Sports

The complexities of racing an oval: it’s more than just turning left

Most people think of NASCAR as one thing: “Just a bunch of left turns.” But NASCAR is so much more than that — it’s a 200-mph test of skill, speed, endurance, and rule-bending.

To put that effort into words, ESPN went to Texas Motor Speedway with one question for competitors: “What do you say when people reduce your job to ‘left turns’?”

“Oval racing is managing tiny, minute differences that have huge effects,” Parker Kligerman, who drives the Big Machine Racing No. 48 car in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, told ESPN. “You’re always changing. You’re always thinking about doing something different. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and you’ve got to readjust and make up for that.”

Texas Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile asphalt oval outside of Fort Worth, with 20-degree banking in the first two turns, 24-degree banking in the last two, and 5-degree banking on the straightaways. All three NASCAR national series were in Texas when we went: the third-tier Trucks, second-tier Xfinity Series, and top-level Cup Series.

Kligerman qualified 16th for Xfinity at Texas, and he wasn’t impressed. One mistake sealed his fate, because the competition is too tight for mistakes.

“I’d say [NASCAR] is one of the most dynamic forms of motorsport in the world,” Kligarman said. “If you look at the Cup Series, the difference from first to 30th might be three-tenths of a second. It’s nothing.

“I screwed up by under-driving it into turn one. From the entry to the center of turn one, I lost three-tenths. I carried that all the way back around, and it killed me. The amount of distance I lost that in was probably 100 feet or less.”

In shape alone, road courses — the style of circuit Formula One is known for, with left and right turns — look more complicated than ovals. But road courses often have a clear path to run, known as the “racing line.” In perfect weather conditions, that often involves a wide entry to each corner, hitting the apex near the inside curbing, then running out wide to carry the most speed through the turn.

On some ovals, drivers can run all over: the low line, the middle, or even ripping the wall. Often, that changes as the race goes on.

“Road-course racing is very formulaic,” Kligerman said. “You hit point by point by point, and you adjust those points as tires fall off, brakes, et cetera. Oval racing is constantly changing. You’re constantly evaluating what your car is doing: how to move around, how to find more grip. The difference in grip might be five feet higher in the center of the corner in turn one, so at 195 miles per hour with a bunch of cars around you, you’re going to say: ‘OK, I need to be five feet higher. That’s going to allow me to rotate just a tick more, get back to the throttle about a foot earlier, and that’s going to be a faster lap time.’

“Every time you enter a corner, if you do the same thing twice in a row, you’re going backwards.”

Kligerman has three victories in NASCAR’s top-three national divisions, all in the Truck Series. He had speed at Texas but finished 25th due to a loose wheel — showing how even if a driver has a good day, things out of their control can ruin it.

“The races I’ve won, the car is important,” Kligerman said. “Execution. Being super aggressive on restarts. The ability to be super dynamic with where you run, how you adjust, how you make the car better, and what you decide to do. Lap after lap. Corner after corner.

“Restarts are the largest opportunity, aside from the pits, to make the easiest passes. Once we all start going and we’re running in a line, the cars equalize across the board. Making up time gets harder and harder, so on a restart, when you get us all bunched up and you can shoot to the inside and make three positions — that is like gold.”

But oval racing is about more than just you; it’s also about the drivers around you. Tommy Joe Martins, former Xfinity regular and current team owner at Alpha Prime Racing, said NASCAR races have “a lot of different strategies going on at any different time.”

“You’re racing really fast, you’re racing really close to a whole lot of cars, and you’re put in a lot of situations where everyone around you is going to be really aggressive,” Martins told ESPN. “I think [the strategy] gets lost, at times, for some of the people who are new to NASCAR racing.

“We’re running different tires, different track positions — people who are faster, slower. That’s all kind of mixed together, so there’s a lot of danger around every corner. You’re driving a car that’s trying to wreck every lap, especially at a place like Texas. You’re never comfortable.”

NASCAR doesn’t have “different tires” in the way some other series do. There’s usually only one dry-weather compound, but teams can run “stickers” (new tires) or “scuffs” (ones that are lightly used). Martins’ team has yet another kind of tire: ones they buy at a discount.

While Kligerman and Big Machine Racing run a mid-tier budget in Xfinity, Martins and Alpha Prime are a lower-budget operation. A new set of four tires costs Martins about $2,500, and for the Texas race, NASCAR allowed Xfinity teams a maximum of six sets (totaling $15,000 per car). Tire sets often don’t transfer to other events, so teams use them or lose them.

Alpha Prime will often buy a few sets, then wait. If other cars wreck, Martins can buy their extras and save about $1,200 per set.

“There are disadvantages to this,” Martins said. “For teams that just want to show up and buy an entire allotment, they know exactly the size, runout, and spring rate on each of the tires. The more you buy, the more that you can kind of group those up and say: ‘These are going to be my best set of left-side tires. These are going to be my best set of right-side tires.’

“We’re buying them off of a Truck team or a team that fell out of the race, so we’re kind of just taking four tires and throwing them on the car. But financially, it’s a big advantage.”

Martins’ drivers also have to watch those around them. A good day for Alpha Prime is a top-15 or top-20, but they’re racing cars with higher budgets — and drivers who are less afraid to wreck for a good finish.

“The consequences are different for different teams,” Martins said. “For us, we’re in a position where our backup car really isn’t much of a car. It’s going to involve a lot of work to get it ready, and our drivers have to be hyper-aware of that. There are risks in practice or qualifying that they probably can’t take, whereas some other drivers can be more aggressive. You just have to count on your drivers being smart enough to understand the situation they’re in.”

Discomfort is a theme in NASCAR, whether it comes from the car itself or the risks around it. But in Kligerman’s notes for Texas Motor Speedway, he wrote: “You have to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.”

“That’s oval racing to a T,” Klilgerman said. “You have to just be OK that at 195 miles per hour, that the car is going to wiggle around. It’s going to move, and it’s going to feel really unsettling. And you’ve just got to tell yourself that’s OK.

“If you do that better than anyone else, you should be able to win.”

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