NASCAR should abandon road racing

Updated: June 26, 2004, 10:33 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

That's what many people liken NASCAR Nextel Cup cars competing on road courses to. To them, it's just not a good fit.

I'll admit I'm not exactly the biggest proponent of road courses, either. But at the same time, road courses present rare opportunities to make the Cup playing field as level as possible for most drivers. Only those drivers with substantial past experience in other forms of racing that do more than just turn left -- such as sports car racing, off-road racing, and to some extent in open-wheel racing -- wind up with an advantage when NASCAR goes to places like Infineon Raceway, site of this Sunday's Save-Mart 350, and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International later this summer.

Everybody else is pretty much at the mercy of the track, their race car and their own ability to precisely turn right while downshifting, or upshifting while powering out of a chicane.

It's kind of like the old saying, "Those that can, do. Those that can't, teach." It's the same way in stock-car racing. Those that can -- guys like Robby Gordon, Jeff Gordon, and noted ringers Boris Said and Ron Fellows -- succeed on road courses. Those that can't are merely along for the ride, hoping to leave there Sunday night with a semi-respectable finish.

I favor Infineon Raceway over Watkins Glen. Several million dollars in improvements have been pumped into Infineon in the last few years to make it one of the best road courses in the country. Watkins Glen, while still formidable, is a bit more staid and dated.

And there's several other outstanding road courses that certainly could host a Cup event if they ever got the chance (more like fat chance in today's NASCAR climate), including Road America in Wisconsin and Mid-Ohio Race Course outside of Columbus.

But something struck me the other day that could alter my thinking about keeping both Infineon and Watkins Glen on the Nextel Cup schedule for many more years to come.

With NASCAR's schedule so crunched -- 36 races in 40 weeks -- and with so many other sparkling new facilities dying for a Cup event, might it be only a matter of time before Infineon and Watkins Glen fall by the way in favor of, say, moving their respective race dates to places such as St. Louis, Kentucky, Nashville, Pikes Peak, or even to tracks that haven't been built yet.

NASCAR is one of the hottest tickets in the land, both for fans as well as track owners. And how those track owners market Cup events can spell dramatic differences in success. Look at Texas Motor Speedway. General Manager Eddie Gossage and his crack sales, marketing and promotion crew easily draw upwards of 180,000 fans on race day. It's for that same reason and fan demand that TMS will finally get a second annual date next season.

Yet on the flip side, there's places like Rockingham Speedway, which in less than one year saw its involvement in the Cup series go from two annual events to one, and now none. It's off the schedule for good because of a number of elements, including lagging ticket sales, failure to fill the stands, poor location, etc.

If I'm NASCAR CEO Brian France, all I have to do is look at the numbers at each respective place -- 180,000 at TMS as opposed to maybe 70,000 at The Rock -- and it becomes quite simple as to where to take those race dates.

It's the same situation with Infineon and Watkins Glen. Face it, unless you have a TV with you at the racetrack, all you're going to see of the race is maybe a small portion, depending upon which curve you're sitting near. It's not like that at most oval tracks -- you can usually see most, if not all of the racing action. And, if only 80,000 or 90,000 fans show up at either road course, while another track can promise tens of thousands more in the seats, it's not going to take very long for France to say adios Sonoma and upstate New York for bigger, more lucrative horizons.

Do I see road course racing eventually going away from Cup competition? Yes. How long? I would have to venture a guess that Watkins Glen would be off the schedule by maybe 2007 or 2008, while Infineon might stick around to 2009.

That, of course, is based upon whether France indeed feels it's more important to NASCAR to be at places like St. Louis or Colorado and make the series a 100 percent oval track circuit, much like the Indy Racing League has been (but may not be for much longer).

Face it, lumbering 3,600-pound stock cars do not make good road racers, no matter how well you fine-tune the suspension and handling. It's like trying to stack up a Chevy Cavalier against a Corvette. There's just no comparison.

Yet, even with all those who don't like NASCAR on road courses, there's also a number of fans who do like the ambiance and the more relaxing and refreshing pace, as opposed to the typical roundy-round competition we see week in and week out, track in and track out.

Unfortunately for those kind of fans, I feel road courses are just not in the same league as most other Cup events. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone rave about Infineon or Watkins Glen over places like Daytona, Talladega, Texas, California, Las Vegas or Bristol?

Road courses were built primarily for one thing: road course vehicles such as open-wheel racers or highly refined sports cars, certainly not for the hulking behemoth stock cars.

While I will definitely look forward to Sunday's race, just like I do with any other race, I still think it's time NASCAR retire from the road course game once and for all. Not only does that free up two race dates to oval tracks that are clamoring for their first Cup events, it ends the phony pretense that has existed for years that stock cars can be as exciting on road courses as they are on ovals. It's just not true.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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