Be it by design or by necessity — and it's certainly a little bit of both — the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule looks radically different than any that has come before it.
For one thing, there will be seven races on road courses this year, more than double the amount from the previous two seasons and the most in the 72-year history of the circuit. The previous high was five road courses in 1957, when there were 53 races on the docket.
Three of these races will take place on new venues or configurations: Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas; Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.; and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which replaces the Brickyard 400 on the track's legendary oval layout.
But wait, there's more!
For the first time in 50 years, the Cup Series will also contest a race on dirt. The annual spring event at Bristol Motor Speedway will see its high-banked concrete surface temporarily covered in clay for a doubleheader with the Camping World Truck Series.
The last of the new additions is a return to the Nashville area, home to one of NASCAR's strongest and most loyal audiences, with a tripleheader set for June at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tenn.
Absent from the schedule are Auto Club Speedway in Sonoma, Calif., Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky. Texas Motor Speedway will host only one points-paying race but gains the All-Star Race from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Michigan International Speedway and Dover International Speedway both lose one of their two dates, allowing for Darlington Raceway in South Carolina and Atlanta Motor Speedway in Georgia to reacquire second dates more than a decade after losing them.
So, what's behind the largest schedule shake-up in at least 52 years? First and foremost, it was NASCAR making good on a three-year promise to evolve the schedule as soon as a five-year sanctioning agreement ran its course from 2016-20. Fans had issued a clarion call of sorts for road courses, short tracks and dirt, and the sanctioning body delivered.
"We said back early in 2018 that we wanted to evolve the schedule," says NASCAR vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell. "2020 was going to be a year where we could make some moves within the portfolio of races we had. You're going to see some really bold changes from NASCAR in 2021 and beyond. We believe we've delivered on that."
While delivering action to fans was foremost in the decision-making process, the schedule has elements of practicality as well. NASCAR tracks are believed to have lost an estimated $150-$175 million in combined ticket revenue in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is where the road courses can benefit the immediate health of the industry. Road America essentially replaces Chicagoland on the schedule, and the spacious nature of the 640-acre facility allows fans to spread out without being shoulder to shoulder in the grandstands, while overcoming attendance limitations imposed by local governments.
The same is true of Circuit of the Americas, which essentially replaces the points-paying race at Texas Motor Speedway for the same reasons — the 1,500 acres of property allow fans to spread out and socially distance properly.
The second races at Atlanta and Darlington allow for additional races within a three-hour radius of the teams, whose facilities are entirely located in the greater Charlotte area, preventing them from having to make expensive seven-hour trips to Kentucky or 12 hours to Chicagoland. This is crucial, as NASCAR will retain the single-day format it adopted in 2020 upon returning from the spring shutdown. It's simply another cost-cutting measure built into the schedule.
"You look at some of the things we were criticized for in the past, probably somewhat fairly, in terms of going away from our roots, moving races away from a Darlington and Atlanta," O'Donnell says. "It was important for us to introduce new markets but also embrace what got us to where we are."
The dates at Road America and Circuit of the Americas represent a seismic shift in how the NASCAR industry will schedule races moving forward. Prior to 2021, the only independently owned venues on the schedule were the longstanding stops at Dover, Pocono and Indianapolis. Each of the 38 race dates is currently held by some combination of NASCAR, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Dover Motorsports, Mattco Inc. or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These dates are fiscally valuable because they generate a majority of their revenue from the television contracts. In other words, tracks turn a profit each weekend before a single fan walks through the turnstiles.
Road America and Circuit of the Americas are independently owned but have been leased by NASCAR and SMI, respectively, for the 2021 season. Dover Motorsports owns Nashville Superspeedway and shifted its second date south. The industry showed remarkable flexibility in working to deliver something new to the marketplace.
The circuit's long-awaited return to Nashville is a natural result of the sport's long and storied history with the city. Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway short track hosted at least one Cup Series race every year from 1958 to 1984 before the facility began to fall into a state of disrepair. This was around the same time that NASCAR began to expand away from traditional short tracks to the more pristine intermediate facilities that have defined the past three decades.
Nashville Superspeedway was one such facility. It opened in 2001 with the goal of bringing the Cup Series back to Music City but failed to do so due to NASCAR and SMI's contractual gridlock.
In recent years, SMI has worked toward partnering with the city to bring NASCAR back to the historic short track, especially as Nashville has become a consistent top-five television market each weekend. NASCAR also moved its season-ending championship banquet to downtown Nashville in 2019.
Despite the addition of the 1.33-mile superspeedway to the schedule, there is still a passionate contingent of fans lobbying the sanctioning body to return to the Fairgrounds Speedway as well. NASCAR president Steve Phelps hasn't dismissed the possibility.
"I understand it's not the Fairgrounds," Phelps says of the Nashville date. "The Fairgrounds is not ready to host a Cup event. So, there needs to be significant upgrades made to the facility to make it Cup worthy again. People say, 'Oh my God, you're going to go to the Superspeedway and then you'll never come back to the Fairgrounds.' That's just not a true statement... I'm hopeful that Governor (Bill) Lee and the mayor (John Cooper) and the people of Nashville want to create this partnership and bring NASCAR racing to the city.
"Racing at the Nashville Superspeedway rewards the great fans that we have in the Nashville area. We've done a ton of research on Nashville fans, and they are some of the best in the country and they should be rewarded with a race at a track … without having to travel 400 miles."
With Bristol converting one of its two dates to a temporary dirt race, that leaves just five races out of 36 on paved short tracks. That's far too few, says 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski.
"I'd like to see short tracks represent 30 to 40 percent of the schedule," Keselowski says. "I think mile and a half (tracks) have their place somewhere around the 25 percent mark. Road courses, maybe a little less, 10-15 percent.
"And then you have your superspeedways that round out the percentage pie. It's fair to say short tracks should be 40 percent of the schedule."
NASCAR will soon acquire another true short track in an unlikely location. Auto Club Speedway's two-mile footprint will be partially demolished and reconfigured into an action-packed half-mile that borrows elements from both Bristol and Martinsville. The new configuration is expected to be ready for 2023 and will give the Cup Series three half-milers and one three-quarter miler (Richmond).
"I think we're on the journey to balance," O'Donnell says. "It's been talked about [for] '22 and beyond — we talk about California, the potential there. We're going to get closer and closer to balance. It's currently 13 or so intermediates, we're up to six road courses, and we'll get short tracks in there."
The architect of the schedule is Ben Kennedy. The grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. is a retired race-winning Truck Series driver and the current vice president of racing development for the circuit his family founded.
It's quite the resume for the 29-year-old, who is expected to become one of the sport's most influential leaders over the next decade. In his first two seasons working out of the glass office across the street from Daytona International Speedway, Kennedy's duties have included international expansion and schedule realignment.
Kennedy's experience as a driver has been instrumental in putting together the most challenging slate possible. "I think when you look at the opportunities we've had to pursue a lot of the new markets (and) iconic racetracks that our OEMs have asked for, our race teams have asked for, our fans have asked for, I think it's an exciting change," O'Donnell says. "It's certainly unfortunate that sometimes you have to move races out of markets to be able to do those things. We still have loyal race fans in those markets. We tried to keep in proximity with new races and new events that fans could go to.
"We think the work that Ben Kennedy has done by leading this really continues us on that journey not only for this year, but we're going to continue to be bold in '22 as well."
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)