The Road Less Traveled
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and as always, friendly “Howdy” goes out to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR this fine day. Did anyone hear that Kevin Harvick won again on Sunday? Nah, it’s not getting boring, but it surely does limit what there is to write about in a Friday column. I see today (Tuesday) that though his car passed both pre-race and post-race inspections, NASCAR is taking a “closer” look at it, to see if there’s any way they can levy a fine against the fleet #4. Yeah, they’re like that. We might be returning to this paragraph later on, but for now, I have nothing.
***Return we must. The decision from on high came down late on Wednesday that Team #4 is guilty of everything but breaking the child-labor laws. Copious amounts of dollars and points lost, including 7 Playoff points. Quite frankly, this soon to be octogenarian doesn’t understand what the offending parts even are, but I don’t think I have them on my Cobalt. All are involved in a rear window brace; I do know where the rear window is… and since it’s a window, it’s transparent. One might “think” that any such infraction would be visible to the naked eye… or even an eye properly attired. This car passed not only pre-race, but post-race inspection with no problems mentioned. Then, three days past race day, the axe falls in the private garage. In what other sport does this happen?
NASCAR, for what it’s worth, this truly plays havoc with your attempts to recover the fan base. We fans are told of the wonders of the new “inspection” process that will cover the entire car, up, down and all around… yet after passing that much-lauded inspection before and after the race, it takes the R&D geniuses three days to find something that had to be in plain sight all along? It’s a WINDOW, for Heaven’s sake! ***
Last week’s column dealt with a couple of cost-saving measures that drew all manner of thoughts and comments. One of the strangest conversations to arise from that one had nothing to do with wrenches or qualifying, but dealt with road racing of all things. Sometimes it’s amazing where a conversation can go when race fans get to dishing the dirt, so to speak.
My young friend opined that she thought NASCAR didn’t want more road races and I explained that they would probably love to have more, since they are the best attended events on the calendar, save for the Daytona 500. Watkins Glen has won the fan vote conducted by USA Today both times they’ve run it. It’s this scribe’s considered opinion that the Cup Series doesn’t race at Road America, Laguna Seca, VIR or any of the other great road courses is because they are not owned by ISC or SMI. Only three tracks on the schedule today, Dover, Indy and Pocono, are not owned by one of those giant consortia. If I’ve learned anything over my many years, it’s that following the money trail will generally lead one to the right answer.
Neither conglomerate cares to give up one of its races to an independent track. I’m more than a bit amazed that they have actually used one of my suggestions this year in adding the “Roval” at Charlotte. Many of our larger tracks, and some not so large, such as New Hampshire, have some sort of viable road course within or incorporated with the oval track. No, the Charlotte infield, complete with dumping grounds, is not as lovely as the Elkhart Lake area that is home to Road America, but it’s better than yet another 1.5-mile bore-fest.
My friend proffered that NASCAR is basically an oval track series and road courses were never more than a tiny part of that. Nope, I couldn’t let that stand as stated, so up onto the soap box I climbed. 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 trying to dig out of 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; please 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 their skill set 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 these days in the 24-Hours of Daytona? 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.
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 might be in danger of losing in the not too distant future. 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 save for one corner (Tunnel turn) that resembles Indy, and to date, we still have one race at our egg-shaped anomaly, Darlington. Then of course, we have the road courses, Sears Point and Watkins Glen. All of the rest bear a striking resemblance to one another.
It takes a very talented racer to get the best out of a car that is traversing hills, valleys and multi-directional turns; it’s like racing through the mountains of Carolina with a Trooper on your tail, and that Trooper is likely to look a lot like Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. or one of the Busch brothers. 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 reach the checkers first. 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.
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 of you to watch road racing from a new point of view and hopefully with a renewed interest. (I’m not too sure that I convinced my young friend) There is absolutely nothing boring about a road race once one understands 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 likes to describe it.
I borrowed this title from an old but dear Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken." In it, Frost at first seems to lament his choice of roads, but clarifies that by ending his verse with the words,
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I─
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
Road racing may be our sport's road less traveled these days, but it is indeed the genetic parent of stock car racing, and deserves all the respect it is due. Your scribe hopes the “Roval” will meet with great success because I’d like to see more racing on the roads and less parading on the 1.5-mile tracks.
That pretty guitar tells us it’s time for today’s Classic Country Closeout. I guess it would be proper to present some “Road” songs, but I found a small stash of some wonderful collections and I’d love to share them with my gentle readers/listeners. This one is a collection of some top songs from the 1940s. Great stuff here!!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling.
It looks so good on you!