the teams, they could tell them what needs to be changed.

gbvette62

Based on their track record, I have no faith in Speedway Motorsports being able to improve Texas by reconfiguring it. Past efforts at Texas haven’t improved it, they haven’t been able to do anything with that dump of a track in New Hampshire, and they destroyed racing at Bristol with their attempts at improving it. They get no credit for North Wilksboro, it was a restoration not a reconfiguration. Sure Atlanta’s an improvement, but what makes anyone think that was anything more then dumb luck?

Please don’t blame Jimmy Johnson’s struggles on the Next Gen car. Johnson had lost his ability to drive a race car long before he retired from NASCAR. He was barely a shadow of his former self his last few full time years in Cup, and his efforts in Indy Cars were down right embarrassing. It’s time the media stops making excuses for him and admit the fact that he’s done.

Not only is there a limit to how long a race’s name should be, there’s also a limit to how many cute phrases an article needs, and this one has exceeded that limit. “lipstick on Sunday’s pig of a race”, “crushed by an Acme anvil launched by an overzealous coyote”, “spreading on traction compound like jelly on toast”, “without so much as caressing each other gently”, and so on. Please enough already! 

Shayne

Andy Hillenburg bought Rockingham for 4.4 million dollars. The track he bought was worthless without any Cup dates. At least Cup dates had some value back then.

SMI and ISC tracks along with their Cup dates, have become worthless. IMO, the collective tracks have been losing tons of money, yet they cost a fortune to operate. SMI and ISC would only get pennies on the dollar if they sold these properties. That’s why NASCAR went to LA and Chicago. Let someone else absorb the high cost of running the current shit show.

ISC (NASCAR) and SMI have blown millions of federal, state, and local taxpayer dollars in an effort to stop the bleeding. The criminal loving governor of NC (Roy Cooper-D) recently gave away 40 million dollars of taxpayer dollars, the majority of which ended up in Marcus Smith’s (SMI) pocket.

Echo

Well written thought provoking article Amy, thank you.

Tony

The race at Texas last weekend was great. This lady didn’t know what she’s talking about. Must be a Biden supporter. As an ex driver, and a Super fan of NASCAR, the racing was great! People like this woman that wrote this article need to be fired. She’s de hyping a race full of action and I saw plenty of passing. The truck is, your car has to be set up correctly. Not ever car can pass at will no matter where the race is. This is a political article and the motivation to write it is money!!!

Echo

grammar or public speaking might not be for you. Ex driver yet unable to recognize a terrible race. Who read this to you.

Jaro Jaronivich

If they made the track flat on turns 1&2 flat turns and banked in the rest, it would then be unique for sure!

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