Twice a year the turn- left-only stock cars of NASCAR's Winston Cup series are modified for a weekend of right turns too, for road races on the twisting courses at Sears Point, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y.
The West Coast version is Sunday, the Save Mart-Kragen 350, on Sears Point's revamped 1.949-mile track near Sonoma. The length has been reduced from 2.52 miles with the elimination of the "carousel," two low-speed turns in the middle of the circuit. The shorter track caused the race length to change from 74 to 112 laps, which amounts to 218 miles.
Drivers who earn their living 32 weekends a year spinning around ovals at breakneck speeds with little shifting have interesting approaches to the problems posed by braking, shifting, accelerating and turning in both directions. Some of their comments:
* Darrell Waltrip, a five-time winner at the old Riverside road course: "A road course is all about driving ability. I think oval success is about 60% car and 40% driver, but on a road course it's just the opposite. Mainly because there is so much more to do for a driver. He has to shift, brake and hit the apexes. An oval is a seat-of-your-pants thing, while a road course is very technical.
"The key to Sonoma is staying on the road. That track is so narrow that you can drop off there in a heartbeat, and when you do there is no coming back.
"It was more fun back in the old days because none of us had road-racing cars. Whatever transmission you ran at Daytona you used at Riverside. We tore up a lot of gearboxes and we really slid the cars around the track. At Riverside around Turn 2 and up through the 'esses' the car slid so much that it was like being on dirt. You just don't do that anymore. You have to be real precise. Everyone now has a road racer. Sonoma and Watkins Glen are the only places we run these cars."
* Dale Earnhardt, winner of the 1995 Sears Point race: "It's a fun change running on a road course. The new configuration is going to put all of us on an equal playing ground. I think I'm going to miss the carousel. That's where I made the pass to win this race a couple of years ago."
* Jeff Gordon, Winston Cup champion, looking for his first Sears Point win: "I've had a second, a sixth and a third there. I liked the old track, but the more laps I run [in testing], the more I like this track with the new section. Before, if you didn't make your pass in the carousel, then you had to wait another lap to make a pass."
* Ernie Irvan, a two-time winner (1992 and 1994), who considers Sears Point his home track, having grown up in nearby Salinas: "I thought it was a pretty good race track before they changed it. It was really a tough place to get around, but that made it fun. I think they may have messed with a good thing."
* Ricky Rudd, four times on the pole at Sears Point, and the 1989 winner: "I think the key is to get a good starting position. We've sat on a lot of poles out there and a lot of front-row starting positions that help with the traffic situation. I think my background as a kid racing go-karts on big road courses probably helped. Right from the beginning, it seemed like I liked road courses and road courses liked me."
* Rusty Wallace, winner of the 1990 and 1996 races: "There's just something about road courses that I seem to get a handle on rather fast. I just go out there and put a charge on. Unlike some of the other drivers who use more finesse, my style may not be pretty on the road courses, but we manage to get the job done.
"If points were given on style at the road courses, I guess I'd be out to lunch. There are a couple of drivers who are a lot smoother, but it's being there at the end going for the checkered flag that's the most important thing."
Wallace will be driving the same PR-12 car that he won with two years ago when it was a Ford Thunderbird. The body style was changed to a Taurus this season, but that's nothing new. It was originally built as a 1993 Pontiac intermediate track car.
"We call it 'Killer' because it just kills the competition," Wallace says.
NEW RIDE FOR KENDALL
Tommy Kendall, America's most talented unemployed race driver, has landed a part-time job with Team Sabco, driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo at Sears Point and Aug. 6 at Watkins Glen.
Kendall, a four-time Trans-Am road racing champion from Santa Monica who lost his job when Jack Roush pulled his team out of the Trans-Am series this year, has been doing television for ABC and ESPN between appearances in the International Race of Champions' four-race series.
Driving a Winston Cup road race car will not be new for Kendall. He has driven in 11 races, his best finish an eighth place at Watkins Glen in 1990. It will also be the third time he has driven for Team Sabco. In 1991 he filled in at Sears Point for injured the Kyle Petty and drove a second team car at Watkins Glen.
"I love driving a stock car on road courses," Kendall said. "The cars are heavier than what I'm used to, and the challenge of maneuvering the car through the corners gives me a rush. I've driven at Sears Point and Watkins Glen before, so I'm familiar with the tracks, but the Cup cars add extra excitement because it's a different kind of racing."
Jeff Green drives the No. 46 car in oval track races.
Gordon, who drives a Toyota in CART races, will be in Buz McCall's Caterpillar Chevrolet, and Hornaday will be in the Tyler Jet Motorsports No. 17 Chevrolet, Darrell Waltrip's old car. It will be the team's first Winston Cup race since Tim Beverley purchased the team from Waltrip.
The unlimited hydroplane season opens this weekend on the Ohio River at Evansville, Ind., with defending champion Mark Tate without a ride and only two competitive boats in the fleet. Tate was retired when his boat owner, Steve Woomer, died and his two boats were put up for sale.
Dave Villwock, in Miss Budweiser, and Mark Evans, in Pico American Dream, appear to be the only unlimiteds capable of winning during the 10-race series, which includes a Sept. 19-20 race on San Diego's Mission Bay.
Jos Verstappen will make his debut in a Stewart-Ford at Sunday's French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours. The Dutchman, who drove for Tyrrell-Ford last year, will be a teammate of Rubens Barrichello for the remainder of the season.
Indy Racing League driver Mike Groff filed an arbitration demand Thursday in connection with his departure from the Byrd- Cunningham Racing team after the Indianapolis 500. Groff, who lives in Pasadena, filed the complaint with the American Arbitration Assn., citing team owner Jonathan Byrd with breach of contract for refusing to pay him the prize money he earned. Groff had been with Byrd-Cunningham since July 1996.
Ventura Raceway has added a U.S. Auto Club three-quarter midget race to its Saturday night IMCA sprint car and street stock program. The race will feature Japanese TQ champion Hiromi, who will make his U.S. debut in a car purchased from Randi Pankratz of Atascadero, who is second to Alex Harris in USAC standings. The race will be televised in Japan.
Sprint Car Racing Assn. cars and drivers return to Perris Auto Speedway on Saturday night, with Mike Kirby on a hot streak. The Lomita veteran won two races last week at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix to pull within 43 points of Richard Griffin, 1,106-1,063, in the series. Kirby has won eight of 18 races.
The late Jack Milne, 1937 world speedway motorcycle champion and with Harry Oxley the man who revived speedway racing at Costa Mesa Speedway in 1969, will be remembered Saturday night with the first running of the Jack Milne Cup. The championship cup is one Milne received for winning the Queen's Coronation race in London in 1937.
The Southern California Timing Assn. will hold its third annual Muroc Reunion this weekend on the historic Muroc Dry Lake course inside the Edwards Air Force Base grounds just east of Rosamond. Speeds in the range of 300 mph are expected from the fastest cars on the 1.5-mile land speed course. There will be no admission charge for the Saturday and Sunday competition.
The National Hot Rod Assn. pared 19 employees from its Glendora-based staff this week in a restructuring of its 22-race, $30-million Winston Drag Racing operation, plus its 5,500-event competition at more than 140 member tracks. Among those let go was Mike Lewis, general manager of Indianapolis Raceway Park and a former NHRA field director.