Road courses are the new short track in NASCAR.
That’s what everyone was saying before the 2017 season. After a number of excellent road course races at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, as well as in the other series at places like Road America and Mosport, NASCAR fans have been clamoring for more road courses.
And NASCAR seems eager to give them to fans, evidenced by the fact that we have taken an oval race at Charlotte Motor Speedway this season and turned it into a road course race with the first “Roval” race.
And the talk is consistently heating up about more. Could we add a Cup race at Road America? Could NASCAR go to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin? What about running the road course at Indianapolis, Pocono, even Daytona? What about running a street course somewhere? How can we have more road courses in NASCAR?
Whoa, whoa, whoa, pump the breaks for a second. Are we getting a little ahead of ourselves? We have no idea how the Roval is going to go, yet people are clamouring for more Rovals. And if you look at the last three Cup races at road courses, they haven’t been that good.
Here’s the thing — one of the things that made road course racing so good was the fact that not a lot of the drivers were very good at it. But with the new emphasis on winning over the last few seasons, the drivers have spent more time preparing, and the top guys are just as good at the road course races as they are at the mile and a half races. Don’t you think that’s going to become even more the case if we add more road course races?
Right now the big focus in NASCAR, if you’re a team that wants to win a lot of races and win a championship, is the 1.5-mile tracks. That’s the majority of the schedule. But if you add more road courses, you will increase the focus on those tracks too, and thus the drivers will get even better at them. More preparation, unfortunately, does not usually equal better racing in NASCAR.
Not only that, I personally think the stage format has ruined road course racing. Look, I’m a giant fan of stage racing. I’ve loved it since it was announced. I think it works 32 out of 36 Cup race weekends. But there’s four places it doesn’t — the two road course and the two restrictor plate races.
When you know when the cautions will come at a road course race, it completely changes your strategy. And because the races on road courses aren’t that long to begin with, it really only gives one point in the race to allow drivers to shift that strategy, and that’s during the final stage. So essentially, the goal in a road course race is to survive the first two stages and race in the last.
The same is true for restrictor plate races. I could go deeper into that, but that’s for another day, because the focus is on the road courses now.
I think NASCAR needs to look at removing the stage racing from road courses. I don’t think they will, but I think they should.
Lastly, street courses. No thank you. NASCAR has no business running on a temporary street course.
I went to my first street course race ever earlier this year when I covered the IndyCar race at Belle Isle in Detroit. It was neat, sure, but IndyCar doesn’t draw the people that NASCAR does. At a street race, everything is temporary — the stands, the buildings, everything. That’s not going to work for NASCAR with the number of fans, and even teams, that go to a race weekend.
Secondly, you worry about attendance now, street course racing is not designed for the live, in-person viewer. It all depends on the track, but generally you can only see a very small portion of the track, and the rest you watch on a big TV screen. Because the stands are temporary, they are small and dispersed around the track. Prime viewing is difficult to find.
Not to mention, because stock cars are heavy, they’re hard to stop, making the tight confines and turns of a street course a major challenge, and not in a good way. Not only that, but the temporary walls that only give a little bit when an IndyCar hits them will move a whole lot more when a 6,500-pound stock car hits them.
In closing, I like road course racing. Aside from the last three Cup races, road course racing has been pretty good. But let’s not ruin it by adding too many to the schedule. NASCAR is an oval series, and it should stay that way. Let’s work on what’s broken — improving racing on the 1.5-mile tracks — and run our couple of road course races a year to mix things up, not add any more.