NASCAR races on oval tracks for a variety of reasons. While many people believe that NASCAR’s oval tracks are all the same, this could not be further from the truth. But with so many other tracks available across the United States, you may wonder why NASCAR chooses to race on oval tracks.
The main reasons NASCAR races on oval tracks is because they want their fans to see the entire race without sacrificing the speed fans came to see, and it’s also partly tradition. This is why you see most NASCAR races occur on short to intermediate oval tracks, and fewer events on superspeedways.
Below, we will talk about whether NASCAR only races on oval tracks, or if they have branched out to road courses and even street races. We will also unveil how NASCAR races on a variety of ovals, and touch on how they all differ from one another.
NASCAR does not only race on oval tracks. In 2021 there were 6 road courses that are not defined as ovals. This increase in road courses is partly due to demand from fans to see the cars race on different types of tracks, but NASCAR still races on far more oval tracks than road courses.
History Of Ovals In NASCAR
Just one look at the NASCAR schedule shows you that the series races on oval tracks of all shapes and sizes. And if you look through NASCAR history books or archives, you get a similar revelation. Oval tracks have dominated NASCAR since the sport started.
Even the old Daytona Beach and Road Course was one giant rectangular oval. Most of the early races took place on ovals, or circles – the latter was the case of the Langhorne Speedway. Go through NASCAR’s history, early and recent, and a few things have changed regarding the tracks.
In those early days, NASCAR also often raced on short, dirt tracks. However, when they signed an agreement with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and rebranded as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 1971, they started to race on predominantly oval asphalt tracks.
Many new tracks joined the NASCAR circuit in the 1990s. The Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway, all ovals, became prominent fixtures on the circuit. NASCAR also started racing at the famed rectangular oval, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in 1994.
While most NASCAR fans love the oval tracks since they do come in many packages such as superspeedways, speedways, and short tracks, there are several non-oval tracks in the series.
The Pocono Raceway is one such track. And it is one of NASCAR’s most distinct, comprising just three turns. Given its triangular shape, some have labeled Pocono as a basic road course. However, there are numerous road courses flooding the NASCAR circuit in the 2020s.
Flash back to 1989, NASCAR went westward and started racing annual events at the Sonoma Raceway, a road course that features 12 turns. They also started racing at Watkins Glen International as a one-off in 1957, and again between 1964 and 1965. Starting in 1986, the Glen became a permanent fixture.
In 2021, NASCAR expanded its schedule to include six road courses,ranging from the Daytona Road Course, Circuit of the Americas (COTA), Sonoma, Road America, Watkins Glen, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course, and the Charlotte Roval.
To make room for the increased number of road courses, NASCAR had to get rid of some oval tracks. This was easy to some degree, as NASCAR continued to race at their traditional tracks, but just opted for the infield or a roval, which was the case of Daytona, Charlotte, and Indianapolis.
In March 2022, NASCAR officials confirmed they are looking into a potential street race, with the streets of Chicago serving as the front runner. However, NASCAR could not confirm whether a street race would be taking place anytime soon, but it’s worth monitoring.
If NASCAR hosts a race on the streets of Chicago or another major city like Miami or Los Angeles, expect them to swap out another oval track. So, while NASCAR may always stick to its roots and race on ovals, they will consider other venues if the demand is high enough.
The NASCAR Cup Series races on 20 different oval tracks. This number is always changing from year to year, given the number of other types of tracks on the schedule. Even with the rise in road courses, ovals still dominate the NASCAR schedule, and this will continue to be the case in the future.
Oval tracks that NASCAR raced at in the 2010s and can always return to at a later include the Chicagoland Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (NASCAR uses the track’s road course), and the Kentucky Speedway.
While NASCAR spent the first few years of the 2020s expanding its schedule to include more road courses, there is always the possibility they can return to or even add another oval to the schedule. For example, NASCAR added the egg-shaped World Wide Technology Speedway in 2022.
They also talked about the idea of returning to one of the Nashville Fairgrounds, a short track the Cup Series raced on between 1958 and 1984. Other oval tracks that NASCAR formerly used to keep an eye on include the North Wilkesboro Speedway and the Rockingham Speedway.
One main reason NASCAR races on ovals is that it allows the fans, from specific vantage points, to catch a view of the full race, plus better sightlines. This, added to the ability for the cars to race at the very high speeds NASCAR fans love, makes ovals perfect for NASCAR races.
NASCAR has drawn both praise and criticism for racing on oval tracks in favor of road courses and street races. When you look at other series like IndyCar, their events predominantly occur on road courses, but they also have a decent influx of ovals and street races.
The sightlines at Sonoma or Watkins Glen are not as easy as they are at ovals, even for races at superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega. The cars may look like specks across the track, but with a pair of binoculars, fans can still see the entire event.
However, this is also why you see most races occur either on intermediately sized tracks or short tracks. Even Daytona and Talladega can cause sightline issues, regardless of where you sit. You cannot say the same for Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, or even Texas and Atlanta.
NASCAR has two primary goals. They need to give their fans an opportunity to see the entire race, but they cannot sacrifice high speeds their fans expect. Therefore, tracks still need to be long enough to keep the speeds high. Or at least high enough to be entertaining.
Despite the fact that we see more road courses grace the schedule these days, we will probably always see short and intermediate oval tracks dominate the NASCAR landscape.
NASCAR cars do always turn left in oval track racing. This is mainly due to driver safety, keeping them further from the outside barrier in the event of a crash. It also gives them a better view of the track. It is a common theme across major American sports to move counterclockwise.
Go to a baseball game, and you always see the base runners running counterclockwise. Track runners also turn left exclusively. Horse racing and harness racing is yet another sport that has always turned left.
There are differing theories as to why we often see left turns on oval racing in America, regardless of the sport. Some historians point to the 1896 race at Narragansett Trotting Park,long believed to be the first oval auto race in America.
They ran the race counterclockwise because this was the way they ran the horse races. One rather comical theory states that the reason they started racing counterclockwise in horse racing was because England, who the US was not on great terms with in the 19th century, raced clockwise.
The most accurate reason for NASCAR to have its drivers continually turn left has to do with safety. Since the driver’s cockpit is located closer to the left-hand side of the car, just like a driver’s seat, it keeps them further away from the SAFER Barrier.
Most NASCAR crashes occur on the outside SAFER Barrier (right-hand side), so racing counterclockwise lessens the likelihood of a driver hitting the wall on the driver’s side. If NASCAR started turning right, the drivers would have a slim buffer between them and the SAFER Barrier.
Further, turning left gives the drivers a better view of the track. Given the cockpit’s location on the left, the driver will almost always catch a full view of what is ahead of them. Turning right, they would not have the same view unless they raced near to the SAFER Barrier for the entire race.
The oval tracks NASCAR cars race on vary in size, shape, turning degrees, banking, and even track surface, and track conditions. Therefore, NASCAR drivers must constantly practice at each track, even if they are seasoned veterans in the sport.
While some drivers thrive more on the tri-oval while others prefer the D-shaped oval, there is always a common denominator: Each of the types of oval tracks listed come with their own unique set of challenges.
These condition changes go beyond the differences in the tracks themselves. Tracks like the Charlotte Motor Speedway, for example, will see more volatile conditions as the race progresses. Perhaps more than any other race since it lasts well into the night.
First up are your quad ovals. These tracks look like the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word oval. They are often symmetrical in the turns or are at least close to symmetrical.
Quad oval tracks comprise the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway. All of which bear close resemblance to one another but are also different in their own rights.
The tri-oval is perhaps the most famous in NASCAR, since it comprises the shape of Daytona International Speedway. They are defined with turning degrees of the same or differing lengths but are often wider than your quad or D-shaped ovals, giving these tracks more of a triangular shape.
While they look like they have five turns if you count the tri-oval section on the front stretch, NASCAR considers them to have just four. Besides Daytona, the Talladega Superspeedway, Kansas Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the Nashville Superspeedway are all examples of tri-ovals on NASCAR’s schedule.
As the name implies, your D-shaped ovals look like the letter D. They comprise one straight backstretch, with two different turning degrees. Turns One and Four often consist of identical degrees, while Turns Two and Three comprise another, often wider degree.
D-shaped ovals resemble tri-ovals,but they are rounded on the front stretch, unlike the more angular tri-oval. Notable tracks include Auto Club Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, and the Richmond Raceway.
Closely related to the quad oval, these stadium oval tracks might resemble a larger version of a quarter-mile Olympic-sized track at the local high school, but with slightly varying turning degrees. One overhead view of Bristol Motor Speedway, for example, holds such a look.
The stadium oval tracks also feature a stadium setting, something you will notice at both Bristol and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. However, this is not always the case. The Homestead-Miami Speedway is a larger version of these tracks, but lacks the stadium feel.
Besides Bristol, stadium oval tracks involve Dover International Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Martinsville Speedway, and the New Hampshire Speedway.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the most prominent rectangular oval. And while NASCAR has not raced on the oval variation of the track since 2020, there is always a chance they may bring it back, which is why it is worth mentioning.
These oval tracks are also as the name sounds. They look like true rectangles. Except you will notice that these tracks are rounded in the corners. The rectangular look often calls for long front and backstretches, regardless of their tracks’ actual size.
These may be the toughest ovals to tame because of their vastly different turning degrees. The Darlington Raceway is by far the most prominent egg-shaped oval in NASCAR, and its traditional, wider turns at one end provide a stark contrast from the narrow turns at the other.
Egg-shaped ovals are tracks that some drivers, regardless of their skill set, may never master. The Darlington Raceway was the only egg-shaped oval in the NASCAR Cup Series until 2022, when NASCAR added the World Wide Technology Raceway to its schedule.
These tracks pose a significant challenge for drives because of their sheer awkwardness. They look like your traditional oval tracks heading into and out of the backstretch, but an off-centered portion resembling a tri-oval, called the dogleg, comes up quickly on drivers out of Turn Four.
The Phoenix Raceway is a good example of a dogleg oval. Its dogleg sits just after the start-finish line, which is pushed back coming right out of Turn Four and adding an additional challenge to drivers. As of 2022, Phoenix Raceway remains the only Dogleg oval in the Cup Series.
While many may glance at the layouts of all NASCAR oval tracks and think they are the same, the truth is no two NASCAR tracks are alike. Even those that bear stark resemblances to one another, like Talladega and Daytona, or Atlanta, Texas, and Charlotte, all have their differences.
Whether it is the length on the front or backstretch, the track surface, layout, or banking. Drivers will especially tell you that not only are all oval tracks different, but every oval track in NASCAR is also significantly different.
NASCAR divides its oval track classifications into the following categories: Superspeedways, speedways (or intermediate tracks), and short tracks. It is important to note that NASCAR does not count Charlotte’s Roval or Indianapolis’ road course as ovals.
While you may think there are more of them, NASCAR’s website only defines Talladega (2.66 miles) and Daytona (2.5 miles) as superspeedways. In the past, NASCAR used restrictor plates to keep cars from accumulating too much speed but have since switched to tapered spacers. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also a superspeedway, although not currently used by NASCAR.
Speedways are the most common tracks you see on the NASCAR circuit. They consist of any track one mile or longer except for Daytona and Talladega.
Oval tracks in this cluster include Atlanta (1.54), Auto Club (2.00), Charlotte (1.5), Darlington (1.366), Dover (1.00), Homestead-Miami (1.5), Kansas (1.5), Las Vegas (1.5), Michigan (2.00), Nashville (1.33), Phoenix (1.0), New Hampshire (1.058), Texas (1.5), and World Wide Technology (1.25).
Other speedways that run NASCAR-sanctioned events include Chicagoland (1.5) and Kentucky (1.5). As of 2022, these two tracks have not appeared on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, but they remain listed on their website.
Anything less than one mile qualifies as short tracks. NASCAR’s most prominent short tracks include Bristol (0.533), Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (0.250), Martinsville (0.526), and Richmond (0.750).
You will also see NASCAR’s lower divisions race on other short tracks. These include the Eldora Speedway (0.500), Iowa Speedway (0.875), Knoxville Raceway (0.500), and Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park (0.686).
NASCAR races mainly on intermediately sized ovals because it is easy for the fans to see the entire race and for cars to maintain high speeds coming in and out of turns. No two NASCAR oval tracks are alike, as they each contain different lengths, banking, turning degrees, and even track surfaces.
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