How many times have you heard someone describe a race track as having a unique ‘character’?
That’s one word that was used to in pre-race coverage to describe the Auto Club Speedway, venue for the last weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup festivities.
Since the Southern California track opened 17 years ago the same asphalt has been hammered by race cars, creating a washboard of bumps, especially down the back straight approaching turn three. These, along with the seams the paving process left between the lanes, have helped the track develop a ‘character’.
In many ways for a two mile oval some individuality is vital, and is even better when it’s something that manifests itself very physically for the fans watching at the track, or on TV. In a world in which non-NASCAR or non-Motorsports fans dismiss oval racing shots of a driver wrestling with the handling of his car over the bumps into a corner can only been a good thing.
Perhaps more important to Auto Club Speedway’s current appeal is the ability the beat up surface gives the drivers to take all manner of different lines through the corners, resulting in the sort of racing that is all too rare at many of the intermediate tracks visited in the modern era of NASCAR.
However, on Sunday’s race the character of the race track went too far.
Rather than lending another facet to the racing it became pretty much the only facet.
That happened a white before a near certain win was taken away from Jimmie Johnson when he became another of the day’s – but not the last of its – drivers to suffer a flat tyre.
In no particular order Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Harvick (again), Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Ambrose (also again) and Clint Bowyer were among those to suffer a flat tyre during the race. There were almost certainly others.
Of course every race in any series is likely to include a puncture or two, but the number of flat Goodyears that punctuated Sunday’s race was far, far too far outside of the margin of error to be dismissed as merely ‘racing’.
The tyre manufacturer laid the blame – in a sentiment that should be familiar to F1 fans – at the feet of teams and drivers for over aggressive set-ups.
The drivers, in turn, have blamed the combination of the extra downforce generated by the latest changes to the latest generation cars creating untenable forces on the tyres through the bumps.
It’s not for here to decide where responsibility falls, but put the opposing views together and you venture close to the ‘should top class drivers be made to drive short of the limit of their talents to accommodate the limitations of the tyres’ argument. That’s another sentiment that abounds in F1, and probably a subject for a later discussion in these columns.
With tyre failures coming regularly after about 20-25 laps of green flag racing at times the race wandered dangerously close to the level of debacle epitomised by 2008’s Brickyard 400, when competition cautions were used every ten laps to combat excessive tyre wear.
Arguably what saved the race from being remembered in the same bracket as that race was the same thing that almost consigned it to the fate.
The ‘character’ the track.
The drivers’ ability to take racing on the restart to four, five or even six wide was the silver lining to every yellow flag cloud and helped set-up a thrilling finish to the race.
Take away the bumps and you likely take away the six lane highway’s worth of usable lines through the corners. And Auto Club Speedway risks falling back into file with the less memorable tracks of the NASCAR circuit.