NASCAR Hits The Road

NASCAR throws its teams and drivers for a curve this weekend. And for most of
the teams, things just took a turn for the worse.

Actually, the sanctioning body is throwing more than just a simple curve. How about a series of right-hand turns, with a few left-handers thrown in for good measure? Not only that, but the turns will be from coast to coast.

The Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck series will have to deal with the 11 turns of Watkins Glen International in New York, while the Winston Cup circuit will visit Sears Point Raceway in California and its 10 turns.

Throw out everything you know about NASCAR and stock car racing. Just about anything can happen when the good ol' boys start twisting and shouting on road courses.

For starters, a driver's spot in the standings doesn't mean much. Mediocre teams with drivers that have strong road racing experience can excel, and strong teams with a driver used to going around in circles can easily get lost. In addition, mistakes can be costly because a lap lost is almost impossible to make up on a road course. And there is almost always some road-course expert with little NASCAR experience that threatens to win.

Because so much is going on with the driver and the car, and so much is going on with the car and the track, funny and unexpected things happen.

Consider Jerry Nadeau, who has much more experiences on road courses than ovals. Although he hasn't made much of an impact on the Winston Cup circuit this season, he believes he can win at Sears Point.

"Road courses are a challenge," Nadeau said. "You have to be on top of things all the time. You're either shifting or turning or going up and down hills in every corner and on every straight. I feel like Sears Point and Watkins Glen are places where I have a better chance at winning since I have a lot of road course experience."

Wally Dallenbach knows road races from both sides of the street. He's a road-racing expert, having won Trans-Am titles and 24 Hours of Daytona races. But he's also been racing on the Winston Cup circuit for almost a decade now, with his best two finishes being a pair of seconds at Watkins Glen.

One of the biggest differences between road courses and ovals is passing a car.

"You can't really beat and bang to pass someone," Dallenback said. "Our cars are so much on the edge anyway. If you barely touch somebody, you can spin them out. At Sears Point, you're never going straight. You're always turning. If you just touch anybody, you're probably going to run them off the track."

For years, many Winston Cup teams tried to act like the road races didn't even exist. They wouldn't spend much time preparing for the races, figuring it wasn't worth the effort. Al Unser Jr., who has experience in most cars on most tracks, is credited with describing Cup cars on a road course: "They don't turn, they don't stop and they don't go."

Dallenbach has seen a change in approach, however.

"When I started in Winston Cup, there were probably only two or three teams that were putting any effort into a road course," Dallenbach said. "The road course was a race they went to get through and then move on. Now everybody is building road course cars. These guys have caught on fast. All the teams are pretty good now."

Another big change is that young drivers, even the ones that grew up on ovals, have adapted quickly to turn-happy tracks. Jeff Gordon is probably the best example, having won the past five Winston Cup road races.

One of the first NASCAR drivers to adapt was Mark Martin. He's become so good that he has raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona.

"I basically learned how to drive on the hilly, dirt roads when I was a kid in Arkansas," Martin said. "I've always had fun running road races."

Most drivers that make the conversion from bull rings to road courses feel like all the turns are a fun challenge. Dale Earnhardt Jr., for example, still has only raced in a handful of road races, but he won at Watkins Glen in a Busch race last year.

"I'm not saying I'm any good at it yet, but it gets to be fun when you get into the rhythm and start going fast," Earnhardt said. "Then it's like driving a go-kart."

Of course, sometimes you can't teach an old dog a new trick. Because of that, many of the lower-tier teams will actually switch drivers to see if they can't qualify and do well.

Dave Marcis, for example, will give up his seat this week to R.K. Smith, who has much more road racing experience. Team owner Junie Donlavey will go with Brian Simo, who leads the Trans-Am Series in points, instead of Winston Cup rookie Ed Berrier.

Most Winston Cup regulars go to road racing school at least once in their career in hopes of picking up the knack of making turns every five seconds.

For some this works, for others it doesn't.

Veteran stock car driver Robert Pressley says the road course races leave him dizzy. He'd like to just turn off the turns.

"I've gone to several schools and always done well," Pressley said. "But every time I get in the race, something just seems to happen and we have a problem. It would be all right with me if we just dropped them off the schedule."

Now that's some road rage.

Related Topics:

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