By Isaac Donsky, Columnist
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
NASCAR’s 2021 schedule hit the presses last Wednesday, and it’s all anyone in the industry has been talking about. For good reason.
NASCAR has run essentially the same schedule for years, making slight adjustments here and there to the dates where races are run. Occasionally a race would move to a different part of the season, but that was the extent of scheduling changes.
That all changes in 2021, as NASCAR has announced sweeping changes to the Cup Series schedule, with multiple new tracks added to the calendar and several tracks losing their dates. The last time I can recall NASCAR changing things up so much was the ill-fated realignment of 2004, which saw controversial scheduling changes and lawsuits ruin NASCAR’s public image (That’s a topic that deserves its own column. Stay tuned). Hopefully, things go smoother this time around.
With that being said, here are the top three things to know about NASCAR’s new schedule:
- Cookie-cutter tracks lose and gain race dates
The term ‘cookie-cutter track’ refers to racetracks constructed during the late 1990s and early 2000s that were all 1 ½ miles in length. These tracks are carbon-copies of each other, with very few differences, and were designed to appeal to big-market areas. Most of them are hated by the fanbase for the lackluster racing they produce, and it appears that NASCAR execs are listening.
Two cookie-cutters, Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, and Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kentucky, have lost their lone race dates for 2021. Kentucky’s departure is long overdue, as, in my humble opinion, it’s the worst track on NASCAR’s schedule. Just awful, awful racing.
Chicagoland hurt though. This track had some character to it, and some memorable races during its 19-year run. It’ll be missed.
While some cookie-cutters have lost dates, others have gained new dates. Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway, two of the oldest tracks on the schedule, have both gained an extra race weekend. NASCAR will also welcome a brand new track to the calendar in 2021 with the addition of Nashville Superspeedway, a concrete oval located in Lebanon, Tennessee. Nashville is a tough little track that NASCAR’s lower divisions used to race at during the 2000s, and it will be interesting to see how the Cup Series fairs.
- Road Courses Galore
Ah, the road course. The only time you’ll find NASCAR drivers making both left and right turns. Historically, NASCAR has held up to three road courses in a season, with races at Sonoma Raceway in California, Watkins Glen International in New York, and the infield road course of Charlotte Motor Speedway returning to the calendar for 2021. But they won’t be alone, as NASCAR welcomes three new road courses for a total of six events for next year. The new tracks are as follows:
- Daytona International Speedway’s infield road course (This will hold the season-opening exhibition event instead of a points-paying event.)
- Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Infield Road Course
- Road America
- Circuit of the Americas (Host of the US round of the Formula One World Driving Championship).
With these new tracks added to the schedule, NASCAR drivers will have to acclimate themselves to the challenging demands of road course racing, and carnage should be expected. So mark these races on your calendars as must-watch races.
- NASCAR Returns to Dirt
In 1970, NASCAR ran its final Cup Series race on a dirt track. Dirt racing was how NASCAR got its start, but the grassroots racing style was considered outdated by the 1970s. But for 2021, the ancient art of mud-slinging returns.
NASCAR will be doing something very interesting for its return to dirt. Instead of going to a permanent dirt track, NASCAR will fill Bristol Motor Speedway, an asphalt track in Tennessee, with thousands of pounds of earth. A makeshift dirt track, right in the middle of NASCAR’s homeland.
This is easily the most controversial portion of the new schedule, as many fans have questioned why Bristol, one of the most exciting tracks on the calendar, must give up a date for a dirt race. Why not go to a proper dirt track? Why Bristol?
Well, I can answer that. First, no dirt track exists in the United States that can support the crowds that NASCAR attracts. Secondly, Bristol has done this before. Back in 2001, the World of Outlaws dirt-racing series filled Bristol with dirt and ran several races. And it worked.
Finally, while Bristol’s late-summer night race always sells out, the spring race has seen a massive drop in attendance. This is largely due to the weather, as the spring Bristol race has been postponed by rain for almost every year. Fans stopped showing up, and NASCAR had to do something to keep fans interested.
Overall, I’m excited for what the future holds. This new schedule is a massive gamble on NASCAR’s part that was desperately needed. I don’t know if it’s going to be a home run, but you can bet that I’ll be watching every second of it.