Road course racing about being ‘accurate’, ‘smooth’ and not breaking anything

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For the first time this season, the Cup Series will have to turn left and right this weekend.

The circuit heads to the West Coast, where the 12-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway awaits.

After 15 races on ovals of varying designs, drivers will have to brush up on skills they mastered in other racing disciplines or skills they’re just now developing.

“My focus when I go to road courses is to not wheel hop, not spin out, not break anything,” Kyle Larson told NBC Sports. “But I seem to always do those things when I go there.”

Larson has only one top-10 finish (fourth at Watkins Glen in 2014) in four starts at each track.

“I never had any road course experience growing up, you know?” Larson said. “All my stuff was on dirt tracks and ovals, which was totally opposite, but in a way, those stock cars on a road course feel more similar to a sprint car on a dirt track to me than anything. … I feel like at road courses I can kind of feel the car a little bit better. I always qualify well at them. I don’t really race great for whatever reason.”

How do drivers get themselves in the mindset to turn right for the first time in a season?

Thanks to limits on testing, teams can use simulators and road course schools to give their drivers a boost.

That helps drivers like Bubba Wallace, who will make his Sonoma debut this weekend, and Alex Bowman, who makes his first road course start of any kind in Cup since 2015.

“I want to do everything I possibly can,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “So simulator, road course school, whatever I can get my hands on to be better.”

Bowman’s start will also come in an appropriate car.

“I’m excited to go road racing in a Hendricks Motorsports car,” Bowman said. “It’s going to be different. Last time I went road racing (with Tommy Baldwin Racing) we raced a superspeedway car. So it should be quite a bit of fun. A little bit more fun than that was.”

Wallace last competed on a road course in 2016 in the Xfinity Series at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio.

“I think the simulator will do,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “The simulator is good for putting the corners together. It is so hard to translate speed from a simulator, but then when we go to the actual road course for driving school the cars aren’t the same, the speeds aren’t the same so that is kind of tough as well.”

Fellow rookie William Byron will also make his first Cup start on a road course. In his championship campaign last season in Xfinity, Byron had finishes of 10th (Watkins Glen), 25th (wreck at Mid-Ohio) and sixth (Road America).

“I think road courses, you just try to be as accurate as you can,” Byron told NBC Sports. “It’s obviously a different skill set than it takes for an oval. So you have to adapt, and kind of grow your style at those places, but you don’t get to do it a lot. So I think the biggest thing there is being able to get through the gears and downshifts and everything successfully.”

What about veteran drivers who have already experienced the twist and turns and elevation changes at Sonoma?

Daniel Suarez, who will make his second Sonoma start in Cup, relies on his experiences from racing go-karts.

“One of the main things for me to think about was to be smooth and slow to actually (being) fast on the clock,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “That’s something very important. Sometimes you want to rush everything and to try to make things happen very quick and that’s when the car can do many things at the same time so you have to be smooth, aggressive, but everything at the right time so you can make some speed.”
Suarez and Bowman will get a little more track time this weekend. In addition to Aric Almirola and Erik Jones, they are entered into the K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma. Suarez competed in the race last year.

After Sonoma, Cup will race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 5 and then it will hold its inaugural race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course on Sept. 30.

But three road courses isn’t enough for Wood Brothers Racing’s Paul Menard, who has one top five at Sonoma and an Xfinity win at Road America.

“I don’t think we have enough of them on our schedule,” Menard told NBC Sports. “The whole thing with road racing is you … have these braking zones and you have these points and you always try to push it to get a little bit more in a braking zone, try to get back to the gas sooner all the while trying to be smooth so you are not abusing your tires, your brakes, your transmission.

“It definitely puts it in the driver’s hands a little bit more which is cool for us.”