[Editor’s note: The original version of this story was deleted from the site on accident, so we are re-posting it. Our apologies for the inconvenience.]
OK, I admit it. I am a NASCAR nerd. It’s not because I’m from California. It’s not because I now live in the Pacific Northwest- better known for gourmet coffee than distilled spirits. For the purposes of today’s discussion, I am a NASCAR nerd for one reason only….
I like road course racing. I wished we had more.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of people I respect who disagree. My colleague Patrick Reynolds likens NASCAR on courses of right and left turns to a pig perform ballet. I admit it does look a little funky watching a 3,500 pound box on wheels negotiate a hairpin right turn, but hear me out: road course racing belongs in NASCAR.
To me, the measure of greatness in a driver can be measured in how they handle a VARIETY of tracks: intermediates, plate tracks, short track AND road courses. Jimmie Johnson’s win at Sonoma solidified his place in the fraternity last year. Who are among the all times greats on road courses? It’s not Boris Said, it’s not Ron Fellows, the true road course studs are a couple guys you already know, and are inarguably among the best of all time: Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Have you seen the footwork on camera during a race? You need cat quick reflexes and finesse. While it’s true Said has never won a Cup race, he’s schooled more than one NASCAR regular on a road course, and schooled them well. See the progress of Carl Edwards for reference.
Not only do the tight turns on the road courses test a driver’s acceleration and braking skills, they test the crews at the shop. To put your driver in a position to win, you have to set up a totally different kind of car.
Each course is different. Sonoma looks like a warped frying pan. Watkins Glen has the long straightaways. Could you imagine adding Road America or Montreal (a personal favorite) to the Cup schedule? Each offers teams a different challenge. Isn’t that what professional racing all about?
Some fans rant about road courses like they’re another evil scheme hatched in the laboratory of mad scientist Brian Z. France. The truth is, the road courses have been around since nearly the beginning. Richard Petty says the road courses out west were about the only places big enough to host a NASCAR event, bringing the Grand National Series. There was Riverside, then courses back east followed- Long Island, Bridgehampton, and eventually Watkins Glen. In fact, sadly, it was at Turn 6 at Riverside where champion Joe Weatherly lost his life in 1964.
For some, the problem is the so-called “road course ringer.” Dan Gurney was the original, and NASCAR saw the likes of Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt following that. On the other hand, it’s Gordon who’s the all-time wins leader of NASCAR road course events. Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Ricky Rudd, Stewart, and Darrell Waltrip are among the others who have multiple victories at these pastoral sites. The fact is, if you check out who hires the ringers, they’re often the teams hanging on inside the Top 35. If you have a driver running for a title, he’s not coming out. Many a driver has sought out the expertise of a Bob Bondurant- including some of those named above.
Sure, NASCAR racing at places where wine glasses are hoisted instead of beer cans may seem a bit like Johnny Cash showing up at the opera house, but then again, if you knew the Man In Black, couldn’t see him doing it? Not that you would want that as a common occurrence, mind you. It helps the sport break away from the stereotype, if only for a day. It breaks the mold, and save for maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr., most of these guys have a blast! Still, I admit the idea of Brian Vickers or Denny Hamlin on a wine tour is something I find a bit amusing. It’s a bit like Mayberry meets the Met.
Speaking as a West Coaster, who lives six hours north of Sonoma, it would be a shame to lose this date. If given the choice, I’d take this race over Fontana (and that’s my old hometown mind you), or Las Vegas any day of the week or twice on Sunday.
Call me a “variety is the spice of life” kind of guy. This shakes things up, and has already been mentioned, this race coming up suddenly plays a very important role in perhaps getting a wild card a la Juan Montoya or Marcos Ambrose into the Chase.
So won’t you join me in a fine Chardonnay while the boys kick up the dust in wine country? It’s jolly good fun, offering NASCAR a little lemon sorbet in a vanilla racing world.