Roads aren't the rage

Jerry Bonkowski

For someone who has covered motorsports for well over 20 years, there's very little that leaves me wondering any more.

But every time I go to Watkins Glen International or Infineon Raceway, one thing immediately comes to mind when I first see Cup cars come into view: Why is NASCAR here?

I just don't get it. Cup cars are made to race at places like Daytona, Talladega and Bristol – true race tracks in the fullest sense of the word – not for road courses.

Don't get me wrong. I've written numerous stories extolling some of the races I've witnessed at Infineon and Watkins Glen. We've seen some exciting, memorable finishes, for sure. Juan Pablo Montoya's and Kyle Busch's wins at Infineon the last two years immediately come to mind, as does Tony Stewart's win at Watkins Glen four years ago, even though he was sick as a dog.

Because NASCAR keeps the two road courses on the schedule, I've begrudgingly come to accept these events – even if I likely will still wonder whether those race dates wouldn't be better off elsewhere.

A couple of things strike me as we prepare for this Sunday's Centurion Boats 200 at Watkins Glen. First, it's the second and final road course event of the year. Thank goodness. After Sunday, we can get back to "real" racing again.

But also, given how NASCAR is still in high demand despite the poor economy, sometimes questionable racing, high fuel prices and the like, I can't help wonder whether Cup-style road course racing will still be around in, say, five years.

It's no secret Brian France wants Cup races in the New York City area and the Pacific Northwest. There's also been increased talk in recent months about holding a race near Denver.

All of those would be on oval-style tracks.

To fill those voids – if and when it does – NASCAR is invariably going to have to take away races from established tracks.

We've all heard the rumors that Pocono may lose one or both of its dates, even though France remains steadfast in upholding his father's unwavering loyalty to track owners Dr. Joe and Rose Mattioli years ago. Because of the Mattioli's undying support to NASCAR, even in some of its toughest and roughest times, the late Bill France Jr. vowed the sanctioning body would never take away either of Pocono's two events.

And even though Pocono is in need of substantial renovation, it's not likely either of Pocono's two races are going anywhere, any time soon – unless the Mattiolis sell out, which they've vowed never to do.

We've also heard rumors about International Speedway Corporation or rival Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchasing Dover International Speedway, another site that hosts two yearly events. The folks that own the parent company, Dover Motorsports, don't seem eager to sell any time soon, either.

Which leaves us with tracks like Martinsville, New Hampshire or Atlanta as potential targets to lose a race. Because ISC owns Martinsville, it's fairly safe from losing one of its two events.

That's not the same story with the SMI-owned New Hampshire and Atlanta tracks. NASCAR can simply take away the existing second date from either facility, thumbing its nose at Bruton Smith, and there'd be little he could do about it.

So what options are left if NASCAR needs race dates for new tracks in new venues down the road? Very few.

But given how easily NASCAR pulled the Nationwide Series from Mexico City and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course facility that hosted the sanctioning body the last four years, you have to wonder just how secure Watkins Glen and Infineon are on the long-term Sprint Cup schedule.

It takes a special breed of fan to appreciate stock cars racing on road courses. Many can't get enough and would like to see even more road courses added to the 36-race Cup schedule.

For others, particularly those living in Northern California, the event at Infineon is the closest venue from their homes. It may not be an oval track, but it's still Cup racing to them.

Considering Infineon's capacity is about 100,000, NASCAR might have a hard time justifying pulling its annual Cup race there. Watkins Glen is another story.

The facility holds around 60,000 – one of the smallest crowds on the circuit. What's more, unlike Northern California, there are multiple options in the Northeast (Pocono, Dover, New Hampshire) for NASCAR fans.

Ultimately what might keep The Glen on the schedule is the fact that it's owned by ISC – a sister company to NASCAR.

All of this brings me to this question, which I've gotten every year since the Chase began: Should a road course be a part of NASCAR's 10-race playoff?

The argument for including a road course always revolves around an idea that having a wide cross-section of racing on various types of tracks produces the truest champion.

Still, I remain against such a move.

The two road races we have each year are more like exhibitions than true points-paying events. Invariably, it's only those drivers who either come from a road-racing background or who have adapted over the years to turning right as well as left who typically have any success.

Those other drivers who frankly suck at road racing continue to be also-rans. They're the happiest when they leave either IR or WGI right after the race concludes. In fact, they usually can't get out of either place fast enough.

If Brian France gets his way and eventually has new oval tracks built where he wants them, you can pretty much bet that one or both road courses on the current Cup schedule are going to wind up losing big.

So for fans attending this weekend's race in the rural, bucolic atmosphere of The Glen, take a real good look at the scenery, breathe in the fragrant smells of the grass and yes, even the exhaust fumes from race cars. Because even though Sprint Cup road course racing may not be everyone's cup of tea, it may not be all that long before those who appreciate it no longer have it to enjoy.