By Jerry Bonkowski
You just can’t please some NASCAR fans sometimes.
For well over two decades, NASCAR had two road course races on the annual Cup schedule – Watkins Glen International in upstate New York and Sonoma Raceway (formerly Sears Point Raceway) nearly 3,000 miles away on the opposite side of the country in the wine country of northern California.
And for much of those two-plus decades, a movement began building – slowly at first but eventually growing to the point where NASCAR could no longer ignore it.
Namely, the movement was fans wanted to see more road courses on the schedule. Maybe three, four, five, six or more, for that matter!
Ironically enough, the COVID-19 pandemic helped give fans what NASCAR had pushed back against for so many years, as restrictions in some states forced the sanctioning body to race at some road course tracks, whether they wanted to or not, because those were some of the few tracks where racing was permitted at the time.
Don’t forget, road course races are so spread out that fans and drivers easily had a very easy way by design to social distance both on and off the race track and stay out of each other’s way, thus minimizing the danger of the spread of the virus.
Last season, 2021, there was a NASCAR-record seven road course races on the schedule – including one that was added after the season began because Covid restrictions forced a previously scheduled oval race by the wayside.
This year, 2022, the schedule is back to six road course races – and it’s likely it will stay at that number for - likely - many years to come.
For all the years that fans complained how they wanted more road courses on the Cup schedule, after finally getting what they wanted, there has been a slow grumbling among some NASCAR fans that maybe there are too many road course races on the schedule now.
Ergo, as I said at the beginning of this column, there’s just no pleasing some NASCAR fans.
What I don’t understand is WHY some of those fans want to go back to the way it used to be with only two or maybe three road course races, tops, per season.
I bring up the topic because we’re back on a road course this weekend at Road America in central Wisconsin. How any true fan of racing would not want the NASCAR Cup circuit to be there is beyond me.
Road America is a massive 4.048-mile, 14-turn layout. It is arguably one of the most challenging race tracks ever made. In a sense, before NASCAR came there, Road America became to Indy cars and sports cars for decades what Darlington Raceway was to NASCAR: a track “too tough to tame.”
Road America has always been a track that has, without sounding sexist to the lady racers in the world, separated the men from the boys. You could be a guy like Jimmie Johnson and excelled on ovals, but when it comes to road courses, let’s face it, JJ stunk. He won just one road course race among the 83 wins he earned in his Cup career.
Jimmie then retired from NASCAR and shifted to the IndyCar world. Of course, what happens? Jimmie winds up racing at Road America in his sleek IndyCar ride – and he still can’t do well on a road course (finished 22nd there last year and 24th earlier this year). But I digress.
What’s there not to like about Road America – or as the folks up that way like to refer to the place simply as “RA”? It offers not only breathtaking scenery, but it puts racers through some of the most difficult twists and turns seen anywhere.
There are at least three completely- or semi-blind turns that, unless you’re prepared for it beforehand, you could quickly find yourself in a whole heap of trouble as you crest over the hill. You don’t have that at Daytona or Talladega, that’s for sure.
And there’s also the long straightaway coming off the final turn and all the way uphill heading across the start-finish line and onto Turn 1. You could literally land a 747 on the front stretch, it’s that long (well almost), one of the longest straightaways on any racetrack in the world.
Of course, drivers have to go left and go right at a place like Road America. And let’s throw one other challenging element into the mix not seen on regular NASCAR racetracks, namely, RAIN!
That’s right, unless there is lightning within a rule-mandated eight-mile radius of the track, Cup cars will be required to put on rain tires and race in the wet stuff at road courses like Road America, something they don’t have to worry about doing at places like Daytona, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and other oval venues.
Granted, rain and slick tires used on ovals don’t mix well, but that’s a whole other story for another time. But I think you get the gist of what I’m talking about why road course racing is so challenging.
And so appealing to drivers and fans alike.
I’m tired of having to justify to some NASCAR fans who at one point wanted more road course races, ultimately got more, and then complain that there are too many now. Make up your mind, for Pete’s sake!
But the real, true NASCAR fans will appreciate just how much more value and how much better a show road course racing brings to the sport. Without sounding simplistic, and at the risk of alienating some fans with what I’m about to say, but practically anyone can go down a straightaway and turn left 100, 200, 300 or more times in a given race. Heck, at a place like Bristol, drivers make 2,000 left-hand turns in the course of a 500-lap race.
Do the math if you don’t believe me: four left-handed turns per lap, multiplied by 500 laps, and you’ve got 2,000 turns.
Yet a REAL race car driver is someone who not only can go straight and then turn left, but also can turn right, go back-and-forth from one side to another and handle going over blind uphill turns and landing safely on the other side with equal aplomb.
In summary, there’s a lesson of sorts to be learned from all this for some NASCAR fans: don’t wish for something if you’re not going to sustain your excitement for it once your wish is granted.
And for the rest of you who appreciate the challenge a place like Road America presents, please enjoy what promises to be a great race this Sunday.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski