Historically, NASCAR primarily raced ovals, with only a couple of road course visits annually. However, in recent years, NASCAR has sprinkled more venues with both left- and right-hand turns on its schedules.
In 2018, Charlotte Motor Speedway switched its NASCAR Cup Series fall race from the oval to the “Roval,” a road course within the confines of the 1.5-mile speedway. The NASCAR Xfinity Series now races on five road courses — Charlotte Motor Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Road America, and Watkins Glen International.
For 2021, the NASCAR Cup Series’ season-opening exhibition race, the Busch Clash, will be held on the road course of Daytona International Speedway.
With all this interest in road racing at the pinnacle of the oval-track world, does it represent what the weekend-warrior racers feel? Possibly. At a NASA Southeast Region event in the heart of NASCAR country, Carolina Motorsports Park, in Kershaw, South Carolina, we asked three people with deep short-track roots for their perspective on why road racing appeals to them.
A Challenge in Every Turn
We spotted Roger Spittle racing a late model stock car in the NASA Super Unlimited class at Carolina Motorsports Park. It reflects his background, where he ran those types of vehicles on paved ovals, primarily at Tri-County Motor Speedway in Hudson, North Carolina.
“We had went racing [ovals] with [the car], with a kid I knew,” said Spittle, 61, of Charlotte, North Carolina. “We tore the car up a bunch — that didn’t work out. I said, ‘Well, I got this car, but I don’t want to go back circle-track racing because, to be competitive, you got to spend a wad of money.’ I decided to change some geometry and make it turn left and right.”
Spittle found road racing quenched his thirst for speed and competition, with a completely new flavor unfamiliar to his palate.
“What’s really enjoyable is the challenge … to put a good lap together,” Spittle said. “With road courses, it’s hard to get a rhythm and have a good lap every lap. Once you [put down a good lap], or get close to doing that, you feel accomplished.”
That challenge can drive one mad, according to Spittle. But, he tries to keep things in perspective.
“If you get to the point where you start being critical of every corner, that can take the joy away,” said Spittle. “You have to not be a perfectionist. You work at putting [as many good corners] together as possible to get the best time. You can still be fast and not be perfect.”
Spittle now races in the Spec Iron class, where he finds the cars require much less maintenance than his late model stock car. Plus, he enjoys mixing it up with other drivers who like to battle door-to-door.
“We have at least ten cars show up every month we race,” said Spittle. “There’s some real racing going on. It’s not a bunch of namby-pambies.”
Looking for a Good Time
Pete Johns cut his teeth racing the wild outlaw late models on the paved ovals of his native Michigan. He got his first taste of road racing while living in the Great Lakes State at Grattan Raceway in Belding.
“There was an event that had [oval-track] street stocks running on the road course,” said Johns, 51, now of Concord, North Carolina. “I went over, watched, and talked my way into driving a car. I thought, ‘This is kind of fun.’ But, it wasn’t on my radar then, to say ‘I want to go road racing.’”
Johns moved to North Carolina in 1994 to chase the dream of racing late models for a living. Unfortunately, that dream did not materialize.
“[I was] a pauper racing against millionaires,” Johns said. “My talent wasn’t enough to get people behind me with money. It had left a sour taste in my mouth.”
Johns found a job at Hendrick Motorsports in 1996, where he continues to work as a machinist. He took a brief break, and then raced shifter karts for a few years. At his buddy’s urging, he tried road racing in 2004 with a heavily modified 1986 Trans Am. From there, he was hooked. Now he races along with Spittle in the Spec Iron class. Johns enjoys the comradery of road racing.
“I go for the party, and a race breaks out,” said Johns jokingly. “With the NASA group, everybody’s there to have a good time. There is good, hard racing, but it’s different [than oval-track racing] in that the individuals are there to have fun. They’re not there looking for the next steppingstone [to a higher level of motorsport]. So, generally, you don’t get run over by somebody making a big mistake because they’re thinking they’re going to be the next superstar driver.”
A Good Neighborhood to Raise a Racing Kid
Jason Crouse helps with the Spec Miata that his 15-year-old son Aiden Baker Crouse races. The elder Crouse grew up racing stock cars, from late models to super trucks, on ovals in the Tar Heel State. His involvement in oval-track racing extends to his day job, where he works as an aerodynamic engineer in NASCAR. While his life revolves around circle tracks, his son was much more interested in road racing. Crouse supported his son’s interests.
“It’s no different than if [my son] wanted to be a basketball or baseball player,” said Crouse, 41, of Vale, North Carolina. “I didn’t think much about it. As a father, I wanted to do what he wanted to do.”
Crouse found that NASA provided an excellent environment for his son to get started racing full-size cars.
“There are no bump-and-runs or rooting people out of the way, like [you see] in circle-track racing,” Crouse said. “It’s more of a gentlemen’s type of racing. You can’t drive into the last corner of a race, hit somebody in the back bumper, knock them out of the groove, pass them, and expect to keep the win. In circle-track racing, you can do that, and it’s the norm.”
That gentleman-like, on-track environment carries over to the paddock.
“With NASA Southeast, everybody gets along well,” said Crouse. “They look out for each other. Some of the [oval-track] stuff can be a bit cutthroat. It was welcoming when we first went into NASA Southeast. [They] mentored Aiden, and tried to help him with advice. To bring a kid up in this atmosphere, it’s really nice.”
The sport of auto racing offers many different types of motorsport. This ensures nearly anyone with a desire to go fast and compete in a powered vehicle can find a segment that fits their personality, interests, and lifestyle. While many racers love participating at the 800-plus oval tracks in the U.S., those who venture beyond their typical circles may find a new joy by trying a different form of the sport, such as our aforementioned trio of subjects did with road racing. Sometimes, you just have to step outside of your comfort zone to find your real passion.