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Should NASCAR Lengthen Road Course Races?

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Yesterday’s NASCAR Cup Series Race at Watkins Glen set a modern-era record. It was the shortest race run to its’ full distance of the modern era at 1 hour, 58 minutes, and 44 seconds.

This follows up the Indianapolis Road Course race, which clocked in at 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 59 seconds. The time of the race was a hot topic of discussion, but, given the fact that this is a recent pattern, should NASCAR look at lengthening road course races a bit more?

The Debate About NASCAR Race Lengths.

NASCAR race lengths have been a hot topic of discussion for years. What used to be a schedule filled consistently with three-and-a-half-hour, 500-mile races has changed much in recent years. In 1993, 60% of races were advertised as 500 miles or laps, compared to 19.4% in 2023, and, the length of races is still a source of controversy.

It is definitely an understandable argument as most professional sports tend to fall between 2 and a half and 3 hours. NASCAR races still tend to run long when compared to other motorsports like IndyCar and Formula One. The recent trends show that NASCAR is working to shorten races to some extent.

However, is there a line in terms of how short some races can get in NASCAR? Should NASCAR really be aiming for races to be as long as Watkins Glen was? In order to analyze that question fairly, we need to look at how long road course races generally are, and what it was that caused Watkins Glen to be so short on Sunday

Comparing Watkins Glen Races and Road Course Races in 2023

Watkins Glen races tend to be some of the shortest races on the schedule in terms of time. Since 2008, only one race at Watkins Glen has been more than 2 hours and 30 minutes, and that race was in 2013. This is not a race that generally tends to have multiple accidents and caution flags.

However, when looking at statistics, Watkins Glen and Indianapolis both were anomalies in terms of road course races. The Indianapolis Road Course race took only 2 hours and 9 minutes, but the 2021 race took over three hours with the 2022 race being more than two and a half hours. Both of these races also had only one yellow flag each, which significantly shortened the race.

In 2023, the other three road course races clocked in at far longer than both Watkins Glen and Indianapolis. Sonoma, which had only two yellow flags, took 2 hours, 40 minutes, and 12 seconds to complete, and Chicago, despite being shortened by 22 laps, took 2 hours, 50 minutes, and 48 seconds to complete. Circuit of the Americas took more than three and a half hours to complete primarily because of the amount of wrecks at the end of the race.

Those races really have no need to be longer than they already are. Watkins Glen and Indianapolis were anomalies in terms of road course race lengths, and Indianapolis bucked its’ own trends. Watkins Glen, however, is always a shorter race, so, should the question be more aimed at Watkins Glen as a race track?

Should Watkins Glen Be a Longer Race?

Those who advocate against shorter races say that longer races are part of what sets NASCAR apart from other motorsports. NASCAR races are tests of endurance rather than short sprints like Formula One. Watkins Glen, however, is shorter than the average NASCAR race year in and year out.

There could be some merit to adding maybe 10 or 15 laps to Watkins Glen to allow the race to more consistently fill that full TV window that NASCAR races usually fill. An addition of 10 or 15 laps adds maybe between 15 or 20 minutes or so to a race depending on yellow flags. This would put the race generally closer to how long most road course races are in NASCAR today.

However, it is also important to note that Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen was an anomaly. Most Watkins Glen races do not have only one yellow flag, so, adding too much would be a problem. The race does not need to be 500 miles or anything, but, adding a few laps would put it more in line with most NASCAR road course races.

There is also the argument that this race falls in line with how long IndyCar races generally are, so NASCAR should strive to have races that are this long. Maybe that is a route that NASCAR could go, but it is a tough sell to traditionalists. Looking at lengthening races may also feel a bit backward based on the current trends of the sport.

Regardless, Sunday was more of an anomaly than anything. It does not seem to predicate the need for sweeping changes, but it may highlight changes needed for a specific event.

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Joshua Lipowski

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