CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — After two decades of the same left turns at the same tracks over and over again, NASCAR finally upended its stagnant calendar with a 2021 schedule that is as radical as the sport has ever seen.
Three new venues. A dirt race for the first time in more than 50 years. And a whopping six road courses for the elite Cup Series in an overhaul unveiled Wednesday that dumped some of the cookie-cutter oval tracks right off the list.
It is a true shakeup after a lack of imagination created the most predictable schedule in sports, one that favored new speedways — 1.5-mile ovals that not only all looked the same, but raced the same, too. Not since Indianapolis Motor Speedway was added in 1994 had a Cup race been awarded to a track that was not part of an ownership group for an active speedway.
NASCAR set aside all the old ways of doing business.
“We said back in 2019 … 2021, you were going to see some really bold changes from NASCAR,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president. “We believe we’ve delivered on that. We are excited for our fans, it’s an historic schedule, the most changes since 1969.”
NASCAR will visit three new venues: Road America in rural Wisconsin, which will host the Cup Series for the first time since 1956; the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas; and Nashville Superspeedway, a visit that was previously announced.
Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee will fill its 0.533-mile bullring with soil for the first Cup race on a dirt track since Richard Petty won at State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh in 1970.
Next year’s schedule was the first time NASCAR could make big changes since 2016, when it entered into unprecedented, five-year sanctioning agreements with race promoters. That meant no changes, even as fans begged for something new as the racing often settled into the monotonous.
The best NASCAR could do was wait for the contracts to expire.
Making the changes meant walking away from Chicagoland Speedway, owned by NASCAR and once a shining example of racing’s expansion into major markets a generation ago. The track in suburbn Joliet was nothing special and its land became more valuable than its spot on the Cup calendar.
Also closed was Kentucky Speedway, the track that began its quest for a Cup race through a federal lawsuit filed against NASCAR. Michigan and Dover Raceway in Delaware will go from two Cup races a year to one.
Each change required a concession from either NASCAR or Speedway Motorsports, the two largest track operators in the United States. Both companies are now privately owned and hold a monopoly on coveted race dates. But both were willing to take risks, give something to get something, and work together to create a modernized NASCAR.
The pandemic this year gave NASCAR an early window to experiment with new ideas, some of which stuck. Midweek races were tried when racing resumed after a 10-week shutdown but the television numbers weren’t good enough to end up on the 2021 schedule. The cost-saving one-day shows of no practice and qualifying are slated for 28 weekends next year, O’Donnell said.
It was an extraordinary effort by NASCAR, which still has six weeks remaining in a 38-race interrupted season that runs from February into November.
— NASCAR next season will race on six road course races, up from three on the original 2020 schedule. Besides Road America and Circuit of the Americas, the Cup Series will also race for the first time on the road course at Indianapolis. The series already competes at Sonoma Raceway in California, Watkins Glen in New York and the Charlotte Roval.
— Roger Penske continued big changes in his first year as owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track in July hosted the first shared weekend between IndyCar and NASCAR, and the Xfinity Series gave the road course the first race for a stock car. Next year, NASCAR and IndyCar will again be on the same weekend in August and the Cup cars will also race the road course. NASCAR for 27 races used the big, 2.5 mile-oval at Indy, but the race was never the thriller Indy and NASCAR imagined — especially for a “crown jewel.” Moving to the road course give Indy and NASCAR something new on what could become a blockbuster, two-series weekend.
— Speedway Motorsports went big in what it was willing to try in rebuilding the schedule. It took its spring race at Texas Motor Speedway and moved it to COTA, then took the All-Star race to Texas. The All-Star event is another crown jewel that has become another ho-hum race on an intermediate track. It started at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1985 and ran there every year but one and was called off this year because of the pandemic. The Texas moves are all-in for Marcus Smith, who is making his own mark on the company started by his father.
“We had a lot of different things on our list,” Smith said. “I know it’s a big risk. But, you know, my dad is a risk taker, I am a risk taker, racing by nature is a risky sport.”
Speedway Motorsports gave its Kentucky date to Atlanta Motor Speedway, which wants two races as it hopes to develop the grounds around the facility into an entertainment complex. Kentucky had a Cup race starting in 2011, but the racing was often boring and now the facility will be repurposed.
— Dover Raceway and Michigan International Speedway each lost one of its two dates. One of Dover’s dates had been previously announced earmarked for Nashville, and NASCAR moved one of Michigan’s race dates to Darlington Raceway. The South Carolina track successfully hosted NASCAR’s return during the pandemic on short notice, held three Cup races for the first time in history, and fans and drivers love the place.
— Bristol Motor Speedway, the East Tennessee race track that once sold out 55-consecutive races, is getting dirty. The massive Colosseum has struggled to draw fans for its spring date, so it will convert the concrete arena into the dirt event fans requested. Smith said it is the company’s biggest gamble for 2021.