Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rookie Stripe: Veering Right - How is a road course race different?

Some people like to joke that NASCAR races are just one continuous left turn. Personally I have no problem with ceaseless counterclockwise action at lightning speeds, because I think keeping to the straight and narrow is pretty boring.

For those of us still in the rookie phase of learning NASCAR, it’s important to know that at most races on oval tracks, cars only turn left. No matter where in the country the track may be located, its length, layout or surface composition, at a standard oval track this protocol will be followed. For safety reasons it’s important in part because drivers sit on the left-hand side of the car, so left turns put them farther away from the outside barrier wall in case of a crash. Some drivers claim that the left sides of their necks and bodies are naturally stronger than the right sides because they spend hours and hours during a race ... turning left. In fact, in this Reddit interview Brad Keslowski called dominant left-side body strength "just natural."

At present, the NASCAR Sprint Cup season’s 36 races include two road course races: Sonoma Raceway (Sonoma, CA) and Watkins Glen International (Watkins Glen, NY), and these two tracks are notably different than the others. What sets an oval track and a road course apart really comes down to the configuration. Oval tracks can be any length, from the short track of Bristol to the 2.66 miles of Talladega Superspeedway, but they remain loyal to their egg-like shape. A paved road course doesn’t necessarily adhere to any particular shape, and may have both left and right turns.

Right turns? Right on. 

Road course circuits may also feature sudden corners, twisting angles or differing elevations. Most seasoned drivers have taken a spin or two around Sonoma and Watkins Glen, so they are fairly accustomed to the nuances of each track and over time learn to master them as best they can.

Credit: Amy K. Marbach (

I’ve said before that no two tracks are the same, and this fact holds true for the two NASCAR road courses. While reading about Sonoma Raceway I discovered that 3,000 sheep provided by Rocky Mountain Wooly Weeders help trim its grasses and fire lanes, and that tidbit might be enough to make it my new favorite track. 

Here are a few other fast facts about each of the NASCAR road courses:

Sonoma Raceway
  • The course is 2.53 miles in length with 160 feet of elevation changes, and the NASCAR race held there is 110 laps.
  • Drivers in the race will make 1,100 turns around the course.
  • The raceway is a Motorsports industrial park that is also the home of more than 65 businesses affiliated with racing.
  • Dale Earnhardt earned his one and only Sonoma victory in 1995.
    (Source and more facts: Sonoma Raceway)
Watkins Glen International Raceway
  • This track is located in upstate New York and has two basic configurations, one of which is a 2.45-mile short course used mostly for NASCAR.
  • Banking on the 11-turn track ranges from 6-10 degrees.
  • Also called “The Glen," the track hosted its first professional race in 1957: a NASCAR Grand National Stock Car race.
  • The Glen hosted Formula 1 racing from 1961-1980, but lost it during bankruptcy, and subsequently closed for three years, reopening in 1984.
    (Source and more facts: Watkins Glen International Raceway)
As a side note, no matter which way the track turns, drivers under the type of speed that rules NASCAR will experience about 3.2 times the force of Earth's gravity pulling on them in the corners, which is why they sometimes say they’re stronger on the left side of the body. Read more about the G-force phenomenon at How Stuff Works’ How Do You Calculate G-Forces?

So which is more challenging: the oval track or the road course? Clearly I have no personal experience driving either, and you’ll hear varying opinions from drivers, but this firsthand account from Bleacher Report calls them "different kinds" of challenges. 

If you’re still feeling a bit left-turn heavy, here are some other interesting links with more detailed information about road course racing: Top 10 Road Racers Who Left Their Mark on NASCAR NASCAR has long road course history The myth of the road course ringer


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