It’s time for NASCAR to hit the road course
(MCT) — Stock cars are rumbling, 850-horsepower monsters built to go real fast and turn left around oval tracks. But this weekend, those bulky machines leave their natural habitat.
NASCAR drivers will weave through a narrow, serpentine road course in the brown hills of Sonoma wine country — something the cars really weren’t designed to do.
And that’s why the annual trip to Northern California has become one of NASCAR’s toughest challenges.
“These cars are dinosaurs,” said Marcos Ambrose, one of the series’ best road-course drivers. “They’ve got way too much power. They don’t have enough tire grip. They’re too heavy. They don’t have enough brakes. You really have to manhandle these cars around this track.”
So races at Sonoma tend to be bumper-cars competitions that undoubtedly will lead to more overheated tempers when 43 drivers begin fighting for precious track space at Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma raceway. Last year, a garage full of angry drivers were left pointing fingers at one another.
Call it road-course road rage.
“We tear up our cars more at this race than we do anywhere other than maybe Talladega and Daytona,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I mean, our bodies are just beaten off the cars when the race is over. Because it’s really tight-corner racing, they’re on top of each other, pushing and shoving.”
The race really begins Friday afternoon with the all-important qualifying session. Because it’s so hard to pass on race day, a good position on the starting grid is crucial.
“Starting up front, being in the top two or three, there’s a lot more give and take,” five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson said. “When you’re mired in 10th in the back, it’s a mess. It puts on a good show, but I certainly don’t want to be a part of that show.”
NASCAR became America’s favorite motor sport by keeping it simple with close, door-to-door racing on wide ovals. But this weekend, drivers stretch out of their comfort zone and actually turn the steering wheel to the right.
There are the only two road courses on the 36-race series — the other is in Watkins Glen, N.Y. — and the 1.99-mile Sonoma layout is considered the more technically demanding.
In addition to changes in direction, there are sharp changes in elevation. Drivers are constantly shifting, turning, braking “¦ and dealing with competitors who are doing more blocking than you will see in a typical football game. Adding to the challenge is the fact there are only two or three places to pass — depending on which driver you’re asking.
So even though the top speed on the course might reach a relatively pokey 140 mph, races can devolve into sheer chaos with cars careening off the track, kicking up dirt and slamming into tire barriers.
“It has a high degree of difficulty,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. “It’s hard on engines and it’s hard on your suspension because you do have to be so aggressive. There’s really not any place where you can settle in and catch your breath. There’s something going on everywhere. As soon as you’re coming out of one corner, another one is right in front of you.”
Over the years, some NASCAR drivers have voiced the opinion that their steering wheels were meant to be turned in only one direction. Jimmy Spencer, a now retired driver, once famously summed up the sentiment of stock-car racing’s old guard when he said of Sonoma and Watkins Glen: “If I had my options, I would clear the facilities and use both of ‘em as bomb-testing sites.”
That attitude might help explain why, for many years, racing in Sonoma could be a tad dull. Events resembled elephants on parade as cars stretched out in single file behind the handful of strong road-course drivers — such as five-time winner Jeff Gordon.
But that has changed. Under NASCAR’s points system, the first 26 races now determine the 12 drivers who will compete for the season title in the final 10 events. Every weekend has become vital, and drivers have stepped up their road-course game and are more willing to take risks. The past five years at Sonoma have produced first-time winners in Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Johnson and Kurt Busch.
Tighter racing, in addition to being crowd-pleasing, has meant more testosterone bubbling over.
Two years ago, the normally clean-driving Gordon left several drivers fuming when his gambling resulted in numerous collisions. Last June, drivers were chirping at each other after a wild race. The highlight was Brian Vickers delivering a little payback for an earlier incident by spinning out Tony Stewart — leaving the back end of Stewart’s car resting on a stack of tires.
“Man, it was nuts out there,” Robby Gordon said afterward.
Just racing, Johnson added this week.
“If someone wrongs you, you’re going to get even,” he said. “So that energy builds up throughout the race as a lot of drivers start to get frustrated. You can only put up with so much.”
That’s why everyone expects plenty of more wrecked stock cars come Sunday.
“You’re going to have to do a few bump-and-runs and make a few contacts to win the race,” Ambrose said. “We’re all prepared for that and all understand the consequences.”