By Michael Eubanks
With many hoops for NASCAR to jump through to add more traditional road courses, Sunday’s race on the infield road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway could be the start of a new NASCAR phenomenon.
The race is the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event on the 17-turn, 2.28-mile course which utilizes portions of the infield, as well as the 1.5-mile oval which hosts the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. The Xfinity Series will also run a race on the roval on Saturday. The American Le Mans Series was the last major racing series to use the infield road course at Charlotte in 2000.
In addition to being an inaugural event, Sunday’s race should provide plenty of excitement as it is the last race of the Round of 16 in NASCAR’s playoffs. Four drivers will be eliminated from championship contention once the checkered flag drops on Sunday afternoon. The event will be first non-oval in NASCAR’s playoffs since the format was adopted in 2004. The new race comes after over a decade of desire by fans and driver’s alike expressing interest in more road course races, particularly in the playoffs. The Cup Series only hosts two road course races during the regular season at Sonoma and Watkins Glen respectively, but a true champion should be able to race competitively on all tracks the series runs on, not just the ovals.
Sunday’s race will certainly be an interesting one. But the question lingers: if NASCAR wants to add another road course race to the schedule, why pick a roval instead of a true natural terrain road course? There actually are few reasons why.
First, NASCAR, at least the Cup Series, cannot host races at ANY new facility, whether oval or road course until 2021. This is due to a five-year contract the sanctioning body signed in 2015 with all the current tracks on schedule. This contract was signed with good intentions to keep a sense of stability in the schedule.Unfortunately the move has seemed to backfire, as the schedule has been fairly stale the last few seasons. Tracks can only change dates, and in Charlotte’s case, configurations.
Should this weekend be a successful one, there may be talks of hosting roval races at other tracks that have infield road courses. Daytona and Indianapolis are two tracks that come to mind, as both tracks host high-profile events such as the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
There are still other reasons why many of North America’s great road courses will not find their way onto the Cup Series schedule, though. The majority of tracks on the NASCAR schedule are owned by two publicly traded companies: the International Speedway Corporation (Auto Club Speedway, Chicagoland, Daytona, Darlington, Homestead, ISM Raceway, Kansas, Martinsville, Michigan, Richmond, Talladega and Watkins Glen) and Speedway Motorsports (Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire, Sonoma and Texas). There are only three tracks on the current schedule not owned by both powerful groups: Dover, Indianapolis and Pocono. NASCAR has not removed a track from the schedule without ownership consent since 1984, and will likely not add any new races to their already lengthy 36-race schedule. For a new, non-roval road course to be added to the schedule, a track with two races would likely have to drop one.
There are also only a handful of racetracks not currently on the schedule that even meet NASCAR’s expectations to host a Cup Series race. Many fans don’t understand the level of infrastructure necessary to host a Cup event. For a track to realistically have a chance at hosting a Cup event, it would have to have adequate walls, catch fences and runoff area to meet NASCAR’s strict criteria. Ample parking, a permanent garage area, infield care center, proper media facilities, and a capacity for at least 40,000 spectators would also be expected.
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City and Circuit of the Americas in Austin, all Formula One tracks, are the only permanent road courses in North America that currently meet said criteria. COTA, which is located only some 200 miles away from Texas Motor Speedway would likely face harsh criticism form TMS President Eddie Gossage, who has voiced displeasure of the possibility of NASCAR racing at COTA in the past.
Despite there being many other road courses that host major events for other series, there’s still a great deal of upgrades required to bring them up to Cup Specifications.. Tracks like Mid-Ohio, Lime Rock Park, Portland International Raceway, Canadian Tire Motorsports Park and Road America are all great venues, but would still need millions in upgrades to meet Cup specifications, with Road America being the most ideal track to do so.
It’s very apparent that there won’t be many permanent road courses added on to the Cup Series schedule anytime in the near future. This explains why on this Sunday afternoon, 40 of stock car racing’s greatest drivers will find their way weaving around through the infield of the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Nobody knows how the race will exactly turn out, but with an inaugural event and playoff positions on the line, expect daring passes and plenty of crashes.