As the premier stock car racing series in the United States, the Sprint Cup Series is made up of thirty-seven events, hosted at twenty-eight venues located throughout North America. The series offers a mix of racetracks ranging from large facilities such as the Daytona International Speedway (2.5 miles), to tight turning “bullrings” similar to Lucas Oil Raceway Park (0.686 miles), located in Indianapolis.
Although some assert that “an oval is an oval,” each venue’s length, configuration and surface harbors its own level of difficulty, and even the best drivers face additional challenges each weekend, simply because the venue itself creates problems that they cannot control. As a result, The Adrenalist took a hard look at some of the more difficult venues in NASCAR, in order to attempt to articulate why particular racetracks and corners are so troublesome.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) – Indianapolis Indiana – Turn 1
The venerable venue at Indy is marked by a narrow, nearly-flat rectangular shape that produces blazing speed down each of two long straights, connected by four ninety-degree corners, and two “short-chutes.” In 1909, when the track was laid out, the racetrack was entirely capable of handling Ray Harroun’s winning 500 mile race average of 74.602 mph. But, over the ensuing decades the configuration became more and more difficult to deal with as the cars got faster. This realization became particularly obvious once stock cars came to the speedway in 1984 since, to quote Harry Hogge in Days Of Thunder, “…in NASCAR the tires are half as wide, and the cars weigh twice as much,” while at the same time producing power enough to run 200 mph in a straight line.
Each of IMS’ four corners are difficult enough, but among them, Turn 1 is considered to be the most daunting for drivers since the front-straight is essentially a narrow alley running between the outside wall on the right, and the pit wall on the left. Along with these unmovable concerns, Turn 1′s sight lines are cluttered by the main stands causing a number of drivers to remark that setting up for the turn, is like trying to thread a needle while worrying about the potential of hitting the corner’s wall head on.
Lucas Oil Raceway Park (LORP) – Indianapolis Indiana – Turns 1 – 4
Across town, and at the other end of the size spectrum, LORP is just over half-mile around, and the little racetrack basically offers nothing more than one long turn. The venue does suggest two reasonably wide straights, however, they are so short that a driver feels like he’s constantly turning or setting up to turn. And this sense is further complicated by the fact that each corner narrows considerably at the apex. The result is that, if a driver is not positioned correctly, or his car is not handing well, he can easily be blocked on the inside of the corner, or pushed up into the outside wall, causing an early and painful trip home.
According to Aric Almirola, “LORP is one of the most technical racetracks we run on, and you have to have the right setup to get a good lap there, even though its a short one. All of the corners are the same on paper, but they don’t behave the same once you’re in the racecar. The difference between having a good or bad night is a matter of having a good car setup, and enough confidence to throw the car into the corner and hope it stick.”
Infineon Raceway – Sonoma California – Turns 7/7a
There are two natural-terrain road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule; Watkins Glen International in upstate New York, and Infineon Raceway in the Sonoma/Sears Point region of Northern California. Both racetracks offer great fan experiences and significant challenges for Cup drivers. In the end, however, for sheer speed and technical difficulty, Infineon wins hands down.
Among the 12 turns that comprise the 2.52 mile racetrack, the Turn 7/7a combo stands out as one of the toughest corners to negotiate quickly and safely. Leaving Turn 6, the cars accelerate downhill while trying to straighten the Turn 7 left-right portion of the complex by running across the rumble strips, and into the track’s left-side overrun area. If done efficiently, this move allows drivers to setup for 7a’s hard-braking area, just before turning right into the decreasing radius of the corner.
The combo typically creates mayhem, however, as forty-three drivers look for running room after first accelerating, shifting down, braking hard, shifting up then turning into the corner. As a result, Sonoma is considered to be one of the most intense corners in Cup, and for obvious reasons.
Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) – Fort Worth, Texas – Quad Straightaway
This high-speed, 1.5 mile, quad-oval started out as a lump of coal and ended up being a diamond. Early in its history the racetrack was heavily criticized for its lack of running room, and recurrent facility problems. But after a series of year-over-year changes, Texas suddenly became a premier mid-length venue, able to produce world-class performances every time NASCAR hit the pavement.
Because of its quad-configuration, however, the venue is perceived to narrow significantly at one of the fastest parts on the racetrack, and drivers have to deliver a degree of caution throughout the corner, even though competitors are still running 180 plus mph. So, if you want high speed and close encounters of the motorsports kind, check Texas out next the Sprint Cup guys run at Fort Worth.
Pocono Raceway – Long Pond, Pennsylvania – Turn 3
Pocono is one of the longest, and most difficult racetracks on the Sprint Cup schedule. The venue is configured as a long triangle that offers two very long straightaways, along with one shorter segment connected by three banked acute corners. This means that although the track provides for high-speed, cars need to offer good-handling and this hybrid need creates a series of challenges for the driver.
Of the venue’s corners, Turn 3, or the “Tunnel Turn,” is considered to be the most difficult of the three, since this corner runs over an access tunnel that allows infield participants to cross under the track in order to move about on the outside of the racetrack. As a result, over the years the “Tunnel Turn” has become a synonymous with failed performances and at one time or the other nearly every major driver personality has ended up against the wall there.