Road courses offer new challenges

Jeff Gordon
Watkins Glen challenges teams and drivers.
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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.


Brad Keselowski’s wreck last week while testing his NASCAR Sprint Cup car at Road Atlanta should be a reminder to people of all the elements a driver faces when it comes to road-course racing.

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Keselowski's back in charge after JJ's setback. NASCAR Power Rankings

Think about the speed they are carrying at the end of the straightaway. Think about the braking and the deceleration they must do to get down to a much slower speed to make the turns.

A good example of that would be the Infineon Raceway road course in Sonoma, Calif. Coming down the backside there is probably one of the fastest spots on the track. We’ve been seeing speeds of 130-140 mph. The drivers are then braking and down-shifting for that last hairpin corner to get to speeds of only 30-35 mph.

The other difference from the oval tracks is that road courses don’t have any banking. Now, sure, they have elevation changes, but there is really no banking at our road courses.

This weekend is the road-course race at Watkins Glen International.

Now, there they go off into Turn 1 to a dead 90-degree, right-hand corner and then at the end of the backstretch, going into what we call the Bus Stop or inner loop, the speeds they are carrying are incredible. Then they have to do heavy braking and deceleration to make it work. It takes some of the finest talent in our sport to do that.

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I have been to Road Atlanta a lot during my career. I have spent many a day there testing. Obviously, it is a lot closer to go there than to try and test at Sonoma or Watkins Glen. It just seemed like a good place to test and get acclimated. These days, NASCAR teams cannot test at the sanctioned tracks.

Now, the good news with road courses like Sonoma and Watkins Glen is that a lot of time and money has been invested in making the tracks as safe as possible. With the speeds these cars are carrying into the corners, it is still very dangerous. There are more gravel pits and runoff areas now than ever before to make it safer for the drivers.

When it comes to road-course racing, both the driver and the team face many challenges. If you get a chance to see an in-car camera on just one lap at Watkins Glen this weekend, I think you will be amazed how busy these drivers are. They are turning both left and right. They are having to do heavy braking and deceleration to get into a number of corners. They are up-shifting and down-shifting. They actually are shifting about 10-12 times a lap.

Also don’t forget that Watkins Glen is a very narrow racetrack — just getting two wide can get pretty treacherous at some spots. Watkins Glen doesn’t have the elevation changes that Sonoma has. What it does have is the speed. Some of the heaviest braking pressure that has been recorded comes at Watkins Glen.

Obviously when you make it to the very top and are a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, you have a lot of talent. But the drivers who have the road course-racing experience can make more of a difference than the others who don’t have as much experience.

Over the course of my career, I was fortunate to work with Ricky Rudd, Ernie Irvan and Dale Earnhardt. All three were great road-course racers. If you could even get the car close to what they needed, they would make up the difference with their God-given talent.

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