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Sports Weekend | MOTOR RACING

NASCAR Is Taking Its Show on the Road

June 26, 1998|SHAV GLICK

Twice a year the turn- left-only stock cars of NASCAR's Winston Cup series are modified for a weekend of right turns too, for road races on the twisting courses at Sears Point, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y.

The West Coast version is Sunday, the Save Mart-Kragen 350, on Sears Point's revamped 1.949-mile track near Sonoma. The length has been reduced from 2.52 miles with the elimination of the "carousel," two low-speed turns in the middle of the circuit. The shorter track caused the race length to change from 74 to 112 laps, which amounts to 218 miles.

Drivers who earn their living 32 weekends a year spinning around ovals at breakneck speeds with little shifting have interesting approaches to the problems posed by braking, shifting, accelerating and turning in both directions. Some of their comments:

* Darrell Waltrip, a five-time winner at the old Riverside road course: "A road course is all about driving ability. I think oval success is about 60% car and 40% driver, but on a road course it's just the opposite. Mainly because there is so much more to do for a driver. He has to shift, brake and hit the apexes. An oval is a seat-of-your-pants thing, while a road course is very technical.

"The key to Sonoma is staying on the road. That track is so narrow that you can drop off there in a heartbeat, and when you do there is no coming back.

"It was more fun back in the old days because none of us had road-racing cars. Whatever transmission you ran at Daytona you used at Riverside. We tore up a lot of gearboxes and we really slid the cars around the track. At Riverside around Turn 2 and up through the 'esses' the car slid so much that it was like being on dirt. You just don't do that anymore. You have to be real precise. Everyone now has a road racer. Sonoma and Watkins Glen are the only places we run these cars."

* Dale Earnhardt, winner of the 1995 Sears Point race: "It's a fun change running on a road course. The new configuration is going to put all of us on an equal playing ground. I think I'm going to miss the carousel. That's where I made the pass to win this race a couple of years ago."

* Jeff Gordon, Winston Cup champion, looking for his first Sears Point win: "I've had a second, a sixth and a third there. I liked the old track, but the more laps I run [in testing], the more I like this track with the new section. Before, if you didn't make your pass in the carousel, then you had to wait another lap to make a pass."

* Ernie Irvan, a two-time winner (1992 and 1994), who considers Sears Point his home track, having grown up in nearby Salinas: "I thought it was a pretty good race track before they changed it. It was really a tough place to get around, but that made it fun. I think they may have messed with a good thing."

* Ricky Rudd, four times on the pole at Sears Point, and the 1989 winner: "I think the key is to get a good starting position. We've sat on a lot of poles out there and a lot of front-row starting positions that help with the traffic situation. I think my background as a kid racing go-karts on big road courses probably helped. Right from the beginning, it seemed like I liked road courses and road courses liked me."

* Rusty Wallace, winner of the 1990 and 1996 races: "There's just something about road courses that I seem to get a handle on rather fast. I just go out there and put a charge on. Unlike some of the other drivers who use more finesse, my style may not be pretty on the road courses, but we manage to get the job done.

"If points were given on style at the road courses, I guess I'd be out to lunch. There are a couple of drivers who are a lot smoother, but it's being there at the end going for the checkered flag that's the most important thing."

Wallace will be driving the same PR-12 car that he won with two years ago when it was a Ford Thunderbird. The body style was changed to a Taurus this season, but that's nothing new. It was originally built as a 1993 Pontiac intermediate track car.

"We call it 'Killer' because it just kills the competition," Wallace says.

NEW RIDE FOR KENDALL

Tommy Kendall, America's most talented unemployed race driver, has landed a part-time job with Team Sabco, driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo at Sears Point and Aug. 6 at Watkins Glen.

Kendall, a four-time Trans-Am road racing champion from Santa Monica who lost his job when Jack Roush pulled his team out of the Trans-Am series this year, has been doing television for ABC and ESPN between appearances in the International Race of Champions' four-race series.

Driving a Winston Cup road race car will not be new for Kendall. He has driven in 11 races, his best finish an eighth place at Watkins Glen in 1990. It will also be the third time he has driven for Team Sabco. In 1991 he filled in at Sears Point for injured the Kyle Petty and drove a second team car at Watkins Glen.

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