Most professional sports -- basketball, football, hockey and tennis -- have tightly regulated specifications as to the size of the playing field and the type of surface that is to be used for their competitions.
A pro basketball player, for example, knows that when he bounces a basketball made to a specified weight with a specified air pressure on a floor that is to have a specified amount of flex that he can expect the same result in Boston as in Miami or Houston or Los Angeles.
The pro quarterback and his receivers have plays that are designed to fit into specified widths and lengths of a football field. Therefore we can reasonably say that the venues for those sports are "vanilla" in their sameness when compared to NASCAR tracks that are more like "rocky road" or maybe "chocolate, marshmallow, raspberry walnut surprise" (ugh), where you never know what your next bite will taste like.
NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers have a variety of track shapes, sizes and surfaces to compete on during the season. They range from Martinsville's relatively flat .566 "half-mile" hybrid blacktop and concrete surface to Talladega's 2.66-mile high-banked blacktop-surfaced super speedway. In between those two extremes are 20 other tracks that vary in shapes and sizes and surfaces.
Twelve tracks feature the "D" shape from the .75-mile Richmond to the 2.66-mile Talladega. Seven tracks are considered to be ovals with straights in the front and back. Most of those ovals are considered to be "square ovals" with tight turns and longer straights -- primarily Indianapolis, Homestead, Dover, Martinsville and New Hampshire.
There are several "Oddball" shaped tracks on the circuit as well. Pocono is a big triangle while Darlington is an egg-shaped design. Phoenix has a lopsided reverse "D" design where the flat vertical side of the "D" is in front of the grandstands and the curved part is the back stretch.
The "D" shaped track is designed to give the angled grandstand seats a better and less obstructed view of the cars as they circle the track. Especially when they are in the area from between Turn Three and Turn Four through to the area between Turn One and Two.
There are three short tracks, two road courses and four super speedway-sized tracks on the circuit. The rest of the tracks fall somewhere in the intermediate track range from Darlington's 1.366-mile size to Michigan's and California's two-mile-long size. Most of them vary widely in size and shape and banking, etc.
Even the so called "cookie cutter" 1½-mile long tracks have differences in their banking that range from 15 to 24 degrees in the corners, five to 11 degrees in the tri-ovals and four to nine degrees in the back stretches.
The one oddball 1½-mile track is Homestead with its squared oval design versus the "D" shape of the others. Homestead's design was patterned after the one-mile bigger Indianapolis Motor Speedway layout and was shrunk down to its 1½-mile size. That made the Homestead turns much tighter than those at Indianapolis and resulted in their having to be dramatically redesigned to make racing safer there. The chart at the right will give you an idea of the basic differences in the 1½-mile tracks.
As you can see from this chart no two tracks are identical on the circuit although Texas and Lowe's (Charlotte, N.C.) come very close. The nuances of these supposedly identical tracks require different approaches in car suspension setups and how the drivers race on them. Their "size" may not matter but how they are driven does.
So what difference does it make to the driver which size and shape track he races on? It can mean a lot. Let's take Jeff Burton for example. He seems to thrive on flatter tracks such as Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, Las Vegas and New Hampshire where most of his victories have occurred. In fact, he has won only one race on a track with more than 24 degrees of banking in the corners so, ironically, the boy from the mountains of Virginia is a flatlander when it comes to race tracks. So if you are a Jeff Burton fan and like to wager Mom's egg money on a Sunday afternoon then don't bet on Burton winning at a high-banked track because the odds are against you collecting on it.
Compare Burton's 18 wins to say, Ricky Rudd's 23 wins and you will see that Rudd has won on a greater variety of tracks during his career. Does that make Rudd the better driver? Probably not but it does make him the more versatile driver in my mind.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 17 wins on a variety of tracks in less time than either Burton or Rudd, however seven of those wins came on super speedways when DEI was dominating the restrictor plate races. He has only one win per season since his peak in 2004 when he won six times. He hopes that will change with his move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. I used to study all of the drivers and their track preferences and winning tendencies very closely several years back for another job so I can tell you, with certainty, that certain drivers prefer specific types of tracks.
Tracks can be primarily classified as either handling or horsepower tracks. What that means is that one or the other is more critical for success at that particular track. And, a track may be both depending upon the time of year when the race is held there.
Daytona, for example, is primarily a horsepower track in February when the temperatures are cooler and the track has more grip, but it becomes more of a handling track in July when it is hot and humid and the track surface becomes more slick. If a track is symmetrical versus asymmetrical then it is more likely to be a horsepower track than a handling track.
An asymmetrical track, such as Darlington, is very definitely a handling track because horsepower does you no good there if you are bouncing off the wall every lap. The perfect line at Darlington used to require the driver to just barely kiss the wall coming off the old Turn Four, earning him his "Darlington Stripe." Sooner or later you could wear out the side of the car and have to go home if you were too aggressive. I once saw the late Neil Bonnett hit the wall in the old Turn Four at Darlington then go down and hit the Turn Two wall and then come back and hit the Turn Four wall again -- all in one lap. He crashed out of the race on the next lap. You cannot overpower Darlington, you have to finesse the old girl if you are going to win there. David Pearson holds the record for wins at Darlington (10) -- enough said?
Darlington has always been one of my favorite tracks because of its unique design and rich history in NASCAR. I get a chill down my spine just walking into the place because I can feel all of its history. It was and remains what NASCAR has been all about since its inception. If you want to evaluate just how good a new driver is going to be then see how quickly he adapts to racing competitively at Darlington. "The Lady in Black" or "The Track Too Tough To Tame", as Darlington has been called over the years, will test the skills of the most talented driver until he figures her out. Some very successful drivers never have figured her out. Some very famous racing names do not appear on the winner's trophy at Darlington so that tells you just how tough it really is to win on that track. My favorite tracks all have one thing in common: they challenge the driver's skills in some manner.
When I was working with Pearson doing his driving schools I did the classroom part of the course. Some of our students were there just to have fun and create a lifelong memory while others were young drivers looking to start their careers and hopefully move up to the big time some day. The first time Brian Vickers ever sat in a race car was at Martinsville Speedway during one of our classes there.
Jon Wood is another Pearson Performance graduate. During the classroom part of the course I would advise the students who were going to try to make a career out of racing by starting out on their local short tracks that they should make a point of walking and studying those tracks before they ever drove a lap on them. They could learn more just by walking one lap around a track than by driving 50 laps on it. Especially on the bull ring style short tracks, you can study the walls and track surface and learn where potential problems are when you later drive on them. If, for example, the Turn Four wall is all scarred and gouged and scraped and the blacktop is pock marked and patched then guess what? Something about Turn Four causes a lot of wrecks at that track. If it was me getting ready to race there then I would want to find out what caused all those scars on the wall and the track surface so I could avoid contributing to the carnage.
The reason I picked Turn Four for the above example is that most short track designers and all track promoters want to create an exciting show for their fans to sell tickets. So if they should just happen to mess up the geometry or symmetry of the Turn Four corner, or maybe have a bump or dip that gets the cars loose in it, then the drivers are going to have trouble with that turn and create a lot of excitement beating, banging and passing each other while coming off it and onto the front stretch -- which just happens to be where the grandstands are filled with fans.
Sound diabolical? You bet! I'd say that more than 95 percent of the short tracks that I've seen have had some type of problem either in their respective turn four corners or just onto the front straight for precisely that reason. Will the promoter ever admit it? No. Does it serve a purpose for other than selling tickets and hot dogs? Yes. It helps to separate the good drivers from the not-so-good drivers.
For many years Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte had a major dip in the fourth turn track surface caused by the dirt settling over a tunnel that was built under it. That dip caused a lot of wrecks in the front straightaway over the years and helped sell a lot of hot dogs and beer for H.A." Humpy" Wheeler, the track's president and NASCAR's answer to P.T. Barnum. Humpy was finally forced to fix that dip at the behest of NASCAR so he decided the track had to be resealed with a substance they ended up naming "Bear Grease". The stated purpose was to seal and protect the track's surface from the weather. It did do that I suppose but it also created one heck-of-a-slick track surface that, you guessed it, caused more hot dogs and beer to be sold that weekend while the track crews cleaned up after the wrecks. It also caused an uprising with the car owners and drivers so the next race the bear grease was gone and all was quiet for a while.
Then they decided to repave portions of the track a few years back and somehow it turned out to be a rough paving job that caused bumps and dips in the track surface. And again they sold more hot dogs and beer and again they had an uprising from the car owners and drivers. So Humpy magnanimously announced that he was going to "levigate" the track surface which simply meant that he was going to have it ground smooth. However, he got a ton of publicity out of the word "levigate." Remember I told you that he was NASCAR's answer to P.T. Barnum. He probably sold more hot dogs at his "levigation" press conference, too.
A few weeks ago I did an article about track surfaces in recognition of Bristol's newly redone concrete surface. In that article I quoted Jeff Byrd, president of Bristol Motor Speedway as saying that the engineers spent a lot of time talking with drivers to give them a surface they would like to race on there. He was optimistic that he would have a good show with the new surface because the drivers could pass each other more easily and there would be more pure racing. There was, and the first reports that week were that the drivers loved the new track surface. But then the reports started coming in that the fans were not quite as enamored with the new track as the drivers had been. Not enough crashes or frustrated altercations to suit you bloodthirsty savages, I guess. If the next race with a different Goodyear tire package proves to be as disappointing to the fans as this last race supposedly was then one might hear jack hammers being operated in the dark of night up there. Hey, those Bristol winters can be severe and that could cause spalling (flaking) of the track's concrete surface. Those weren't really jack hammers we heard out there! Right Jeff?
Remember that all sports are based on the laws of physics, so the more variables that you introduce into the mix the more difficult it will be to achieve success or victory. The current tracks that NASCAR has chosen for its Nextel Cup competitions represent an extremely diverse array of challenges for the competitors. It is one reason, in my mind, that the series has grown so dramatically in its popularity.
Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.