The settings could not be more different. One is rural and otherwise quiet, nestled up on a hilltop, surrounded by farms and small towns that are quintessentially American. The other is urban and cosmopolitan, plopped down on an island in the second-largest city in Canada. What they have in common is water -- one is within sight of Seneca Lake, the other on the banks of the St. Lawrence River -- and turns that bend right as well as left.
Together, Watkins Glen International and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve comprise that rarest of occasions in NASCAR -- consecutive visits to road courses, with the Sprint Cup and Nationwide tours stopping in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York this weekend, and the Nationwide circuit competing in Montreal next Saturday before the big boys race in Michigan. Which means there's perhaps no better time to show a little appreciation for those twisty circuits that are sometimes viewed as an aberration by spectators raised on oval tracks, but have gone a long way toward making NASCAR drivers among the best in the world.
No question, it requires a white-knuckle nerve to win at places such as Atlanta and Texas, a steely focus to prevail at Talladega and Daytona, adaptability and sheer talent to triumph at venues such as Darlington and Dover. Every track in NASCAR's national division demands certain qualities of its winners, and none of those venues are simple to master. But when it comes to flat-out driving, it's hard to beat a road course, and all those chicanes, esses, boots and hairpins which are only magnified in difficulty when competitors are wheeling 3,400-pound stock cars.
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Take Watkins Glen -- a venue that combines short-track patience, intermediate-track nerve and big-track speed, making it a layout akin to a motorsports version of the decathlon. The straights are terrifically fast, that first turn is insanely crowded (particularly on restarts) and the wall is very hard. "I think the minimum corner speed in Turn 1 is probably 90 mph," said road-course ace Ron Fellows, driving a car in Saturday's Nationwide event for JR Motorsports. In some turns at Watkins Glen, he added, drivers are flying by at 150 mph. Compare that to Montreal, which is a serpentine, French-Canadian version of Martinsville, a track that places a large emphasis on braking into slower corners.
"It's a night-and-day difference one week apart," Fellows said.
But as with all road courses, including other national-division venues such as Sonoma and Road America, they offer a driver an opportunity to unleash all the weapons in his arsenal. Despite his occasional behavioral issues, there's little question that Kurt Busch is an elite wheelman, as his 24 victories and 2004 championship at the sport's premier level will readily attest. But perhaps nothing else showcased the absolute talent of the Phoenix Racing driver like his third-place effort earlier this year at Sonoma, where Busch somehow nearly won a race in a car that had no business being up there. That's the power of a road course, where a driver's ability can shine above everything else.
It's no wonder, then, that so many of the sport's luminaries also have proven themselves accomplished on road-course venues. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace -- most of the all-time greats have at least one road-course trophy on their mantles, and road-course masters Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have shown themselves to be the best of this or any generation on tracks that turn right as well as left. The rest of the field, though, is coming up quickly behind then. Gordon is the all-time road-course winner on the sport's premier circuit, with nine victories. And yet he hasn't won at a road course since 2006, which tells you something about how much better everyone else has become.
To find Gordon's most recent victory at Watkins Glen, you have to go all the way back to 2001, a startlingly long span of time. "We sort of lost that edge," he said. Maybe so. But there's also no question that everyone else has improved, and because all the top drivers in NASCAR now treat road-course events seriously instead of seeing them as sideshows, there seems little doubt that the increased attention paid to road circuits has helped produce a deeper field of gifted drivers overall. If road courses are the most complete test of a driver -- an assertion difficult to argue, though some will surely try -- then it says something about the Sprint Cup circuit that this week's race at Watkins Glen is about as wide open as any other event on any other kind of track.
Because it didn't used be that way. Back way before the Chase, when drivers could go through the motions here or there during the course of a very long season, road courses were sometimes viewed as little more than an obligation. Wallace, Ricky Rudd or Mark Martin cleaned up while others gutted through them, and got out of town as quickly as possible. That attitude gave rise to the ringers, experts like Fellows and Boris Said who could occasionally find themselves in pretty good cars. Those days are gone. This current generation of Cup drivers views road courses as just as integral as any other type of track, and they've put in the work to show for it, learning from even the ringers who used to take advantages of weaknesses that no longer exist.
The results are clear -- better, more well-rounded drivers who can excel at almost any type of layout, including those that resemble a snake lying in the grass. On the Nationwide tour, where disparities are a little more obvious and more experienced road racers like Fellows or Road America winner Nelson Piquet Jr. have an advantage if their cars are good enough, the transition is still taking place. But not in the big leagues. Marcos Ambrose and Juan Montoya have both won at Watkins Glen, and they'll likely be favorites Sunday, but we're in an age where even veteran oval-trackers such as Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne can prevail on any given day.
And road-course racing -- more specifically, the emphasis placed on it -- helped the sport get there. So yes, enjoy this journey through Watkins Glen and Montreal, a few days down NASCAR's roads less traveled. Because the fruits of the labor put in at places such as Watkins Glen and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve are on display every week.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Jeff Gordon
- road courses