Brant James
Wednesday August 6th, 2008

Downshift, brake, hit the mark, turn, up shift, accelerate, turn, brake. Five seconds -- maybe -- in the work day of a race car driver on a road course. And that's the easy part of racing. That doesn't even factor the metallic herd traversing the winding course, some among it predators capable of manipulating any mistake to create a precious passing opportunity.

Racing on road courses is a discipline demanding constant attentiveness, physical, mental and emotion control and the ability to repeat tasks with robotic commitment. When that fails, when Martin Truex Jr. sends Juan Pablo Montoya into Kevin Harvick and spinning off Turn One at Watkins Glen International (which happened last summer), all that framework of stoicism is often shattered by a shove.

As NASCAR contests its second and final road course event of the season on Sunday at Watkins Glen, the 220.5-mile parade around the 11-turn, course will challenge each driver differently. Road course racing is also all about perspective.

Jimmie Johnson has won 35 races since his rookie Cup season in 2002 -- a NASCAR-best during that span -- but has yet to win at the series' yearly stop at either Sonoma, Calif., or Watkins Glen, N.Y. He's averaged a 17th-place finish in 13 road course events. After a career-best third at Watkins Glen last summer, he said there is nothing as difficult in the season as the road course events.

"With every corner there's a different rhythm to it," he said. "Indy might be one of the hardest ovals because each corner is so different. I'd put Pocono maybe second most intense, mentally. But when you get to a road course, you've got to turn left, turn right, hard-braking zones and intermediate braking zones, down-shifts and up-shifts. There is a lot of stuff going on over the course of a lap on a road course."

The perspective is completely contrary for Patrick Carpentier, a 36-year-old Sprint Cup rookie whose experience has been on both ovals and street and road courses in Champ Car and the Indy Racing League.

"I would say the stock car is a lot tougher on an oval to drive," he said, "because you're so close to each other with 43 cars, and also the car moves around and there are so many tricks you can play on each other with the aero and just by being beside somebody and stuff like that. On a road course, it's a little bit easier because things don't happen as fast as when you're in an IndyCar."

Still, unlike on an oval, a single bobble could require several laps to correct

"If you're under pressure and somebody gets by you, you're in trouble at that point," Johnson said. "But in my own mind, I typically chase the lap times that are fed to me over the radio. So if it's Bristol and a 15-second lap, I only have 15 seconds to worry about it and then I try again. At Watkins Glen, it's a minute and something before I get another shot at it. So that's what you really focus on."


There's no time to focus on their feet. The choreography of accelerating and braking must be fluid, subconscious -- and goes far in determining success. About ninety percent -- estimated veteran road racer and NASCAR driver Boris Said -- brake with their left foot, allowing them to react quickly by keeping a foot on the gas and the break at all times. They don't use the clutch, but sense when to shift by listening to the engine rev. A right-foot braker removes his foot from the accelerator and applies it to the brake to slow, depressing the clutch pedal with his left foot.

"If you're a right-foot braker, you have to roll your foot, be on the brake and the gas at the same time to match the revs, so when you're slowing down you can shift," Said said. "It looks a little more complicated ... it's a little more technical.

"A left-foot braker does it the same way a guy driving a semi truck never uses the clutch. You just match the revs slowing down through the gears and up through the gears, its just a quick flip in the throttle. The gear boxes that we use are so good; you really don't have to use the clutch anymore."

Carl Edwards practices the clutch pedal method in his street car, but goes left-footed on the race track for repeatability. "If you brake with your right foot and you put the clutch in all the time when you're braking, you have less chance of wheel-hopping the rear tires and so that makes it a little bit different," he said.


Robby Gordon has won two of his three career Sprint Cup races on road courses, sweeping them in 2003. Tony Stewart has won six of his 32. Both came from open wheel backgrounds, buttressing the notion that such an upbringing is advantageous on NASCAR road courses. But though Gordon competed in the largely non-oval CART series, Stewart came up in the Indy Racing League when it was exclusively oval.

Juan Pablo Montoya, a CART and Formula One product, won Sprint and Nationwide road course races as a rookie last year, but teammate Dario Franchitti, who has extensive road racing experience, failed to qualify this year at the same Sonoma track where Montoya won. And none of the so-called "road course ringers" have ever won at Watkins Glen or Sonoma in the Sprint Cup series. Jeff Gordon, who leads the series with nine road course wins, came from an ovals background.

"I think in the beginning, people used to think that that made a difference," he said. "But the NASCAR drivers, you know, throughout the last couple years, I'm going to go back even as far as 10 years, they've started to put a lot of effort into their road racing because it's one of the 36 races or two of the 36 races. And if you run the Nationwide car as well, it could be four.

"So there are a lot of good road racers. I mean, Mark Martin has been a phenomenal road racer for as long as I can remember. I teamed up with him in the late '80s. We won the 24 Hours of Daytona together. Obviously, Ron Fellows winning [the Nationwide race in Montreal] in the rain. But if you go back, I mean, you look at what's happened the last eight years in Cup races, it's been a NASCAR regular that's won all these races."

In fact, Carpentier said not having a ride between his final open wheel season in 2005 and his rookie NASCAR season in 2007 was beneficial at his first road course race, a Nationwide Series event at Montreal. He started on the pole and finished second.

"I kind of lost a little bit of what I was doing on those tracks and I came I pretty fresh to the NASCAR," he said. Beneficial, he said, because aside from possible knowledge of the track surface, little translates from the nimble open wheel cars and the heavy, brutish stock cars.

"With a stock car you have to balance your self between pushing it really hard all the time and just being careful not to burn the brakes and the tires," said Carpentier, whose future with Gillett Evernham Motorsports will be announced by Aug. 15. "You have half the size of the tires. Especially with the Sprint Cup car, you've got more horsepower and a lot more power than the car can take, and you've just got to be real careful not to burn up the rear tires and just be smooth.

"In Indy cars you can attack all the time. You still have to be smooth, but you can enter as late as you can and abuse the car quite a bit more in that sense. You need a little more finesse with the stock car, otherwise you just burn everything out."

A lot to think about and very little time in which to do it.

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