A Breed Apart

Ron Fellows at Wisconsin's Road America in June. (HHP/Erik Perel Photo)

Ron Fellows at Wisconsin’s Road America in June. (HHP/Erik Perel Photo)

Where Do Road Ringers Stand In Today’s NASCAR?

They ride into town every time NASCAR stages a road race for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Truck series. Once they were as feared as Frank and Jesse James, bandits intent on stealing the purse intended for delivery to the series regulars. Recently, the intimidation factor has faded, but they are still on the scene, and they’re still a force to be reckoned with.

They are the road racing ringers, road course specialists who rarely, if ever, venture onto the oval tracks that make up the vast majority of NASCAR’s schedule. They haven’t won a Cup Series race since 1973, when Mark Donohue drove Roger Penske’s AMC Matador to victory at Riverside (Calif.) Int’l Raceway, but both Ron Fellows (twice) and Scott Pruett have nailed runner-up finishes at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) Int’l, and Fellows ran off a string of five-straight years at the Glen, from 1997 to 2001, when he achieved either a Busch Series (now Nationwide) or Craftsman Truck Series (now Camping World) victory.

Will the ringers remain relevant, or will they go the way of the way of the CoT rear wing and the single-file restart? Before we consider the present state of play, let us gain some historical perspective.

NASCAR road racing, as a continuing aspect of the Cup Series and its derivatives, began with the 1963 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside. The first four runnings of the MT 500, and five of the first six, were won by the ultimate road racing ringer — Dan Gurney. The only race in that stretch that Gurney didn’t win fell to a driver whose road racing legend would come later in his career — Parnelli Jones. Except for Donohue’s victory noted above, and a pair of wins by West Coast great Ray Elder, the rest of the Riverside laurels were collected by Cup regulars until the track fell victim to suburban sprawl following the 1988 season.

That brings us to the modern era of NASCAR road racing, beginning at Watkins Glen in 1986 and Sears Point (now Infineon Raceway) in 1989. Each track has hosted one Cup Series race per season, meaning a total of 46 races heading to the Glen this weekend. The regulars are 46 for 46, batting 1.000, while the road racing ringers are 0 for 46. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that for a team in turmoil, or in transition or just looking to shake up the status quo, the ringers offer a viable alternative. You won’t find them bumping point-chasing series regulars out of a ride, but you will find them in extra entries from major teams, and especially in struggling teams trying to stay on the right side of the top-35 line in owner points.

In the Nationwide Series, with three road courses on the 2010 schedule, and potentially the Camping World Truck Series should it return to road racing, the scenario is a bit different. There are more competitive part-time rides and more full-time entries that rotate among different drivers in the Nationwide Series. Matching the driver to the course is a logical strategy when driver points are not a priority.

What does a road course ringer bring to the table, other than money in the case of rent-a-rides? In most cases they have first-hand knowledge of the track, since the Sprint Cup races at two courses, which any sports-car driver of experience has visited, and the same can be said for the new addition to the Nationwide schedule this season — Road America. The concepts of trail braking, turn-in, apex and track-out are integral parts of their craft, as is the footwork required to brake and downshift simultaneously.

On the other hand, a NASCAR race car drives unlike any road racing machine since the pony car era ended in the 1970s. Its weight, high center of gravity, relatively narrow tires, limited aerodynamics and relatively old-fashioned (although very adjustable) chassis may take as much time to learn as road course technique does to a short-track driver.

There’s one other area where some road racers are challenged in the NASCAR environment — traffic. No racing school teaches how to manage close-quarters competition like running deep in a 30-car field.

While no one has established a Gurney-like level of dominance, Fellows came close at Watkins Glen. When he started his streak in the 1997 Parts America 150 CTS event, runner-up Jack Sprague credited Fellows’s braking technique as the difference, saying, “He knows when to get on the pedal and when to get off it.” Fourth-place finisher Joe Ruttman, who ironically made his Cup debut at Riverside in 1963, added, “He’s head and shoulders above any road racer I’ve gone against.”

“I think when we were hooked up with (owner) Joe Nemechek and (crew chief) Brian Pattie there was a feeling that when we showed up we would be pretty dominant,” Fellows reflected recently. In fact, it was his only Busch Series loss at the Glen during the 1998-2001 period that forged a long-lasting bond of respect. In 1999 he lost a hard-fought battle to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Fellows will drive the JR Motorsports No. 88 Saturday at The Glen.

The popular Canadian drove Nemechek’s No. 87 Chevy to a runner-up finish in the 1999 Bud at the Glen, .75 of a second behind winner Jeff Gordon, and repeated that performance from the back of the grid with the DEI No. 1 Monte Carlo in 2004, 1.5 seconds short of winner Tony Stewart. Fellows thinks the chance of repeating those performances, or making up one spot to become the first non-Cup regular to win in 37 years, is remote.

“It’s incredibly difficult for a one-time driver to win in the major series,” he said. “I think the depth of talent in the Sprint Cup is vastly underrated. There used to be half a dozen drivers who were capable of winning a road race. Now there are 20 or more who can win.”

Pruett, the multiple champion of the Trans-Am Series and Rolex Series who achieved his Watkins Glen runner-up for Ganassi Racing in 2003, agrees with Fellows. “Ten years ago, a road racing ringer could come in and have a real chance to win. Today, the NASCAR regulars have honed their road racing skills, whether it’s Jamie McMurray racing karts or Jimmie Johnson running on the Rolex side, so today it’s more realistic to hope for a top 10, maybe a top five.”

As in so many aspects of NASCAR racing, Pruett pointed to teamwork as an area where a road racing ringer can’t hope to equal the series regulars. “Maybe we’re a little better at getting the car to the end of the race, taking care of the brakes and so on, but the regulars gain time in the pits,” he explained. “They work with the same crew every week. I’m going to be a little more careful coming into the pits, and the crew is going to be a little more careful coming over the wall, so we’re going to be slower.”

Then there is the effect of NASCAR’s new code of driver etiquette, characterized by the official approval to “have at it, boys.” Pruett has first-hand knowledge of the bump-and-run system, having been bumped out of the lead by Ganassi teammate and recent NASCAR convert Juan Pablo Montoya in the Nationwide race at Mexico City in 2007.

“If it comes down to the last 10 laps and there’s a road racing ringer in the lead, I think he would be gone by the checkered flag. Drivers police themselves.” There’s a system of checks and balances among the regulars, he related, “If you take me out this week, you know I’ll have my chance next week and the week after that. If you’re only in the car for one race, you don’t have that on your side.”

The deck is definitely stacked against the ringers in NASCAR’s road races today. There is the ever-increasing skill level of the oval-track bred regulars and the experience of their teams. They have adopted into their ranks road racers like Montoya and Marcos Ambrose, not to mention long-timer Robby Gordon, and the eternal Don Quixote of NASCAR, Boris Said.

Yet the likes of Ron Fellows and Scott Pruett have been facing long odds throughout their careers. The ranks of professional road racers who made it on talent alone are populated by drivers who never gave up. When the NASCAR challenge is offered, with even the slightest hope it would lead to an historic victory, don’t expect them to back down.

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