There was a time, not all that long ago, that when NASCAR’S hulking stock cars came to the road courses, some teams opted to make changes.
They dropped their regular drivers – who had honed their skills on oval tracks – for those who were considered “road racing specialists.”
For some teams that wanted to succeed on a road course, it seemed to be only logical to replace their “good ol’ Southern boy” driver with a guy with a foreign-sounding name. Or at least one who was a veteran of “them sporty cars.
Not to take anything away from those “sporty car” drivers. When hired, most of them did an admirable job piloting an unfamiliar stock car around a twisting, turning road course.
In fact, during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the “sporty car” drivers dominated races at Riverside International Raceway in California, then the only road course in NASCAR.
From 1963-68, Dan Gurney won five times at Riverside. Of course, that he drove for the Wood Brothers had something to do with that.
Ray Elder won twice, in 1971 and 1972. And in 1973, Mark Donohue, driving an AMC Matador for Roger Penske, was another winner at Riverside.
He was the last “road course specialist” to win at the track, which ceased to exist after 1988.
In fact, he is the last of the “sporty car” drivers to win on any NASCAR road course – which, today, are at Watkins Glen in New York and Sonoma in California, the next stop on the 2012 Sprint Cup schedule.
A Sprint Cup regular has won every road course race over the past three decades.
Yes, specialists continued to be employed, and make no mistake they were first-rate drivers, with names like Boris Said, Tommy Kendall, Bill Schmitt and Ron Fellows – just to name a very few.
But they could not match their NASCAR counterparts for one very good reason. The Southern boys became adept on road courses. They learned how to race on tracks other than ovals.
Years ago a new generation of competitors rose to the forefront of NASCAR. Several of them did not come from the South. They had been weaned on twisting go-kart races or on dirt tracks, where skills other than simply turning left – kidding here – were mandatory.
NASCAR became infused with competitors who knew how to negotiate a road course.
They had names like Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte. Although not as highly touted, competitors such as Ernie Irvan, Mark Martin, Davey Allison and Kyle Petty also won on road courses.
Road course stalwarts such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch came along to replace their generation and are still considered favorites to win today. Each will be touted at Sonoma this weekend.
However, there is something else to consider.
Today, there are NASCAR regulars who are acknowledged to be what were once called “road course specialists.”
What this means is that while they may pursue a complete NASCAR schedule as recognized regulars, they are seldom, if ever, considered pre-race favorites at an oval track.
But they rise to the top at road courses.
Presently, only two of them compete – Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Marcos Ambrose at Richard Petty Motorsports.
And they have, indeed, proven their worth on road courses.
Montoya, from Colombia, earned his first NASCAR victory at Sonoma in 2007 and followed that up with his win at the Glen in 2010.
Ambrose, an Australian who hails from Tasmania, broke though in 2011 when he won at the Glen to garner his only NASCAR win to date.
Neither will be ignored when potential winners are mentioned this weekend.
However, they are just about everywhere else.
While this seems to be a bit unfair, I think it bears the ring of truth: Drivers – especially foreigners – with road-racing savvy who compete in NASCAR aren’t considered “real” stock car racers until they win on an oval track.
That’s pretty harsh. And, now that I think about it, it is indeed unfair. But that opinion has been prevalent, if silent, for years.
I get a very strong feeling both Ambrose and Montoya fully realize the sentiment is out there.
In Montoya’s case it seems ridiculous. For me, it is very hard to classify a man recognized as one of the most versatile and successful drivers in the world as merely a road racer when he’s won the Indianapolis 500.
He nearly won the Brickyard 400 a couple of seasons ago when, while leading comfortably, he was caught speeding on pit road.
Ambrose won his first pole position on an oval track last week at Michigan and ran well in the race, leading four times for 15 laps en route to a ninth-place finish.
But he fully realizes that his quest to win in NASCAR has been difficult, if for no other reason than when he became a stock car driver, it was all completely foreign to him. He now has a sense of accomplishment.
“I can only reflect on my own personal opinion and I feel like I’ve done a lot in this sport,” said Ambrose, who is hugely popular in Australia. “I feel like I’ve come from a long way behind.
“I came from a country that doesn’t have any oval racing. I come from a state at the other end of the world and doesn’t have any racing on it at all, so I’ve achieved a lot just to make it to NASCAR and then to make it to Sprint Cup and have a pole position and have won a race.”
But that isn’t enough for Ambrose. He feels that being with RPM and teammates who believe in him, he’s in a position to achieve more.
“I’m with a great team and I’m in the best position I’ve ever been in in the sport,” he said. “We want to win races on ovals. We want to win more than one race a year.
“As we sit here mid-season, we still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races. We’ve got speed, we just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”
Ambrose and Montoya don’t have to prove they have talent. They have already done that.
But to break through a long-standing, stereotypical perception they share – as did others before them – they are going to have to win races on oval tracks.
It is my belief that they will.