It’s hard for some of NASCAR’s drivers to describe the way a road course sounds. But they can tell you for sure it isn’t the same as your common oval course.
“In a place like Michigan, you leave pit lane, and you get up to top gear and you’re holding these big RPMs the whole way around,” says Marcos Ambrose, a two-time winner of the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, a road course, including this past Sunday's Finger Lakes 355. "The engine runs at 9200 to 9600 RPMs, and it’s just a constant drone. If you lift off the gas, it sounds like a deflating balloon. You can’t get the speed back.”
There is only one straightaway at Watkins Glen, an 11-turn course in New York, that might be long enough for the cars to rev that high in fourth gear. Otherwise, drivers rely more on car handling and gearshifts than sheer speed. While a driver might fear not having enough top-end speed on an oval, on a road course the worry is entering a turn without enough power.
Ambrose, who won the pole in June at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (the only other road course of the season) in Sonoma, Calif., says road racing is totally different from oval racing -- which could be why some drivers seem to just cross their fingers and hope they don’t get lapped.
“Sonoma is all about off-throttle,” he says. “You’re hardly ever on the gas hard. You’re banging off curbs, locking up tires, screeching as you go through turns. There is a different sensation behind the wheel, and the sounds are different.”
The tracks also give drivers and crew chiefs a chance to figure out who really knows how to change gears and use the clutch. Long straightaways leading up to tight turns, like those in a road course, challenge drivers to downshift quickly.
“When somebody gets off sequence, you can really tell what they’re doing strategy-wise,” says Darian Grubb, crew chief for Denny Hamlin and chief for Tony Stewart’s Watkins Glen win in 2009. “If someone pits early and is on the track alone, or if they’re not a good road-course driver, we make fun of them downshifting if they mess up.”
Road courses remain a mystery for much of the Sprint Cup field. Since 1997, more than half of the races at Watkins Glen have been won by either Stewart (five times) or Jeff Gordon (four). And Ambrose has won the past two years.
Successful drivers may make their money winning on the big ovals like Daytona and Talladega, but road courses burnish credentials. “When you’re sitting on pit row, it’s like a driver check,” says Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Joey Logano. “You’re listening to them come by, and if they make a mistake, it stands out like a sore thumb.”