With NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying that “everything is in play” in regards to the sport’s future combined with the successful debut of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval this past weekend, now is the time to think bigger.
Along with the notion of midweek races, doubleheaders and a race on a dirt track for Cup, the thought of a street course race shouldn’t be too far-fetched.
The Roval, as close to a street course as any road course with its walls and minimal run-off space, showed that NASCAR drivers and cars could handle running on a tight circuit. And do it two-wide and even three-wide in at times.
Now, the sport should look to take that racing to the people and compete on the streets of a city.
“I think if somebody wanted to do that and put that on, it would be very interesting,” said car owner Roger Penske, who brought the Detroit Grand Prix to the streets of Belle Isle.
Justin Marks, a road racer who competed in this weekend’s Xfinity and Cup races at the Roval, is all for a NASCAR street course event because of what it could mean to the sport.
“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.
“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”
Marks admitted there would be challenges to do a Cup street race but “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.
Former IndyCar driver Alex Tagliani, who has run select Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series along with competing full-time in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series, said Toronto could be a good place for NASCAR to run. IndyCar runs on a street circuit there.
“I would not give up (on) a track like this because it would be tough to reproduce the atmosphere, the event downtown, the feeling,” Tagliani said. “I think it’s worth to have an event like this in our country.”
The challenges or racing on a street course, though, wouldn’t be only for teams and competitors.
Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., and the creator of the Roval for Charlotte, raises questions about a street race.
“For a driver, it’s not really a problem, but hosting the race is a big problem with street courses, they’re incredibly expensive to put on,” Smith said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “They’re temporary so you have no benefit to amortize expense over the years.
“Street courses just tend to fail. I’m not a fan of street courses for that purpose. It’s interesting, but they’re just incredibly expensive and bad business models. Things that are good for NASCAR overall need to also be good for the business of the sport.”
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The Detroit Grand Prix and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which oversees Belle Isle, reached an agreement in August to continue the event there for three more years. The deal includes an option to extend the length two more years.
As part of the agreement, the Grand Prix will increase its annual total contribution to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for hosting the event on Belle Isle from $200,000 to $450,000 each year.
Among the series, the Grand Prix hosts are the IndyCar Series and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series.
Now could be a good time to consider at a street course option. NASCAR is looking to revamp its schedule beginning with the 2021 season. NASCAR’s five-year contracts with tracks expire after the 2020 season.
“There are a lot of things in play,” Phelps said. “We would rule out nothing at this particular point. We need to make sure that we have all the input, all the information necessary to make an informed decision that will allow us to get to what that 2020 schedule will look like.”
Jimmie Johnson was two turns from advancing to the second round of the playoffs. He was safe, running second and needed only to finish to keep his hopes alive for a record eighth Cup championship.
Instead, Johnson went for the win, locked his brakes, spun and took out leader Martin Truex Jr., allowing Ryan Blaney to win.
Johnson crossed the line eighth to finish in a three-way tie for the final two transfer positions. Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola grabbed those spots over Johnson because they each had a better finish than him in the first round.
Johnson’s title hopes are over.
But he made the right decision to go for the win.
A seven-time champion who was on a 51-race winless drought showed how much winning means to him when he risked it all to be victorious. This isn’t an aging athlete mailing it in.
Frankly, Johnson would have made the playoffs had Jeffrey Earnhardt not spun after contact from Daniel Hemric and stalled less than 100 yards from the finish. With Earnhardt unable to cross the line, Larson chugged by after blowing a tire and hitting the wall twice in the final third of a mile to gain the spot — and the extra point that forged the three-way tie with Johnson and Almirola.
Yes, Johnson was greedy. Yes, it would have been easier to back off but what if he had finished second?
Just as no one could have imagined Larson, driving a battered and broken vehicle, would pass a car stopped so close to the finish line to knock Johnson out of the playoff, who is to say Johnson might not have needed those playoff points with a win to get to the third round?
While it’s easy to say Jimmie Johnson’s move at the end of the Roval cost him a chance to advance in the playoffs but he had opportunities to get that one extra point throughout the playoffs and couldn’t.
Looking back at the end of the first two stages at Las Vegas and Richmond, one can see the opportunities lost earlier in the first round.
At Las Vegas, Johnson scored no points in the first stage. In the second stage, he was sixth with five laps to go. He gained two spots, collecting two additional points.
But at Richmond, he was 11th with eight laps left in the first stage and could not get into the top 10 to score any points. In the second stage, he was eighth with eight laps to go and couldn’t gain another spot.
Meanwhile, Larson found himself in a desperate situation at the end of the Roval race because of what happened in the first two stages at Las Vegas and Richmond.
The biggest blow to Larson was that 10 laps from the end of stage 1 at Las Vegas, he had to give up third place and pit for a right front tire issue. Had he finished third in that segment, he would have had eight more points and would not have been in a three-way tie for the final two transfer spots.
Aric Almirola can look back at a move at Las Vegas with helping create that tie after the Roval race. Almirola was 10th with five laps to go in the first stage. He passed Clint Bowyer before the end to finish the stage ninth and gain an extra point. If Almirola doesn’t get that spot, he’s not tied with Johnson and is eliminated.
Every point matters.
Saturday’s Xfinity race lasted 1 hour, 32 minutes, 35 seconds. It was the shortest Xfinity race on a road course since June 1991 at Watkins Glen. That race lasted 1 hour, 36 minutes, 5 seconds.
Excluding the Dash4Cash races that had been shortened when those were paired with heat races, last weekend’s event was the shortest Xfinity race since Darlington in September 2015. That race lasted 1 hour, 25 minutes, 14 seconds.
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said that the sanctioning body would increase the number of laps for the race next year. It was 55 laps this year.
The question is what should be the proper length of a race? The Xfinity Series has had one race last three hours (season opener at Daytona) and seven races last more than 2 hours, 20 minutes. The series has had five races (other than the Roval) last less than two hours. The shortest race had been Michigan (1 hour, 45 minutes) before the Roval.
So what should be the proper length of a race? Does it matter if a race lasts barely 90 minutes?