A Vote For Road Courses

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The argument is pretty silly, really.

But sure enough, every time we head to a road course, some driver will start moaning about having to race on them. And fans will chime in, too.

It’s not racing! Those cars are too big to be on a road course! Real racing is done on a short track!

Well, I must agree with the last statement (I did write it, ya know). We do need more short tracks on the Winston Cup schedule. Heck, I’d love to see a dirt race, too.

But we need road courses as well. Variety is the spice of life, they say – whoever “they” is – and NASCAR can use all the spice it gets.

“You hear ‘em talking about all the cookie-cutter type tracks we’re racing on,” Rusty Wallace said. “Well there’s nothing cookie-cutter about the road courses, that’s for sure.”

Amen. It would be terribly boring to go to the same kind of track, the same location every weekend. There are enough 1.5-mile tracks out there that are alike. Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas are all pretty similar, as are Las Vegas, Chicago and Kansas. Daytona and Talladega are alike, as are Michigan and California.

That leaves Rockingham, Bristol, Martinsville, Dover, Richmond, Pocono, Darlington, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Homestead and Indianapolis as unique tracks. And, of course, Watkins Glen and Sears Point – er, Infineon.

“Watkins Glen is good for NASCAR Winston Cup racing,” John Andretti said. To be a champion you need to race up front on short tracks, superspeedways, and road courses. Watkins Glen is a part of what makes NASCAR so unique and competitive. I believe the fans want to see us race on road courses as well. If we raced the same type of tracks each week it would get boring, and a lot of fans might start looking for something different on Sundays. This is a long schedule, and the fans need to be able to watch something different each week.”

Some fans, though, complain than racing stock cars on a road course isn’t really racing.

I’d like to take you back a few years to Sears Point Raceway, when it was called Sears Point. There was a battle between Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt that was as thrilling as any race I’d seen. No, they didn’t race side-by-side every lap, but you could tell each guy was on the ragged edge every corner. And since there were more than four corners, they were on the ragged edge more often than on an oval.

Earnhardt ended up winning that day after Martin slipped in some fluid. That was Earnhardt’s first and only road-course victory, and he cherished it.

In some ways, driving a road course is more challenging than driving an oval. Easy, cowboy, unruffled those feathers. I said in SOME ways. I’d rather watch a short-track race, too, but think about it.

On an oval, there are four turns (Pocono doesn’t count in this discussion). That means there are four turns to mess up. On a road course, there are a lot more than four turns. And while some of those turns could be taken in the family mini-van just as easily as a stock car, there is still room for error.

Perhaps it could be said that there are more times to screw up a lap on a road course than on an oval, which, logically, means road courses are harder to master. Think of it this way: If you were going for a lower score, would you rather play 18 holes at your local miniature-golf course or Augusta National?

Tell you what, you take Tiger Woods on Augusta, and I’ll play Jungleland. I’ll beat him – by sheer numbers – every time.

Yes, I’m oversimplifying, of course. But there is a lot of skill involved in racing on a road course. And don’t fans think skill is an important part of racing?

“I’ve never really figured out why some people feel there is a controversy with it but we usually end up with a few people talking about road courses in a pretty negative way going into this race and Sears Point,” Kyle Petty said. “In some ways I guess it’s an easy story because you take a question – Should NASCAR run on road courses? – and then go find one or two guys who never finish well on them. They almost always will start talking about how we should run nothing but ovals, and that kind of stuff.”

Jimmy Spencer comes to mind. Note: Spencer failed to qualify this weekend, so he doesn’t have to race on a road course.

“Then go find somebody who does pretty well on them and ask the same question,” Petty said. “They’ll be talking about how we definitely should run them, should probably run more of them and something like that. Basically, it all comes down to whom you talk to, and what they say almost always comes down to how well they do on road courses.”

Maybe, maybe not.

“The road course aspect shouldn’t be that big of a deal, I don’t think,” Petty said. “When you think about it, this is really our third road course race in a row. We just came from Indy, and you kind of drive it something like a road course because of the flat, sharp corners. It’s an oval, of course, but in a lot of ways you drive it like a road course. The week before that was Pocono. You sure can’t call that an oval. Three different turns, three different straightaways. Pocono is like a short road course, I guess. Maybe you would call it a three-turn road course.”

So what is a road course anyway? Isn’t every race track pretty much a road course?

Didn’t I tell you this was a silly argument?

Bottom line: Road courses are here to stay. So just enjoy them for what they are. And go find a winding back road somewhere and imagine you are a Winston Cup driver. Maybe then you’ll understand the draw of a road course.

“The bottom line is that the popularity of our sport is at an all-time high, and it continues to soar, doesn’t it?” Wallace said. “Stop and ask yourself where we’d be if we ran on nothing but mile-and-a-half tracks where a lot of people complain about the lack of competition. What if we ran on nothing but the tracks where it was only single-file racing all the time? I think this sport would be in a helluva shape.

“So that’s why I say thank goodness for the road courses. We need ‘em just like we need the half-mile and three-quarter-mile tracks. We need a huge variety of tracks to make up the schedule.”

Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

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