Last weekend, World Wide Technology Raceway’s thrilling inaugural Cup race and the chaotic debut of Xfinity cars at Portland International proved that, just as variety is the spice of life, it can also spice up a NASCAR schedule.
Over the past three years, NASCAR has proven itself more willing than ever before to shuffle its calendar around. Some of the late-90s/early-aughts ‘expansion tracks’ have lost dates or dropped off the schedule entirely in favor of all-new tracks like Circuit of the Americas. NASCAR has even put money into the once-dormant tracks in Nashville and St. Louis to prepare them for Cup duty.
So this wishlist is a lot more realistic now than it would have been, say, six years ago. Had I been writing it then, it would have included Nashville, Gateway, CoTA, and Road America – but of course, those tracks now all have Cup dates.
Thankfully, there’s a long list of racetracks in the USA, and no resource as renewable as a NASCAR fan’s willingness to complain (even constructively). So here we go: these five tracks are calling out for a Cup date.
5 – Iowa Speedway (Newton, Iowa)
Since a single race at Davenport Speedway in 1953, the NASCAR Cup Series has never raced in the state of Iowa. The city of Newton’s Iowa Speedway, 30 miles outside Des Moines, is the best candidate for a NASCAR return to the Hawkeye state.
Designed with input from 1989 series champion Rusty Wallace, the self-described “fastest short track on the planet” is a 7/8ths-mile D-shaped oval with moderate banking. In several ways, Iowa is like big Richmond, higher-banked Phoenix, or symmetrical Gateway. It is a unique configuration, something that would fit well into NASCAR’s current strategy of moving away from 1.5-mile “cookie-cutters.”
A modern track with a current capacity of 30,000, Iowa Speedway hosted the Xfinity Series and Truck Series throughout the 2010s before the Covid pandemic forced it off NASCAR’s schedule.
Lower-series racing in Iowa was popular, and the track gave us the first Xfinity wins of Cup drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr., William Byron, and Ryan Preece, as well as a crazy finish in 2011’s second race when Stenhouse blew an engine while leading in the final turn and got launched across the finish line by Carl Edwards. IndyCar, which also raced in Iowa across the 2010s, is the only series returning to the track in 2022, for a combination doubleheader weekend and music festival that may serve as proof-of-concept for racing in Newton.
As NASCAR aims to host fewer standalone lower series races for cost-control purposes, sending Xfinity and Trucks back to Iowa twice a year doesn’t make nearly as much sense as letting a Cup race highlight a single weekend. A Saturday night short-track special under the lights would be fantastic – assuming, as I am, that a short-track-specific NextGen aero package is on the table for 2023.
But the single most likely contributing factor? NASCAR owns Iowa Speedway, and has for almost a decade. It makes financial sense for NASCAR to give Iowa a race and make some money off the property.
4: Chicagoland Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oval)
These two tracks are sharing the spot because neither really counts. Of course, they have both had Cup dates – more than 20 apiece, in fact. Neither has been off the schedule for longer than two years, but both are truly calling out for a return.
Chicagoland first. The “cookie-cutter” mile-and-a-half in Joliet aged like a fine wine, producing thrilling finishes in each of its final two years on the Cup schedule. The one-two punch of track killer Alex Bowman winning in 2019 and (more realistically) the Covid-19 pandemic dropped the Midwest’s favorite onion-shaped speedway from the Cup lineup in mid-2020. But the combination of worn-out pavement and the intermediate-perfect Next Gen car just outside one of the world’s great sporting cities is too promising to give up on.
Although developers have bought up much of the land near the speedway, the track itself survives. Staff that baby up, and the Cup Series could go racing tomorrow. I solemnly swear, if NASCAR returns to Chicagoland Speedway, I will be there.
And Indy. . . well, it’s Indy. Seeing stock cars pass that famous yard of bricks in the wrong direction just feels dirty. Yes, the Brickyard 400 was never the same after Goodyear’s disastrous 2008 race, and in its final years, even a promotion to regular-season finale couldn’t make NASCAR’s annual visit to the world’s most famous oval worth watching (with the exception of a completely unhinged 2017 race).
But Indy is the world’s most famous oval. Yes, NASCAR at the Speedway will always be a guest in IndyCar’s backyard, but the Brickyard’s (and I mean the whole Brickyard) absence is truly felt. We’ll have to see how Pocono goes with the NextGen car, (hell, in this topsy-turvy season it could easily be great) but if there’s going to be a specialized short-track aero package, why not develop a specialized package for 2.5-mile flat tracks? Roger Penske, owner of IMS since late 2019, has been willing to make big changes. It was his call, ultimately, to move the race to the road course last year. But he’s also indicated he’s willing to give the Brickyard 400 another chance. Help us, Roger Penske. You’re our only hope.
3 – Eldora Speedway (New Weston, Ohio)
I’m just now realizing that all my choices so far have been in the Midwest, and I just advocated the return of the Brickyard 400 so I’m just going to keep it Midwestern and controversial for now: screw Dirt Bristol, go to Eldora.
NASCAR’s first return to dirt in the modern era came with the 2013 Truck Series race at Tony Stewart’s track in Ohio, and the once-annual Eldora Dirt Derby (née Mudsummer Classic) produced some of the best racing the Truck Series has ever had. The winners reads like an all-star list of young drivers. Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Christopher Bell, Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe: winning at the Dirt Derby helped put these guys on the map. Because of its uniqueness, it was the Truck Series’ own version of a crown jewel, and it disappeared in 2021 because negotiations between NASCAR and Tony Stewart failed, supposedly because Stewart wanted a Cup race. The surprise announcement of Dirt Bristol was just twisting the knife.
Eldora, located between Dayton, Columbus, Fort Wayne, Indiana and Indianapolis, is one of the great dirt ovals in one of the country’s great dirt-racing regions. Arguably, because of the investment and work Tony Stewart has put into the facility, it has become the greatest. If the Cup Series is going to race on dirt, they should do it properly. They should do it at Eldora.
2 – Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville (Nashville, Tennessee)
We’re finally leaving the Midwest for NASCAR’s native Southeast, and I really wanted to give this spot to Rockingham. The one-mile oval that would have been my home track had I been born about ten years earlier definitely fits into the category of “unique layouts” that NASCAR has been leaning into as of late. But NASCAR also needs tracks that either can draw crowds from new markets, or are in what F1 calls “destination cities.” Rockingham, unfortunately, is neither. And neither is North Wilkesboro, although the recently-unveiled revitalization project may include the Truck Series returning to Wilkes County in 2023. No, instead I’m taking the easy way out with the obvious statement that the Nashville Fairgrounds track is calling out for a Cup date just as loudly as NASCAR is calling out to the Nashville Fairgrounds.
The half-mile oval (more short tracks!) is located smack in the middle of downtown Nashville, which does raise logistical issues (mainly noise-related) for racing at that site. But the opportunity to hold a crazy short-track race at a historic venue in the middle of one of these “destination cities” is too good for NASCAR to pass up. They did it in the LA Coliseum, they’ll figure out how to do it in Nashville.
Yes, NASCAR already races at Nashville Superspeedway in nearby Lebanon, but there is no reason to think that one market can’t be serviced by two perfectly good racetracks. Heck, Fontana was in the same month as the Clash this year, and there were healthy crowds at both.
Assuming of course that we get a short-track aero package in 2023, offering two different and exciting styles of racing to Nashville residents and visitors alike over the course of a year is an opportunity too good to pass up. And again, the track is right in the middle of the city, not only adding atmosphere, but also making a day at the races a much easier sell to the “casual fan.”
1 – Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
It cannot be denied that the NASCAR Cup Series visits some of the greatest tracks in the United States. But why not add to the list of Daytona, Indianapolis, and maybe Road America, and visit one of the great racing circuits of the world?
Winding through a park constructed for the 1967 World’s Fair, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve would technically host the Cup Series’ first street race. Most of the year, the track is open to the public to walk, drive, and bike. Located on the man-made Île Notre-Dame in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, Gilles Villeneuve is the perfect compromise. Like Nashville, the track is centrally located, and travel to and from the facility (even by public transit) is incredibly easy. But it isn’t like neighbors will be annoyed with the noise, because the track is in the middle of the river! The scenery is beautiful and the temperature is moderate in summertime. All of that combined with one of the best road-course layouts ever designed, and it’s no wonder Montreal is among the most popular Formula 1 circuits for fans and drivers alike.
But Gilles Villeneuve isn’t just for open-wheel racing. Between 2007 and 2012, the NASCAR Xfinity Series held one race a year in the land of poutine and unintelligible French. And what a race it was. I’d bet much of the late-2010s push from fans for more road racing was due to the all-time classics that were the 2009 and 2010 Xfinity Series 200-milers north of the border. I’ve got four words for you: road course photo finish.
Yes, many NASCAR personnel’s well-documented stance on vaccines might mean that NASCAR should wait until the specter of Covid-19 is more solidly in the rearview before paying a visit to our neighbors to the north. Logistically, it wouldn’t even be difficult. It’s a longer drive from Charlotte to Kansas than it is to Montreal.
When they do, they’ll find a motorsports-crazy population just a short train ride away. Former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve, who raced in every Canadian Xfinity race as well as this year’s Daytona 500, could certainly be convinced to start a Cup race at the track named in honor of his late father, and give the Quebecois fans a hometown hero to pull for.
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve only dropped off the Xfinity schedule in 2013 because race organizers demanded a Cup date, a date that NASCAR was unwilling to give them. That was a different era. NASCAR’s entrance to new markets like Nashville, St. Louis, and Los Angeles doesn’t have the hubris of the late-90s/early-aughts expansion era. NASCAR is hungry, willing to adapt, and chasing big stories, new events, and excited fans, all of which they could find in Montreal.
I can’t imagine a bigger story than NASCAR going international.
Featured Image by Pat Vallely