NASCAR’s at it again. Faced with a shrinking audience and an on-track product alternatively criticized for staleness and confusing new format changes, the organization is taking a somewhat radical approach to the 2021 schedule for its top-tier series. We’re not just talking about running Cup cars on a dirt track at Bristol. This year, the traditional short track and superspeedway mix also features a record seven road course dates.
Of those, two are entirely new (Circuit of the Americas and the Indianapolis road course), one represents a return after nearly 70 years (Road America), and two are back on the docket after being canceled last year (Sonoma and Watkins Glen). Daytona and Charlotte (which will feature the hybrid ‘roval’ setup) are the only repeats from the 2020 schedule.
So yes, NASCAR’s at it again. And while it’s easy enough to dismiss the Bristol event as somewhat of a gimmick, the expanded road course complement is something else entirely. The decision to more than triple the number of non-oval contests in 2021 reflects a new emphasis on selling NASCAR to a wider swath of racing enthusiasts—especially those more likely to tune in for something more than a high-speed, three-hour parade of attrition.
The funny thing is, this isn’t the first time NASCAR sought to highlight road racing in an effort to shore up a potentially flagging fan base. In fact, almost forty years ago Cup’s Daytona-based brain trust was on the verge of announcing an entirely new direction for the sport, one that would encompass its traditional roundy-round past while building a fresh future with the next generation of race fans and their fickle demands for turns in both directions.
It was called the Left-Right series. No, really. And it was to even have its own special stocker: the Left-Right car.
Still a decade or so away from the peak of its massive popularity, the 1980s saw NASCAR feeling its way out from a regional attraction to a sport with serious national pull. Optimistic about growth but treading largely unknown territory for a stock car promotion, series owner Bill France Sr. and his crew of grassroots racers looked at the rest of the country from their southeastern stronghold and began to feel a little nervous.
The crux of the issue? For a promotion that built itself on the backs of 500-mile oval endurance tests, the distinct lack of NASCAR-appropriate racing venues in the western half of America made national expansion seem like a dead end. This was a huge problem, especially given the massive population boom that was filling not just California’s coast, but also states like Arizona and Nevada with transplants eager to escape harsher climes. The weather was a factor for NASCAR, too, which found itself locked out of several states due to winter’s grip a significant portion of the year.
Things came to a head in 1985 when it looked like Riverside, California, was going to lose its race track. This road course was increasingly threatened by the area’s skyrocketing land values and encroaching housing developments—and it was the only date on NASCAR’s entire schedule that took place anywhere outside of its traditional geographic footprint. Scrambling, officials took stock of what racing facilities remained available on the west coast and quickly discovered that almost every appropriately-sized track stretching from Washington on down to Baja was another squiggle of asphalt in the same road course vein as Riverside. Nary a usable oval in sight.
Unwilling to give up its Golden State foothold, NASCAR did something unexpected: it innovated. Rather than force its thundering behemoths onto a smaller stage, it decided to create an entirely new class of car for a brand new subseries that would offer thrilling racing on street circuits carved out of major cities like a true urban Grand Prix. You know, with left and right turns.
The L-R Car: Smaller, Lighter and Not Quite Better
For an organization that loved to play up its backwoods moonshiner traditions, openly discussing a future that included blasting down metropolitan boulevards like the fancier Indy and F1 operations was a massive conceptual leap. NASCAR did far more than just talk about, too: it created a full development program for a ‘Left-Right’ car (L-R for short), that would be lighter than the existing stock car formula and far better suited for turning in both directions.
While the above might read like a joke—and the dead-on name makes it irresistible, frankly—Cup engineers and car designers took it quite seriously. Recognizing that 3,700 lbs of Chevy wouldn’t exactly boogie through the 90-degree directional changes dictated by the majority of city streets (let alone flow effectively through sinuous road courses), NASCAR looked at next-step-down silhouettes from Detroit.
These included the Ford Mustang, the Pontiac Sunbird, and the Chevrolet Cavalier, each of which was significantly smaller than the Monte Carlos and Thunderbirds found at Daytona and Talladega. While engine options were undecided at the time, NASCAR intended the L-R cars to accommodate either the existing 600-horsepower V8s found in Cup, or the smaller V6 units driven in the Busch series.
“The idea is that we’ll be able to race anywhere,” NASCAR spokesman Chip Williams said at the time. “With this new car, we’ll be able to go to any city and race or any road course.”