NASCAR turns first laps at COTA

(CMS/HHP Harold Hinson photo)

NASCAR spent Tuesday testing at a brand-new venue for the series, the Circuit of The Americas in Austin Texas.

One reigning and two former NASCAR Cup Series champions shook down the 20-turn, 3.41-mile-long course in stock cars as part of a Goodyear tire test as the series prepares for the inaugural Cup Series Texas Grand Prix on May 23.

Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. led the first contingent of NASCAR Cup drivers to ever turn laps on the course that has hosted Formula 1 and IndyCar races among others.

“The track’s fun,” Elliott said. “It has a lot of character to it, I feel like. I’ve never been here, never seen it in person before today and really haven’t watched a ton of races here, so it’s really been a pretty steep learning curve for me, trying to piece together all the different parts of the track and understand where you need to be good and how to make it flow. I’m trying to learn, but it’s been fun. I hope people (fans) will come out and give it a chance. It’s a different type of racing.”

Tuesday’s testing was under clear skies, low humidity and cool temperatures. Late May will be early summer in Texas and the weather will no doubt be much different.

“Typically, when the temperatures are down, you’re going to go faster. I assume speeds will be down when we come back from what we’ll end today at, would be my guess,” Elliott said. “Whatever you’re struggling with, I feel like it’s just always worse during (race) day. Tire falloff will be worse and so on. Cars probably won’t drive as good. Grip levels will be down, and you’ll see that on track with the lap times.”

NASCAR announced a new schedule for 2021, a schedule that will include not only new tracks, but more road courses, including COTA which has never hosted a NASCAR race.

“The reason we come here for these tire tests is to really prove out a few key things,” Keselowski said. “For NASCAR, it’s proving out some of the facilities – whether it be the timing lines or the pit road maps and all these things – to make sure that when we come here for the race, it’s a seamless experience without any obvious, ‘why didn’t we think of that?’ moments, so it kind of works through a lot of those issues, so there’s a team of NASCAR folks that are here doing just that.

“And same thing for Goodyear. It’s called a Goodyear tire test, but I think of it as a NASCAR test that Goodyear’s at because Goodyear’s here as well, just trying different version of tires – just keeping their eyes open for anything that might be an issue when we come back here. So far, there’s no indications of anything like that, so we’re checking all the boxes to make sure we’re prepared.”

The May race will mark the second road course race of the season but the first on a track purpose built as a road course like Sonoma or Watkins Glen.

“I feel like this is kind of part Sonoma, part Watkins Glen,” Truex said. “There’s some fast sections, some slow sections. It’s got the older asphalt, wearing tires out more like Sonoma, but it’s got the really high-speed straights and the really hard braking zone like Watkins Glen going down the backstretch. It’s a mix of both. It’s got a little bit the blind corner, up-and-down elevation change like Sonoma. It’s a pretty unique place. It’s been pretty fun to learn so far.”

Drivers hope to take some of the lessons learned in testing not only to the May race, but the inaugural race at another purpose-built road course, Road America in July.

“A lot of similarities – really big straightaways, not as many esses at Road America, but tight chicanes. Big slowdowns,” Keselowski said. “We’ll definitely take a lot of what we learn here up to Road America.”

When the series returns in May, Elliott, Keselowski and Truex and all the drivers will be part of NASCAR’s expansion into new, somewhat uncharted, territory.

“It’s huge,” Truex said. “Anytime we can go somewhere new, it’s cool – get some local fans to maybe come to their first race. A lot of fans travel to the races. They don’t mind traveling. If we can get some new folks interested, especially with it being a road course — there’s no road course anywhere close to here that we’ve ever raced at – that could have the potential to bring in some interest of some new people, some sports car guys and F1 guys, MotoGP guys that come here and like this stuff and understand this place.

“This is a unique facility. It’s an honor to get to come here and get to run on the track. I suppose it will be a special day when we get to come here and run on this track for race weekend.”

Greg Engle