With two months until the NASCAR Cup Series‘ inaugural EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, a trio of series champions became the first to turn laps in a NASCAR-sanctioned session. On Tuesday, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski took part in a Goodyear tyre test at the 3.41-mile circuit.
Elliott was a no-brainer selection for the test; the reigning champion has dominated road courses in recent years which included a four-race win streak on such tracks. 2017 champ Truex has four road wins, while 2012 Cup winner Keselowski has never won on a road course but finished fifth in the Daytona RC event two weeks ago. The three each represented a different manufacturer.
Closed to the public, the session saw the three run the full 3.41-mile, 20-turn layout that is currently also used by Formula One. While the configuration remains the same for NASCAR, the track will make various safety changes to accommodate stock cars such as adding more caution lights and tyre barriers. The full course also previously saw NASCAR action in the form of demonstrations with Kurt Busch in 2013 and Tony Stewart in 2020.
Elliott praised the track as “fun” and having “a lot of character to it. I’ve never been here, never seen it in person before today and really haven’t watched a ton of races here, so it’s really been a pretty steep learning curve for me, trying to piece together all the different parts of the track and understand where you need to be good and how to make it flow. I’m trying to learn, but it’s been fun. I hope people will come out and give it a chance. It’s a different type of racing.”
Keselowski noted the presence of “key action spots” such as the sharp left-hand opening corner, which he remarked was “designed as though a fan said, ‘How can I have the most calamity in that corner on the start?’
“So there’s a couple of things: first off, it’s uphill, which helps the car stop, so it encourages the driver to try to out-brake another driver, which is big on a restart or a start because all of the cars are already so close together. Second thing is, it’s really wide on entry, so it’s almost impossible to block because there’s just a lot more racetrack. […] The third part is it’s a super slow corner meaning you have to use a lot of brakes to get through there. So, like I said, almost like it was intentional—I’m sure it was intentional—to create some epic starts. I think you’ll see that here.”
Truex compared COTA to fellow road courses Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International; he has won at both tracks in his career, including three victories at the former, also a windy course like Austin. To elaborate on his comment, he explained there were “some fast sections, some slow sections. It’s got the older asphalt, wearing tires out more like Sonoma, but it’s got the really high-speed straights and the really hard braking zone like Watkins Glen going down the backstretch. It’s a mix of both. It’s got a little bit of a blind corner, up-and-down elevation change like Sonoma.
“It’s a pretty unique place. […] It’s all about markers and points on the track and when you turn in and what gear you’re in and how much speed you’re carrying and finding the brake points and all those things. It takes over two minutes to get around here, so if you make a mistake, you’ve got to wait two minutes to correct it, and you can’t forget it when you come back around. It was interesting to do that and a lot of fun to do that.”
According to Keselowski, speeds reached as high as 185 miles per hour in the fastest sector before slowing down to 30 mph, which he remarked is “a heck of a ride.” The cars also used the 750-horsepower, low-downforce package, which NASCAR intends to mandate for the Grand Prix. The setup, which is popular among fans compared to the 550-hp, higher-downforce package, is being used for every road course race in 2021.
“Stock cars are quite honestly the worst-driving race vehicle there are. That’s part of what makes these races fun,” Keselowski commented. “The cars drive so god-awful bad that you have to really, really finesse them around the track and make something happen of them. That makes a lot of mistakes because you’re right on the limit and it’s very easy to make a mistake. And that generally makes for fun racing a lot.”
The Texas Grand Prix will take place on 23 May. The NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series will serve as support races during the weekend. The race is one of eight on the Cup schedule that will have practice and qualifying, though this did not stop Tyler Reddick from poking fun at the considerable road course successes of the tyre testers as he quipped on Twitter, “Yeah, let’s give some of the best drivers on road courses a head start over the rest of the field!”