Ovals vs. Road Courses: A Driver’s Opinion

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The following article is based on my personal observations as a driver. They are my own opinions and should not be taken as an attack on any fellow driver who feels differently about the subject.

As a fan of all forms of racing, I often find myself getting very irritated by the us-vs.- them type of arguments that motorsports fans engage in.

But as a racing driver, I find myself truly angered by one of these topics in particular.

Many oval fans will swear to their grave that ovals are more challenging than road courses. When you ask them why, they often list one of two reasons:

  • Ovals are raced at much higher speeds.
  • Ovals are far more dangerous.

Now, both of the above are true statements. VERY true. No. 2 is especially so.

But does that really make ovals more DIFFICULT? Does danger make something HARD? Mentally, it most certainly does, but think about it this way: Skydiving is an EXTREMELY dangerous sport, but if you get past any mental blocks you have, it’s one of the easiest things to do.

I’ve driven at Road America, Nelson Ledges, Mid-Ohio, Mansfield Speedway, Michigan International, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Nashville Superspeedway just to name a few.

I’ve been on them in vintage formula cars, my own road car, and more recently I tried out a Ligier JS49 at Nelson Ledges.

I’ve driven for fun on track days as well as in proper races.

I’ve got a much better understanding of what this takes than the average fan. Yeah, I know; that probably sounds EXTREMELY arrogant, but think about it: Doesn’t the driver know better than anyone else would? Why should someone who’s never tried it believe he knows better than the drivers do?

Every time NASCAR reaches a road course event and the drivers all come out and talk about how much more of a challenge it is, the hardcore ovals fans always say the same thing: “Its only more challenging when you don’t run them all the time!”

To quote a certain Internet celebrity…”What a shitload of fuck!”

The vast majority of my races have been on road courses. I regularly attend track days at Nelson Ledges, and I’ve raced at Mid-Ohio three times. I STILL do not find these tracks any easier than my first visits, even though I know them better than on the first visit.

Consistent running of those types of tracks does not make a bit of difference; it’s always a challenge. You can know every single corner, and it’s still not easy.

Right now, some people are reading this and thinking, “But ovals produce higher sustained Gs than road courses!”

Indeed, they do…but it’s always in the same direction. The human body is adaptable; four sustained Gs to the right won’t bother you much after you’ve done it enough times.

But imagine having 4Gs pulling your head to one side for half a second, then having those 4Gs completely reverse direction. Imagine this happening several times per lap; it’s much harder for your body to keep up with this than a sustained pull in a single direction.

And I know most cars don’t pull 4Gs in the corners but it does happen on occasion and its a good number to use to emphasize my point.

But what about the extra speed? Is that a challenge?

The simple answer is…. Well, there is no simple answer. In and of itself, speed is not a significant challenge. When the track layout is so simple, its FAR easier to go fast. It takes some practice to get a feel for it and be able to push it to the limit, yes, but unlike road course driving it sticks into your head a lot better. Oval give you much more confidence to plant your foot to the floor and go for it – especially high-banked ovals.

Now you might be expecting me to say that road courses are flat-out more challenging at this point, but I won’t. Because the simple fact is, road courses are only MORE challenging when you’re the only car on track.

In a race situation, the challenge level is about the same. Its just a different KIND of challenge.

When you’re on an oval and surrounded by other cars, you have to run as close as you can without hitting them. This is at LEAST as difficult as hitting your marks on a road course!

THAT’S where the challenge is! It’s the TRAFFIC!

Its much harder to make judgment calls to make the right moves at higher speeds, but if that traffic wasn’t there for you to worry about, all your focus goes into the speed, making it easier to handle.

Because traffic is more spread out on road courses, it’s far less of a headache to deal with. This leaves your mind a little more open to hit your marks precisely; and hitting those marks are where the road courses become challenging.

Road course fans are guilty of assuming too much about ovals, as well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it for the first time on this site: Anybody who thinks ovals are easier than road courses needs to watch a NASCAR race at Bristol or Talladega.

Whichever side of this discussion you’re on, if the above has not swayed your opinion, I have a challenge for you: TRY IT. There are several organizations that give you a chance to drive true race cars on road courses AND ovals. Give them both a try.

If you can honestly say afterwards that you consider one to be more challenging than the other…your brain probably slowed you down on one of them out of fear.