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Wednesday, April 27, 2011
NASCAR's hodgepodge is all we know

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

When Rusty Wallace signed on to design Iowa Speedway, his game plan was a breeze: "Build another Richmond," he advised the investors.

They came very close, with a 7/8-mile oval that gives drivers just a smidgen more room to roam than -mile Richmond International Raceway.

Kansas Speedway
If anything, the so-called "cookie-cutter" tracks like Kansas Speedway help us better appreciate such iconic venues as Richmond International Raceway.

Iowa still languishes without a Cup date (a mistake by NASCAR, if you ask me). So drivers on Saturday night will run what I call their Sara Lee track, borrowing from the jingle of an old TV commercial.

Everybody doesn't like some track. But nobody doesn't like Richmond.

It's the drivers' consensus ideal, featuring the closeness of short-track racing, but at higher speeds than on the bullrings, and with more room to maneuver than on their beloved Bristol (which they love even more with the new configuration, even though fans seem to hate it).

Even the France family seemed to see the light at one point. The proposed New York City track was projected as a copy of the Richmond layout, before vehement public resistance blew International Speedway Corp. right off Staten Island four years ago.

So let's play off the notion of the ideal track and consider what NASCAR might be like with uniform tracks, tourwide.

I once asked Bill France Sr., founder and then-iron ruler of NASCAR, how he would compare his job to that of then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

"His job is relatively easy," Big Bill replied without hesitation. "All his playing fields are the same dimensions."

There was a hint of envy in the voice. The tone of the old czar indicated some regret that NASCAR had grown up on a hodgepodge of track layouts -- from what was then Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway, a primitive, flat half-mile in those days, to Big Bill's constructed dream, the 2.66-mile giant at Talladega, Ala.

The layouts were so diverse that teams had to build specialized cars -- chassis setups, bodies and the way they were attached, gearing, braking systems -- and that complicated NASCAR's policing process.

It would be simpler, easier and most of all cheaper, the old man seemed to be thinking, if NASCAR ran standardized tracks.

So you wonder: Would NASCAR have grown from the boondocks to mainstream appeal if the tracks had been as uniform in configuration as every NFL playing field? Might it have grown faster? Or been a bust?

This is of course an enormous hypothetical, assuming the money could have been found to construct standardized tracks.

Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch, who's won the past two spring races at Richmond, probably would like all races run on the famous -mile RIR oval.

But what if Big Bill had developed NASCAR quickly, as he envisioned it at the outset? Even though he built Daytona and Talladega later on, he was wary of superspeedways in NASCAR's early years, fearing strain on engines -- and perhaps on the show.

He hesitated even to sanction the first race at 1.366-mile Darlington in 1950 but felt now-or-never pressure when other promoters began maneuvering toward the South Carolina marvel of its time. France's original thought was that NASCAR should stick to short tracks, other than of course the beach course at Daytona.

Let's say somehow he had come up with standardized tracks, built throughout the 1950s, replacing the converted horse tracks and the little bullrings one by one. Would it have worked?

The knee-jerk reaction from all of us -- drivers, crew chiefs, fans, media -- would be an overwhelming "No!"

By midway through the reign of the second czar, Bill France Jr., track diversity was accepted as, at the very least, a necessary evil.

By now, we think of the wide range of layouts as very much a part of NASCAR's charm. Going from ideal Richmond this week to primitive Darlington next week is a nice example.

The nearest things we do have to standardized tracks, the so-called "cookie-cutter" ovals, have left a terrible taste in the mouths of the masses.

There are 10 cookie cutters, now that yet another, Kentucky Speedway, is on the schedule. They host 14 of the 36 points races, including five of the 10 Chase races. Individual tastes rarely lump all of them together, but the broadest definition of "cookie cutters" includes the 1.5-mile tracks at Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte, Kansas, Kentucky, Atlanta, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami, plus the 2-milers at Michigan and Fontana, Calif.

The cookie cutters were built more for monetary than competitive reasons -- so that maximum numbers of seats, at maximum prices, could be built with direct sight lines toward the start-finish lines. (As if somebody assumed the finishes at such tracks would be close!)

The road courses on the schedule are there for the same reason Big Bill put the old Riverside, Calif., course on the schedule -- necessity to reach a market. Watkins Glen existed in New York state, and Sonoma in Northern California, when NASCAR was stymied in its efforts to build ovals in those markets.

Richmond was completely reconfigured in 1988 because the old track was too far behind the times to stay on the tour. The day they plowed it up, Bobby Allison, a seven-time winner there, was first to run the bulldozer, to lay the blade into the asphalt, because he disliked the old track so much -- Allison, mind you, the man so noted for his willingness to run anywhere, anytime.

But what if all other tracks had been brought to new standards, and a decision had been made that they must be uniform? This was, after all, the dawn of NASCAR's boom in popularity.

What might NASCAR be like if every track were a -mile oval like Richmond is now?

Car engineering and construction would be simpler, easier and vastly cheaper for teams. So we'd likely have more teams.

There'd be no need for special cars (and gimmicks) on road courses, or circumventing restrictor-plate requirements at big tracks, or special braking systems for the shortest tracks.

Since everything would be the same, everywhere, NASCAR's enforcement would be greatly simplified.

For fans and teams, configuration simply wouldn't be an issue -- any more than field configuration is an issue for Aaron Rodgers, who has mastered the 100-yard field regardless of location.

Fans would know what kind of racing to expect every Saturday night or Sunday. Who would dominate or falter? That would depend on who was running best at that time, period. There'd be no more issues of drivers who are weak on road courses, or strong at restrictor-plate racing, or strong on intermediate tracks.

By now you're howling "No, no, no, no!"

But I just wanted you to think about it, next time you wish for more Richmonds and fewer Poconos on the tour, or the addition of Iowa twice a year and the culling of a couple of cookie-cutter races.

NASCAR's hodgepodge is all we know. It's all we'll ever have. We've come to like it -- even the cookie cutters allow us to engage in NASCAR enthusiasts' real favorite pastime: complaining.

If it weren't for the cookie cutters, what would we have to compare Richmond to? Knowing us, you have to figure that if the racing were all good, everywhere, we'd bitch that it was all mediocre.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.