By Jerry Bonkowski
Just in time for this weekend’s NASCAR Cup race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, let me tell you a little tale:
For the longest time, two of the dirtiest words in NASCAR’s vocabulary were “road courses.”
Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and on into the 2000s, no matter how much fans clamored for more road courses to be added to the Cup schedule, NASCAR was adamant. It was happy with the two tracks it had, namely, Watkins Glen International in New York, and 3,000 miles westward to Sonoma Raceway in California.
Even so, fans kept clamoring and NASCAR kept denying, saying true stock car racing was best contested on oval tracks. The implication to some is if racing fans wanted road course racing, they could watch IndyCar or, even better, Formula One.
But eventually the tide began to turn, with much of the credit to be rightfully given to NASCAR CEO and Chairman Jim France – younger brother of Bill France Jr.
When prior CEO Brian France stepped down from his role due to scandal, Uncle Jim took over NASCAR’s reins and couldn’t have been a more perfect replacement. You see, while Bill Jr. and son Brian were dyed-in-the-wool stock car fans, Jim liked road course racing.
He helped spearhead the formation of the GRAND-AM road racing series (as well as its eventual merger with the rival American Le Mans Series in 2014), helped build the Rolex 24 Hours into an even bigger global event than it already was, touted road course racing’s virtues, and was a massive advocate for IMSA and its road course racing events.
Frankly, a greater friend of road course racing could not be found than in Jim France, who assumed his role as NASCAR’s top boss on August 6, 2018, one day after Brian France was arrested on suspicion of DUI charges in upstate New York and took what was termed at the time a “leave of absence” that he never came back from.
Ironically, Jim France’s ascension into his new role came just weeks before NASCAR finally added a third road course race to its schedule, what has become the hugely popular Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course … a.k.a. the “Roval.”
In a sense, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was fortuitous, as it helped Jim France convince his NASCAR counterparts that if the Cup Series was to regain many of the millions fans it had lost over the past decade-plus, as well as to attract newer and younger fans, road course racing was where it was at.
That’s why when the 2021 Cup schedule was first announced, it shocked fans, as the 36-race series went from having three road course events to more than double – seven races, to be exact (one race was a fill-in for a COVID-cancelled oval race). This year, there will only be six road course races, which we’ll likely see for many more years to come – that is, unless NASCAR adds another one or two more road course races in the near future, which is definitely a possibility.
Not surprisingly, NASCAR fans are – as they might say in the South – “lovin’ ‘em some road course racin’.”
For all the years that NASCAR officials like Bill France Jr., Brian France, Mike Helton and others expressed satisfaction at keeping the status quo of just two road course races per season, it’s pretty clear that road course racing is at the forefront of the “new” NASCAR and its future.
And that’s not all. There’s one other puzzle piece that may be on the front burner – an event unlike any NASCAR has ever seen in its nearly 75 years of operation.
Earlier this month, numerous reports indicated that NASCAR was exploring the possibility of returning to Chicago for a Cup race, but NOT at its previous address in the Windy City, namely, Chicagoland Speedway in suburban Joliet, Illinois.
Rather, NASCAR reportedly is eyeing a street course race on a temporary circuit somewhere near or adjacent to downtown Chicago. Think of a stock car version of IndyCar’s Long Beach Grand Prix and you get the idea of what may potentially come to be in the world of NASCAR in the next few years.
I’m a huge advocate for the idea. And it again shows NASCAR is no longer reluctant to try something new, instead of maintaining the same old, same old philosophy it had for several decades.
If a street course race were to come to Chicago – or perhaps another major city if Windy City residents and politicians ultimately nix the idea – I would come one step closer to eventually dying a happy man from a racing perspective.
All that’s left on my bucket list that I want to see before I move to that great racetrack in the sky is for NASCAR to return to its roots and hold a beach race, similar to the type of layout that the sport was built upon before Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959.
Heck, in the NASCAR of today, we have more road course races than we likely ever thought possible now, we have dirt racing at Bristol, and we’re talking about street course races potentially on the horizon.
Can a half-beach, half-street course race – much like the way NASCAR began – be far behind?
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski