All The Dirt On NASCAR's New Schedule
By Bob Pockrass
NASCAR officials have pledged to shake up the Cup Series schedule for years. And for 2021, they have fulfilled that and then some.
In a series of moves that have some applauding and some wondering why, the 2021 Cup Series schedule announced Wednesday has an incredible amount of intrigue.
The major changes:
● New facilities: Circuit of the Americas (COTA), Road America and Nashville Superspeedway
● The Bristol Motor Speedway spring race will be conducted with the facility converted into a dirt track (dirt on top of the current concrete)
● The Indianapolis Motor Speedway race moves from oval to road course
● Tracks off the schedule: Chicagoland Speedway, Kentucky Speedway
● Tracks getting a second race: Darlington Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway
● Tracks losing a points race: Michigan International Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Dover International Speedway
● The All-Star Race moves from Charlotte Motor Speedway to Texas Motor Speedway
So why? Let’s break it down.
Six road courses
NASCAR will add the road courses of COTA in Austin, Texas, and Road America in Wisconsin, as well as at IMS, to give the regular season five road courses along with current stops at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. The Charlotte road course remains the only road course in the playoffs.
"We better start building some road-course cars, huh?" Team Penske driver Joey Logano said. "It’s obviously changed the game. That’s just an answer to the fans. ... The majority of them love it. Our cars just work on them."
NASCAR feels some of the racing with the most action occurs on road courses, that its fans want more road courses and feels this will spice things up. Austin is a solid market, and the Wisconsin fan base is known as one of the most rabid.
The race at COTA comes from Speedway Motorsports, which will lease the track and therefore doesn’t lose any of the television money and ticket revenue it would get from losing an event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It also makes the company eligible for three major event funding incentives from the state.
Road America, a 4.048-mile road course, is scenic and one of the most iconic in the nation. That could be a challenge with NASCAR’s stage system as the stage breaks will probably last at least 10 minutes. It replaces Chicagoland in the Midwest market and will get the July 4 holiday weekend.
Road America had had some recent strong Xfinity races, and with road racing top-of-mind for NASCAR, this was a natural fit. There will be some investment into the facility as far as some runoff areas and barriers that will be upgraded for a Cup race.
It is an hour from Milwaukee and a few hours from Chicago. The Road America management has an agreement with NASCAR for the date (it didn’t purchase the date), but Road America is the promoter and selling the tickets.
"Chicago has been a great market for us over the years," said RA GM Mike Kertscher. "We hope that some of these Chicago fans that maybe haven’t had the opportunity to visit us will consider the trek up because it’s an easy drive and it’s a wonderful venue to experience a top-tier motorsports event."
And why the IMS road course? This one will spark a lot of debate – many drivers indicated in July that they wish this race would remain on the oval. The race will be part of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader with the IndyCar race Aug. 14 and the Cup race Aug. 15.
The one thing six road course races could do is possibly encourage someone to do that entire portion of the schedule.
"Road-course racing for a part-time car number, driver is probably the most competitive style of racing I could compete in," said seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who plans to do the IndyCar road courses next year. "I’ve not had any conversations and don’t know where this will go.
"Now seeing the schedule this morning and understanding where they’re racing, there definitely are some interesting tracks that I’ll look to participate on."
Why close Chicagoland? That track has always fought a battle of location in Joliet, not the easiest place to get to. And no matter when it was on the schedule – it opened the playoffs for several years – it never got the traction in the Chicago market as NASCAR had hoped.
NASCAR was hoping to sell part of its parking lot area for warehouses to be built, but the Joliet Plan Commission recently recommended that the area not be rezoned to allow warehouses. The Joliet City Council has not yet voted on the proposal.
So why not cut Kansas from two races to one? When NASCAR applied to the state for casino rights, it pledged to have two Cup weekends at the track. Whether it is still bound to that pledge is murky, but that area has been built up with an MLS stadium and several restaurants. The area around Chicagoland? All industrial.
NASCAR sent letters to fans of both Chicagoland and Michigan with nearly the same wording.
"The move away from NASCAR racing at Chicagoland Speedway is one of many changes reflected in the 2021 schedule, and by no means a reflection of the support our fans have demonstrated," Chicagoland Speedway President Steve Paddock said in his letter to fans.
"Rather, it is a desire and an important step for the industry to incorporate new markets and new courses into the schedule and expand the variety of competition."
NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said NASCAR wanted to get back to having two dates at some of its more traditional markets such as Darlington and Atlanta.
"It’s a balance — you look at some of the things we were criticized for in the past probably somewhat fairly in terms of going away from our roots, … it was important for us to introduce new markets but also embrace what got us to where we are," O’Donnell said.
Closing Kentucky, Adding Atlanta
That one is more of a head-scratcher considering Speedway Motorsports has put in more than $100 million over the last decade to purchase the track and for improvements and it does serve a deserving market of Lexington-Louisville-Cincinnati. But with just one weekend of NASCAR racing and similar tracks all around, maybe Speedway Motorsports felt that having a facility with one race wasn’t enough for investment.
Instead, it moves the race to the track that lost a race when SM bought Kentucky after the 2008 season and moved a Cup race from Atlanta to Kentucky in 2011.
Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith said Atlanta will need a repave soon and if the company wants to do anything innovative and expensive, having two races there would make economic sense.
"The movement with Kentucky was one that we felt like it was the right business decision," Smith said.
"It was a hard decision for sure. ... Eventually it is going to have to be repaved, and when we do that, we’re going to want to do it in a way that is extra special, so with that, having two races there will help us justify doing something spectacular."
Company officials are attempting to build out the Atlanta area of the track with a casino and entertainment complex. A second race there potentially could boost those hopes.
"It certainly cannot hurt," Atlanta Motor Speedway GM Brandon Hutchinson said. "The state of Georgia, the local community has been very, very supportive of our initiative to this point.
"Unfortunately, it didn’t go to vote on the floor this year but we’re already gearing up and speaking to our representatives and state senators to try to go at it for next year to get it on the ballot for 2022."
Dirt at Bristol
Bristol tried this in 2000 and 2001 with sprint cars and late models. If it was a rousing success, it would have been done more. The sprint cars were incredibly fast (too fast?) and track preparation was tough when it rained.
But maybe NASCAR and track officials have learned from that experience. It will be interesting to see what the banking is for the race – depending on the amount of dirt, they could alter the banking. The banking was 24 degrees for the dirt races, and BMS President Jerry Caldwell said it is to be determined whether it will be the same for the March 28 race.
Caldwell says some of the same people who worked on the track 20 years ago will be involved and they should be able to improve the surface. He said this comes from feedback to fans to NASCAR to want dirt races.
"Any time you step out, there’s going to be a bit of risk with anything," Caldwell said. "With this, the roots of our sport are dirt racing.
"We have hosted dirt races here before – it is kind of a natural progression into a modern NASCAR of trying things. .... This comes from feedback from fans. They’ve asked for this [a dirt race] for years."
The key, Brad Keselowski said, will be the tire.
"If they’re going to bring a tire like they brought to the truck races, I would be very disappointed," Keselowski said. "If they bring a very high caliber quality dirt tire, I think it could be an amazing race."
Michigan losing race to Darlington
This one could be a little frustrating for those (like myself) who believe that NASCAR needed to race twice in Michigan with it being the home of Ford and Chevrolet. Losing a race there is a sign of a disconnect between NASCAR and those who build passenger cars.
"We’re still in Michigan, and if you ask our race fans where do they want to see the sport, they want to see us in as many tracks as possible where we can showcase the sport," O’Donnell said. "Unfortunately, we only have so many dates. So for us, we’re going to make that a terrific event in Michigan.
"Obviously our [manufacturer] partners, two of them are there, so it’s an important market for them. But in order for us to continue to expand the portfolio of NASCAR, these are some of the moves that we need to make. We think we’re making the right ones to iconic facilities."
Whether you want to blame NASCAR, track management or the auto industry, you probably would be right – the bottom line is the disconnect has happened and unfortunately people don’t believe it can be saved.
So why Darlington? Right now, Darlington appears as a racy track at 1.336 miles (rather than the 2-mile Michigan). It also could be a little bit of a reward for South Carolina agreeing to allow NASCAR to race there in mid-May when most states still didn’t want NASCAR to hold events. Michigan ticket sales have also weakened.
The other interesting piece about Darlington – it will run on Mother’s Day (May 9). Typically NASCAR has tried to avoid running on the holiday and instead run on Saturday night.