It seems kind of ironic that whilst in Daytona, the Sprint Cup Series was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the rain (which it eventually lost), over in France another NASCAR series was happily racing away as the rain poured from the sky. On an oval.
Before you all start, I am of course being disingenuous; I am well aware that Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5 mile superspeedway, and the half-mile Tours Speedway bullring in France are two very different beings. But even so, we shouldn’t discount the fact that the Whelen Euro Series made history this weekend by running the first ever NASCAR oval races in the rain.
Except for the 2001 All Star race, and that doesn’t really count.
The Euro Series have always been well aware that rain disrupting play is far more likely in Europe than in America (particularly here in Britain), so the cars were always designed for this eventuality, with rain tires, windshield wipers and more coming as standard on these machines. But even so, the sight of them effortlessly running side-by-side business as usual in the pouring rain on Sunday was weirdly exciting. Like an old barrier had been broken down. The fans stayed and watched, and were treated to some great racing. The Sprint Cup Series will continue to bury its head in the sand and not race anywhere (even road courses) when it starts drizzling, mumbling something about ‘fans don’t want it’ (yeah, they don’t want your stupid Chase either, but never mind), but every division on down, from Nationwide through Trucks to Whelen Euro Series, are proving that the big stock cars can be raced on slippy surfaces, whether they be wet asphalt or dirt. So a big attaboy is in order for the Whelen Euro Series for going where no stock cars have been before.
The races themselves were pretty good fare, from what could be witnessed. Touring series NASCAR isn’t exactly great bedfellows with TV, so whilst we wait for the highlights package to turn up sometime in the next fortnight, the best we got at the actual track was four security cameras with no sound. Wow, really pushing the limits of broadcasting there, eh? Series like the Blancpain Endurance Series are starting to prove the worth of free streaming on sites like YouTube being useful to grow the coverage of a series, so you’d have to believe that the various NASCAR touring series will embrace this at some point – there’s no point asking people to pay to come see your product if no-one even knows it’s there. For now though, what could be seen from the highlights reels on YouTube, the racing was excellent.
It’s easy to mock Tours Speedway as a bun fight in a parking lot, but the fact is this track has been built up steadily from humble beginnings into a nice little short track, ideal for touring series racing. Yes there’s not exactly much in the way of pit facilities, but for a touring series which runs sprint races that isn’t yet a problem, and you feel like these will come with the continuing success of the event. Crucially they aren’t running before they can walk, and that probably explains why the series isn’t going to many other ovals just yet. Establish the series in the mostly road course-centric Europe as a consistent series, then expand into more ovals as time goes on. At least, I hope that’s the plan.
For now, the 9-degree banked, 0.4-mile oval creates a racing feel somewhere between Martinsville and Iowa, and even the reduced 23-car Euro Series field put on four great shows across the weekend – two Elite 1 series races, and two Elite 2 races for the amateur drivers. Reigning champ #2 Ander Vilarino took his first oval victory on Saturday, and it was #66 Mathias Lauda (son of the great Niki) who had the honour of taking the historic first rain oval victory on Sunday, after a great drive mostly on an outside groove that didn’t exist in the dry, but with the inside line drying in the wet and with water still up high to help the rain tires grip, Lauda made the second groove work and made some ballsy moves to the lead. He is part of a new breed of mostly road-course racer joining the series this year, along with #77 Christophe Bouchet, #32 Bas Leinders, #11 Bert Longin, #24 Anthony Kumpen and #51 Eddie Cheever III, and all (apart from perhaps Bouchet who had miserable luck all weekend) acquitted themselves well with the oval racing, with Cheever III grabbing pole and a 2nd place finish in race 1. Experienced campaigners who have seen Tours since it’s inception, like Vilarino, #12 Frederic Gabillon and #44 Freddie Nordstrom, were also players, and perhaps the surprise package of the weekend was #1 Borja Garcia. The Ford Autolix Competition team displayed pretty good speed in changeable conditions, and a charge up to 8th from 17th in Race 1, followed by a pole position and 6th place in Race 2, shouldn’t be sniffed at.
The Euro Series will be back in more familiar territory when they hit the Nurburgring in 2 weeks time. But for now, let’s raise a toast – to no longer fearing the elements in oval racing.