In Formula One, there’s talk of classic venues like Monaco and Silverstone and their respective places on the F1 calendar. Is Watkins Glen one of NASCAR’s classic venues, at least when it comes to road courses?
“Watkins Glen is kind of a road-racing treasure in our country, just because of all the history and things that it has between the town and the track. That venue has held some great races throughout the years, and our races up there during the last decade have been full of fans and a lot of fun to see how road racing has progressed through the years. It’s fun to go up there. You get a lot of Canadians that come to that particular race at the end of their summer break and it just turns into a fun event.”
What’s a Watkins Glen moment that stands out for you?
“Watkins Glen is home to one of my favorite wins because I was able to beat Tony (Stewart). That was a fun day. Tony has always been really good at Watkins Glen and had a lot of success up there. It’s just a fast racetrack with some unique corners that determine the amount of speed that’s in the lap just because of where the car placement is. The thing that I remember about racing Tony that year is just how good he was in the braking zone going into the ‘bus stop’ in the back. He was always a good road racer and, in those years, he was getting in the Grand-Am cars and he wouldn’t even practice. He would just show up at the races and jump in the car and be competitive. That was just what he did, and he could do that in pretty much anything, and Watkins Glen was just another one of those places that stood out for him through the years where he just dominated.”
You’re still looking for a win this season. Can Watkins Glen be the place to get that win?
“Watkins Glen is a place where we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good runs, and I think going there and having a permanent road course and more of a traditional race, for me, is much easier to prepare for because I know the racetrack and I know the curbs and the bumps and the details of everything that goes on, so it makes me more comfortable prepping for the race. Watkins Glen is always a great place to go this time of year. The fans are always packed in there like sardines and it’s just a fun environment. We’re looking forward to it.”
How does the current-generation racecar perform at Watkins Glen?
“Watkins Glen and the road courses are probably the easiest places that I’ve been when it comes to adjusting in going from the old car to the new car. This particular car has a lot of road-course DNA built into it, and I think with the braking and the tires being a lot lighter and all the things that are built into the car, the road courses have really been the easiest transition just because of the fact that it was kind of leaning toward being built that way. With this particular car, there are always a lot of challenges. Running a couple of road courses back-to-back with Indy and Watkins Glen gets everybody into the road-course frame of mind. We’ll just go up there and try to put ourselves in a good position on Saturday and see where it all evolves to on Sunday.”
We’ve seen some aggressive driving on the road courses of late, and that can lead to some big accidents. What are your expectations for the kind of race that will take place this Sunday at Watkins Glen?
“You probably should expect the exact same thing. Turn one is pretty inviting to be aggressive, and with these NextGen cars you can be more aggressive than you could with the old car, just because you don’t have to worry as much about damage to the body. Everybody just gets in that aggressive frame of mind and, especially at this point of the year where you have a lot of guys who are just chasing championship points and lot of guys who are trying to get in on points, you have so many different agendas to go through and usually those agendas aren’t the same. You have people that are all pretty aggressive trying to get what they want and need, trying to put themselves in position for the end of the year.”
There are now six road courses on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. What sets Watkins Glen apart from its counterparts?
“It’s a traditional, purpose-built road course. When you look at Indy, it’s more like a parking-lot course, and Chicago was very unique in being a street course, Watkins Glen is just that traditional, old-fashioned, straight-up road course, and I think having a permanent course and being able to race on a racetrack that is built for that type of racing is something that everybody enjoys. I think every type of course has its own little niche and the way that things go and the things that people like about them. And then you add in the area, especially this time of year, where you can usually get a little bit of a break from the heat, and that’s always enjoyable. But it’s a great area, it’s a great racetrack, and I think the traditional aspect of a properly built road course is something everybody enjoys.”
How would you describe Watkins Glen?
“Watkins Glen is just a fast, fast track, and as you look at the speed that you carry at Watkins Glen, as far as corner speed, straightaway speed, I feel like it’s the fastest road course we go to with the grippiest asphalt that we go to. There’s just not going to be any corners at Watkins Glen where you blow the back tires off. You’ve just got to get the car turned and keep your momentum up to be good in the braking zones.”
Attending a race at Watkins Glen seems to be an experience. What makes Watkins Glen such a fan favorite?
“Camping. You’ve got a ton of campers up there that show up year after year, and then you’ve got all the Canadians who show up for their last summer fun, for the most part, that come down to the race. Road-course racing has just taken such a different transition in the last 20 years. Today, the road courses are some of the most attended races and some of the fan favorites just because they’re in great spots and people love to go there. Road-course racing is just thought about so much differently in today’s world because of the style of racing and the places that you can go and watch these races. They’re not your traditional oval-track site selection. They’re in neat spots and people enjoy the atmosphere, especially at Watkins Glen.”
This will be your last NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen. What are some of your top memories from the track?
“It’s definitely been a place where we’ve been fortunate to have some success racing with Tony (Stewart). I think one of my favorite moments was beating Marcos Ambrose for the pole in the Xfinity race several years back, just because road-course racing is not something that I would hang my hat on and say this is something that I’m consistently good at. Anytime that we were able to have success on the road courses and be able to have those moments has been something I’ve always enjoyed. I ran my first race at Watkins Glen in 1998 in the Truck Series and have really evolved through the years from the Xfinity cars and the Cup cars. For me, racing with Tony and getting that win and being able to enjoy that and know all the time and effort that we put into the road-racing program during those years was a lot of fun because I learned a lot and we were able to carry that through the years and be competitive. You win some, you lose some, but throughout the years, it’s been a pretty good place for us.”
The notion of road-course ringers have come back in vogue after Shane Van Gisbergen’s shock win on the Chicago Street Course. But the original road-course ringer was Ron Fellows. How successful do you think he would be in the current-generation racecar?
“Ron was really everybody’s mentor on the Chevrolet side back then, along with Boris Said. Both of those guys have had moments where they’ve helped and coached. The car leans much more toward people coming in and being able to be successful on the road course just because of what it is. Our cars were much different in that particular time as far as how you had to drive them, and how you’d have to control the wheel hop – everything that went with how the car handled. It was much more specialized as far as the car in those days. Ron was always good, and did great on the ovals, as well, in the Truck Series. He was, definitely, somebody everybody looked up to, to help kind of change the course of road-course racing – how you looked at it and the things that went with it. Because when I started, the road courses were just, ‘Ah, we have to go to the road courses so we’ll just find a car, find a motor. We’ll go out there, make some laps, and then go home.’ Now, it’s very technical and I think a lot of the things that go with it – many of the things that they pushed then, but it wasn’t as competitive in the early-2000s as it was in the mid-2000s to now. It’s at another level now with a lot of guys who are just very good at what they do on the road courses, and they’re able to come in here and adapt to the car.”