Racetrack vacation

Kay Bell | June 01, 2012

View from the Grandstands

Three tracks dedicated gearheads must visit at least once

By Kay Bell

Any trip to a race is a good thing. Even better is a trip to a great racetrack.

NASCAR and its track owners have tried to homogenize their venues, in large part because all those D-ovals are more attractive to more types of racing and offer more seats to sell. However, there are a few distinctive tracks that true NASCAR fans should visit at least once.

Bristol Motor Speedway

Let’s get this out of the way from the get-go: Everybody wants to see Daytona, Talladega and Indianapolis, so those aren’t even under consideration here.

Of the remaining tracks, I have three favorites. I didn’t take into account ancillary amenities such as famous food. Sorry, Martinsville hot dog fans. Neither did I consider nonracing attractions, such as the tent city outside Texas Motor Speedway or the interactive racing and shopping experiences at Richmond.

Instead, I chose three tracks that are as important to race outcomes as are the drivers, pit crews and vehicles. They are must-visits for race purists, the fans who want to experience the tracks that offer the flat-out best racing.

Bristol Motor Speedway: Billed as the world’s fastest half-mile, it’s almost as famous for the noise it generates in Thunder Valley, especially in the late-summer night race. Some complain that the 2007 resurfacing smoothed the track too much, taking away some of the chaos of drivers playing bumper cars on the 36-degree banking.

On the other hand, the tiny Tennessee track now allows for multiple grooves, meaning cars can run side-by-side, much of the time under long green flags not heretofore seen. There’s still plenty of excitement in these short-track duels, but owner Bruton Smith says he’s going to try to recapture the old rough-and-tumble style of racing. I hope he can find a perfect balance, because Bristol is a gem that deserves to shine.

Pocono Raceway: This rural Pennsylvania track is one of a kind. This true tri-oval combines oval and road-course elements, forcing drivers to maneuver three dramatic corners and then allowing them room to fan out on two long straightaways. Drivers must master shifting to succeed at Pocono, as well as avoid the wild animals that are regular track visitors — races have been delayed so track staff could catch deer, and a groundhog intent on crossing the road once marred a qualifying effort.

When the critters are cleared and the green flag flies, Pocono’s triangular shape makes the car setup and the crew’s ability to make chassis adjustments more crucial than at many other tracks. Drivers either love or hate Pocono. I’ve never been conflicted. It is definitely one of my favorites.

Darlington: This track is a return to NASCAR’s roots and one of the sport’s legendary loops. Where to begin? How about its construction? The 1.25-mile speedway in what once was South Carolina cotton and peanut fields was supposed to be an oval, but the landowner didn’t want his minnow pond disturbed. So he narrowed the west end of the track, giving it that unique egg shape.

Its design is part of the reason Darlington is known as the “track too tough to tame.” Every driver has left a Darlington stripe — or two, or more — of tire rubber on its walls, soon turning them black and leading to the track’s other nickname, “the Lady in Black.”

Not only is the track a challenge, it represents some of NASCAR’s most enduring history. For many years, Darlington’s Southern 500 was the fourth of the series’ crown jewel races — and the track was the location for both legend Bill Elliott and legend-to-be Jeff Gordon’s capturing the $1 million grand slam prize of years gone by.

The Southern 500 used to be run on Labor Day weekend. And even though NASCAR has sacrificed that tradition, Darlington is worth a visit any time of the year to get a feel for old-school NASCAR.

“You never forget your first love, whether it’s a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog or a fickle racetrack in South Carolina with a contrary disposition,” said Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Hey, I’m not going to argue with a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion; are you? Go to Darlington and experience the real NASCAR spirit yourself.

Track itinerary: The Darlington date for the 2011 Sprint Cup season has passed; the race was run in May. But you have plenty of time to arrange an early summer 2013 visit to the Lady in Black.

You still can make this year’s races at my two other favorite tracks. Pocono gets two races a year. You’ll have to act fast to catch the June 10 race, or you can wait for the second one on Aug. 5. And the track lights will shine on Bristol Aug. 25. Have fun!

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she writes about financial topics and blogs about taxes at Don’t Mess With Taxes (www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com).

 

LOOSE LUGNUTS

| Rubens, the rookie | After starring in Formula 1 for almost two decades, Rubens Barrichello wasn’t listed as a rookie when he migrated to the IndyCar Series this year. But race officials have agreed to let the Brazilian veteran enjoy some of the benefits afforded first-year drivers for the rest of the season. Specifically, Barrichello, who drives for KV Racing, now can run in the first 30 minutes of the Friday morning practice sessions, and he gets an extra set of tires. Rookies generally get the extra practice and tires to help them become more acclimated to the tracks they’re seeing for the first time, especially the street courses.

Barrichello should have been classified as a rookie at the outset, and I applaud IndyCar for correcting this mistake. He’s quickly proving that he’s as good as almost anyone in the series, and it’s only fair that he gets the same shot as any other first-timer to learn the circuits.

| Who’s your caddie? | Denny Hamlin served as PGA Tour player Bubba Watson’s guest caddie during the annual Par 3 Contest at famed Augusta National the day before the start of the Masters Tournament. Hamlin and Watson have become good buddies, and their shared interest in golf is enhanced by the fact that both play left-handed. Hamlin, in fact, spent much of last winter in the Phoenix area, where Watson lives, and is said to have greatly improved his golf game by hanging around with the self-taught Watson.

| The wing’s the thing | I’m more eager than usual for the 24 Hours of LeMans this month for one reason: the competition debut of the Nissan DeltaWing. This radical new endurance racer is half-IndyCar, half-stealth-fighter, and the best description I’ve heard is that it looks like a sibling of the Michael Keaton-era Batmobile.

The car carries only a 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine, and will make only about 300 horsepower. But fully fueled and with a driver, it weighs only about 1,300 pounds, half the weight of a conventional LeMans racer. It has half the aerodynamic drag as well. Nissan is providing the car’s engine, which was created and built by an all-star team that includes designer Ben Bowlby, American LeMans founder Don Panoz, the legendary Dan Gurney and Highcroft Racing. The DeltaWing won’t win at LeMans, but its advances in design, weight and fuel consumption put it on the leading edge of racing’s next generation.

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