Let's Hit the Road
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and as always we extend a warm and cordial greeting to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR on this gorgeous sunny day in the hills of North Georgia. After enjoying a weekend of rest and relaxation, this week the Cup Series moves west to Sonoma Valley in the beautiful California wine country and the twists and turns of the track at Sears Point (No longer known as “Inferior Raceway”) for the first of the three road races on this year’s schedule. As always when the stockers will be making right-hand turns, there are already those muttering about it somehow not being "real racing" if it's not run in a circle, and how road racing is "boring."
Boring? Are we watching the same races? I have no problem when told that many of the oval track races this year have been yawners, often ending in suspicious yellow flags late in the race or cars running the fuel tanks dry and falling by the wayside. However, when I hear that word applied to a road race, I have to question the knowledge of the speaker. Does he or she not realize that stock car racing is a direct descendant of road racing? Back in the beginning, the racers were, for the most part, a bunch of moonshine jockeys that got together on weekends to determine who had the fastest car or the biggest cojones… or both.
Many of you reading today are familiar with the twisting, winding roads in the hills and mountains of the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, where men like Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and Raymond Parks lived and plied their trade. Those of you that have not traversed the Southeastern part of our great country are still familiar with the names mentioned… or should be. Trust me; our early heroes were even better on the roads than they were on the ovals and I suspect they would be mightily amused to hear the purists of the Roundy-round circuits proclaim that road racing is “boring.” Heck, it was both lifestyle and livelihood to them.
Of course, I realize that not all road racing has its roots in the south or even in America for that matter, but for today, since the conversation revolves around stock cars, let's keep it at home. I can remember somewhere back in the 1960s when the stockers made their first long haul up to Watkins Glen, about an hour from where I used to live. (Not their first road race, just the first one at the Glen) Actually, it was amusing to see those big heavy cars being tossed from side to side and drivers that were known to be aces on an oval spending an inordinate amount of time in the “kitty litter.”
Obviously, those drivers, many of whom were still children when NASCAR came into being, had come some distance from the moonshine days and the cars were very different from those little pre-war Fords with the huge trunks. Their foray into the Glen didn’t last long that time, but soon they found themselves racing at good ol’ Riverside in southern California, a track I sorely miss. Alas, someone decided that the world needed one more shopping mall.
Ah, but as usual, I digress, and become lost in my own personal preferences. (Senior moment; indulge me) The point I’m trying to make is that I love it when they go racing on the roads, as do many of the drivers. Make no mistake; these are not the drivers of the '60s that were trying something different and finding it somewhat beyond the skill set they had at the time. Many of today's drivers are more than capable of racing in other series, where road racing is the norm. How many familiar names do you hear at the 24-Hours of Daytona the last several years? Road racing presents a chance for the skills of a driver to outshine raw horsepower and for a crew chief to prove his worth by outthinking the competition. We get to see all too little of either on the fast ovals.
**Note to NASCAR:
All that thinking and plotting on the part of the crew chiefs is fatally marred by the “Stages.” Please, remove the Stages from the road races. They really kind of dumb down the whole race, or at least through the first two Stages. Knowing when that caution will wave undoes so much that is fun about the road courses. ~PKL
I think we can agree that part of the fun of stock car racing is in the diversity of the tracks that host it, something we have infringed upon in recent years. Right now, we have races at the two giant Superspeedways, three short tracks of varying configurations, a couple of flat milers (NHMS and Phoenix), one banked mile track in Dover, Pocono, which fits no description even close to the others and to date, we still have one race at our egg-shaped anomaly, Darlington. Then of course, we have the road courses, Sonoma, Watkins Glen and the new “Roval” at Charlotte. All of the rest bear a striking resemblance to one another.
This race fan wouldn’t mind seeing more road races in the mix, preferably to include Road America in Wisconsin, probably the most beautiful track in the country. An increase in the number of road courses on the schedule would justify the time and expense that teams put forth to field a special car for those races, just as they do for the Superspeedway cars. The schedule contains four race dates at those tracks. Wouldn’t it make sense to apply the same logic to the road races? And while I'm wishing, I would definitely love to see a couple of the road courses, any ones, replace any of the mile-and-a-half cookie cutters. 2021 seems so far away, but not so far that the schedule isn’t already at least in the planning stages…
It takes a very talented racer to get the best out of a car that is traversing hills and multi-directional turns; it’s like racing through the mountains of the Southeast with a Trooper on your tail, and that Trooper is likely to look a lot like Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer or maybe Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch or Kyle Busch. As I said, today's drivers have learned to race the roads in very respectable style. The game is played differently on a road course and one has to be thinking out of the box right from the green flag in order to take the checkers. I just love trying to second-guess the calls we see made on a road course and they raise my esteem for crew chiefs, which is already very high, to a new level. Again, please take the Stages out of the road races!
We often hear the mantra that NASCAR is a “team sport” and nowhere is that more true than on a road course. The best driver doesn’t have a chance of winning without good calls from his crew chief, good performance from his crew and it helps immeasurably to have a transmission specialist that can build one to last the length of the race. Of course, a little luck never hurts either…
Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I hope I've convinced at least a few fans to watch the road race from a new point of view and hopefully with a renewed interest. There is absolutely nothing boring about a road race once you understand the differences between road and oval. As I said earlier, the most fun is trying to outguess various crew chiefs on things such as short-pitting and "counting backwards" as Larry Mac will no doubt describe it at some point on Sunday.
Sunday’s race will include the return of the “Carousel” that has been unused by NASCAR for years. (Since 1997 I believe.) That is said to be in celebration of 50 years of racing at Sears Point. Whatever the reason, this scribe is happy to see it back in use. It adds a new dimension of difficulty to the already tricky twists and turns of the Sonoma track. The Carousel is shown in blue on the map, with the old “Chute” in grey at the top. I’m looking forward to its return, and really hope it’s not just for this anniversary year.
Obviously, this addition changes the length of the track, so instead of racing 110 laps on a 1.99-mile course, they will now run 85 laps on the 2.52-mile course. They say both represent 350km, which is why it’s called the “SaveMart 350.” My trusty calculator disagrees, but it’s not worth fighting over. It’s close enough!
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout, and I have a real treat, at least for me, though I do hope you’ll all enjoy listening to some great music by the late Jean Shepard. Of all Country performers, it’s fair to say that Jean was my overall favorite entertainer.
I miss her!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!