Saturday, June 25, 2011

Road Courses and Their Place in NASCAR

There is an ongoing debate within the community of NASCAR fans, analysts and officials concerning road courses and their place in each of NASCAR's top series. There are some who believe Watkins Glen and Infineon provided enough, if not too much, road racing each season, while on the other side of the coin there are those who believe road courses should be more prominent on the schedule, including the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

As a member of the latter group, I'm still disappointed to still see just two lone road course races on the Sprint Cup circuit in California's wine country and the Finger Lakes in New York. However, recent additions to NASCAR's second-tier series, the Nationwide Series, has brought me great joy, along with some great racing. While we never see Mustangs or Challengers at Infineon, the Nationwide Series does stop at the Glen, along with two more road courses not featured in NASCAR's premier series: Road America and Montreal. Montreal has been on the schedule since 2007, and has provided many memorable moments in a short amount of time, including an exciting photo finish between Max Papis and Boris Said last year.

Road America, meanwhile, made its debut last year, with mayhem and intense racing around the 14 turn course. This year, the action was even more intense, and as the laps wound down more and more drivers emerged as contenders and had the opportunity to win, only to see it slip from their hands.

Entering the race, Jacques Villeneuve was among the favorites to contend for the victory in the second race at the Wisconsin track. He didn't disappoint, as in the first half of the race he led several laps and battled hard with Michael McDowell to try to keep it, including on the lap 25 restart, when he pulled out of line before ultimately passing McDowell later in the lap. However, due to his action on the restart, Villeneuve was forced to serve a drive-through penalty for violating NASCAR's restart procedure, costing him valuable track position. He spent the final 50 percent of the race rallying aggressively, most notably on the first green-white checkered attempt when he went to the grass attempting to overtake Brian Scott, resulting in contact that sent Scott spinning and Max Papis into the concrete barrier. The incident also cost Villeneuve several more positions, costing Jacques a chance at the victory, although he was able to salvage a 3rd place finish.

However, McDowell was also a favorite entering the race. McDowell was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that has simply dominated the Nationwide Series for several years, and for the driver with road racing roots it was a rare opportunity to contend for a victory in NASCAR. The driver who is forced to start-and-park in most of the Sprint Cup efforts due to lack of sponsorship, earned the pole and took no prisoners in his quest for his first career win, leading the most laps in the race. His aggressive moves appeared to pay off as he was driving into the sunset with 4 laps to go of the 50 that were scheduled. However, Doug Harrington's spin changed the outcome of the race dramatically, and ultimately led to three green-white-checkered attempts. On the second attempt, McDowell was passed by Justin Allgaier for the lead, and in the following corner he went off the course and spun, his opportunity to win fading away along with the dust from his off-road excursion into the air. McDowell with rally furiously from the back of the pack and, despite another incident in the final green-white-checkered attempt, finish 12th, impressive considering the circumstances but nonetheless disappointing for the driver that 16 miles from victory.

Justin Allgaier was far from being a favorite to win the race on Saturday. While he is among the top drivers in the Nationwide Series, with two wins in his short career along with a spot in contention for the championship, he isn't considered to be among the top road course drivers on the tour. However, the young driver took the white flag while in the lead, and when the caution came out for Aric Almirola getting stuck in the gravel trap it appeared that Allgaier had earned his second victory of the season. Just a matter of seconds after the caution had flown, however, Allgaier's car ran out of fuel, and he went from tasting the spoils of victory to finishing in 19th.

When the caution came out on the final lap, Allgaier's Turner Motorsports teammate Reed Sorenson was running second, with Ron Fellows 3rd. Fellows was among the favorites to win, with a rich history of road racing success in his career, and when he passed not only the idle Allgaier but also Sorenson under caution, it appeared that he may add to that success, and NASCAR for a time said that Sorenson had failed to maintain pace speed when the caution came out, and declared Fellows was the race leader. After reviewing replays that showed Fellows running at nearly full speed around the circuit after the caution came out, violating caution procedures. Ultimately, minutes after the checkered flag waived, NASCAR overturned its original ruling, and gave the victory to Sorenson, leaving Fellows in second.

While Allgaier was among the last people expected to head to victory lane at the conclusion of Saturday's race, his teammate Sorenson was looked upon as even less likely to notch a win. In each road course race in the Nationwide Series last year, Sorenson was taken out of the car in place of Villeneuve due to his inexperience on road courses. However, in the midst of a championship battle this season, Sorenson was able to maintain his ride. After a dramatic series of events in the final laps of the race, Sorenson not only found himself in victory lane for the first time since 2007, but also vaulted from third to the top of the Nationwide Series championship standings.

All of these storylines played out in a race that this NASCAR fan won't soon forget, and these don't even take into the other storylines that I overlooked, including Max Papis' attempt to earn a victory after coming just short in the most recent road course race in Montreal, or the constantly changing championship picture with ever turn, and the trials and tribulations of the Nationwide Series regulars, all in one action-packed race.

This is not atypical of road course racing, it seems more often than not there is lots of action and drama in the left and right hand turns of road course races. It is for this reason that I, along with many others, contend that road courses at the very least deserve a spot in the Chase, if not a couple more dates on the overall schedule. Until the day comes in which that is the case, if that day ever comes, I will treasure every exciting lap we get to witness on the road courses in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. The best part is, there's 110 more laps of racing coming up today.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Random Rant: If it Ain't Broke, Don't Fix it!

I found myself lucky enough to have a ticket for Bristol in my possession this past weekend, and I made the long drive down from upstate New York to congregate with 159,999 other passionate Nascar fans to see "racin' the way it ought'a be!"

Through Friday and Saturday, I enjoyed some extra leg room as the stands were nowhere near their 160,000 person capacity, but figured that, surely, that wouldn't be the case on Sunday.

Turns out it was, as only about 120,000 people attended the race at a track where tickets used to sell out as quick as they were offered. Don't believe me? In August of 1982, the track enjoyed a sellout crowd. From then on, there wasn't a single vacant seat at the track until March 2010.

From my vantage point, I could see that from turn two down the end of the back straightaway had the most open seats, with entire sections of seats vacant.

As I spectated my first Bristol race in person, I discovered why. This historic track, known for its white-knuckle racing, has been reduced to the type of racing you would find at Dover. I don't mean to downgrade racing at Dover, which is entertaining in its own right, but that isn't why a fan goes to Bristol. A fan goes to Bristol to see the type of racing that made it famous in the first place; drivers banging doors, the bump-n'-run, and tempers flaring as 500 laps of chaos take their toll.

That simply wasn't seen on Sunday. In fact, since the track was reconfigured in 2007, it has been lost. Of course there are those little highlights in the four years since, such as the incidents between Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch in the 2008 night race, but that type of action is hardly the norm. Now, the drivers are able to use the entire racetrack, which eliminates most of the bumpin' and bangin' that used to excite us so much. Instead, we have drivers running side-by-side in the corners instead of moving each other out of the way and causing tempers to flare.

Oh, but don't fool yourself. Very rarely does the side-by-side navigation of the corners result in much, as more often than not the driver on the high side gets the run off the corner and they're back single file by the time they enter the next corner, and this process repeats for 500 laps, and short track racing simply isn't supposed to be that way. Good short track racing is different from good speedway racing. On speedways, having drivers side-by-side is exciting enough, but on short tracks you want to see drivers getting into each other, moving each other out of the way and ultimately trying to be the last man standing when the checkered flag falls.

Instead of that action though, we have sub-par side-by-side racing, at best, at a track that used to showcase some of the best action Nascar had to offer all year. Now, its just another track on the circuit. Just another race to take a nap during the middle of. Just another track with plummeting ticket sales. Just another race with declining TV ratings. All because someone had the bright idea to change a track that was perfect the way it was, with 36 degrees of banking in each of the corners, with tight-quarters racing throughout. They decided to spend millions reconfiguring the entire track, ultimately for no reason as the track didn't have to have a new surface like Daytona, Talladega and Martinsville have had in recent years, and ruined the track in the process.

To put it perfectly clear, I have been a die-hard Nascar fan since 2003. I haven't missed a single race, having recorded any race I couldn't sit and watch live. I've also had the pleasure of attending two races at Watkins Glen, just outside of turn 1 on each occasion. In all that time of watching a race, only once had I yawned, and that was during the Dover race last year. I think it should be noted that in that instance I hadn't slept in 36 hours, so Dover gets a pass.

However, in the middle of turns three and four with forty-three cars rushing by with the sound of each of their motors roaring throughout the stands and on into the valley, I found myself resting my head on my hands yawning, and on more than one occasion. It should be noted that, in this instance, I had slept a solid ten hours the previous night. That's how lackluster the racing truly was.

“When you have gas prices that are 50 to 70 cents more per gallon than a year ago, and 46 percent of your race fans are traveling from distances six hours or more, that’s probably going to have an effect,” Kevin Triplett, vice president of public affairs at BMS, said in regards to the decline in attendance this year.

To that I point out that I make a mere $7.40 per hour at my current job, come from a family is far from wealthy, yet I saved up my money to purchase two tickets for the race and spent a nice sum of money on the gas it took to drive a total of 2,100 miles to and from the track, all to be able to see what I believed was a must-see race. Before the weekend, I had aspirations of saving up to see the night race as well, but now that I have seen in person what the racing at Bristol has been reduced to, Charlotte (or just about any track for that matter) is looking like a much better choice.

At any rate, the price of gas didn't stop me from coming the first time. The fifteen hour drive each way didn't stop me. The fact I was going to have to stay awake overnight to drive back up to New York, go to classes on the following day and work until midnight before I slept again didn't even stop me. All of those things wouldn't have stopped me from going to the Bristol night race, either, but the racing has.

Time for the disclaimers:

-While the racing at Bristol was disappointing, the weekend itself wasn't. The "Family Fun Night" thing they had on Friday evening was a lot of fun, and was worth the drive alone.

-Speaking of "Family Fun Night," I met Eric McClure and he couldn't have been a better guy. He talked to my friend and I for a good half hour, and gained two fans in the process.

-Sorry I haven't written anything in so long! I've been really busy with work, classes and most recently a trip to Bristol, haha. However I had some time today and a rant to share.