Sounds strange, right? It’s NASCAR, of course you’re gonna turn left. In fact, most of the time when I tell people here in the UK that I like NASCAR, I get the standard ‘hurr, how hard can it be to turn left for three hours?’
Really hard, actually, but that’s an argument for another day.
But the Whelen Euro Series is an anomaly amongst NASCAR touring series, in that it visits an oval circuit once on the entire calendar. Just the once. And this weekend will be that once-yearly visit, as they rock up at the Tours Speedway in France. Which, not long ago, was essentially a shopping mall car park. Sounds strange for a NASCAR touring series right?
There is the argument to say Europe, not being a hugely oval-centric continent (as my opening gambit may have given away), doesn’t exactly have the luxury of choice. But that wouldn’t be entirely true. There are two awesome, purpose-built ovals in Europe already: the 1.5 mile Rockingham circuit in the UK, and the 2-mile Eurospeedway Lausitz in Germany. Both have hosted premier Champ Car races before, as well as oval stock car racing with the ASCAR series in the mid-2000s.
There’s also a fledging late-model movement in Europe, and their tracks are just waiting to be put to great use. Venray in Holland and Warneton in Belgium are two excellent candidates, with the latter in particular surely being suited down to the ground for NASCAR racing – 3/8s mile long with healthy banking. In the UK two ovals are technically also road courses – Mallory Park and Lydden Hill both have oval layouts available, if only as part of the longer road courses.
Reigning champion Anders Vilarino leads last year’s Tours victor Frederic Gabillon. Both will be factors this weekend. Credit: NASCAR Home Tracks
These are discussions for another day, though. For now let’s focus on Tours Speedway, and don’t get me wrong; we certainly aren’t dealing with a poor racetrack here. Even as just a carpark with temporary barriers, the 0.4 mile track had an urban, gritty charm. Watching stock cars skidding round a parking lot had a slightly illegal, Fast and Furious feel to it. Work has been done in the previous year to add full 9-degree banking to the circuit, and in last year’s races the effect was palpable. The circuit now seems to race like a hybrid of Bristol, Martinsville and New Hampshire – not a bad combo for a short-track, and certainly not a dull one. And as much as it seems strange that the circuit touts itself as the world’s first urban oval, this shouldn’t be dismissed – after all, isn’t that what Formula E is championing? Bringing racing to the masses in the cities? It also guarantees great attendance – you’re more likely to go and watch something new if it’s on your doorstep than 50 miles out in the countryside.
What makes this race weekend interesting is the exact reason road course races in the top three tiers of NASCAR are interesting – it is out of the norm for the drivers. The Whelen Euro Series is attracting major driving talent this year, including famous relatives Mathius Lauda and Eddie Cheever III, and sportscar stars Anthony Kumpen, Bert Longin, Christophe Bouchet and Bas Leinders. But crucially – they are all road course aces. Their oval racing experience could be summed up on a postage stamp.
Ringers have been common – last year Max Papis and Rick Crawford made big impressions, and Ben Kennedy took a win a few seasons back here. But this year, there’s no oval masters in the mix; it’s all down to the regulars on the tour to provide the show. And with grids totalling nearly 30 cars and some highly competitive racing so far this season, that shouldn’t be an issue. Last year’s race was somewhat of a wreckfest, and crucially was one which series kingpin Anders Vilarino struggled at, allowing his championship opponents a window of opportunity in the title fight. This year the 2-time champion arrives trailing Kumpen by 9 points in the championship battle, with the man who swept the weekend last year Frederic Gabillon 6th in points – how he could do with another sweep this weekend to kick-start his campaign.
If you can in amongst the madness of the top tiers of NASCAR at Daytona, find some time spare and try to catch some of the Tours action this weekend. You’ll quite probably see the experienced heads leading the way, some wrecks – and as good a level of short track racing as you’d get anywhere in America. A much better use of a car park than chavs blasting sound systems in their hot hatches, I’m sure you’ll agree.