SONOMA, Calif. (December 4, 2000) - When Sears Point Raceway officials were deciding upon improvements to the track configuration for next year's Dodge/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Winston Cup event, they found the best input came from some of their harshest critics - the drivers who compete on the circuit.
After consulting with more than 15 Winston Cup drivers, raceway officials have developed a plan to re-configure the Chute, which was first introduced in 1998 and connects Turns 4 and 7 on the twisting road course. The modification will be ready for the 2001 Dodge/Save Mart 350, June 21-24.
Officials consulted with NASCAR drivers Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jerry Nadeau, Bill Elliott, Ken Schrader, Scott Pruett, Ted Musgrave and Boris Said in developing the concept that will be used. Gordon is a three-time winner at Sears Point and Wallace a two-time winner, while Martin has finished no lower than sixth since 1995. Ray Evernham, who will help oversee Dodge's return to Winston Cup next year, was also consulted.
In addition to dialogue, Gordon, Said, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Steve Park, Kenny Wallace, Mike Skinner, Jeff Burton, Robby Gordon, Jeremy Mayfield and Ward Burton each sat in a simulator and navigated three proposed layouts of the Chute and gave their thoughts. The simulator was developed by Pabst-Racing.com out of Petaluma (Calif.) and proved extremely helpful in the process. Pabst-Racing.com also developed the software program used in the simulator.
"To our knowledge, this is the first time computer simulators have been used as a design tool for a major raceway, but I suspect it will not be the last," said Steve Page, president and general manager of Sears Point. "This simulator was extremely helpful in this process."
The modified Chute will feature the following elements:
a. A 300-foot straightaway from Turn 4 to what will become the new Turn 4a. This segment will feature straight-line braking before entering Turn 4a;
b. A sharp 70-degree right-hand turn from Turn 4a into the Chute. There will also be 150 feet of runoff room available outside Turn 4a;
c. Once out of Turn 4a, drivers will navigate an 870-foot pure straightaway, which will feature speeds in excess of 110 mph. This will be one of the fastest segments of the track;
d. Turn 7 will boast a 90-degree right-hand turn placed 100 feet beyond the current Turn 7 apex. The turn will feature 120 feet of runoff.
e. The modification will increase the length of the road course from 1.95 to 1.99 miles. The number of turns remains the same (10).
The entire segment will span 1,170 feet, nearly 300 feet more than the original Chute (890 feet). Drivers expect the new Turn 7 to be a passing zone, and some even said Turn 4a could be another passing zone, adding to the excitement of the race.
"When they came to me earlier in the year, their ideas seemed positive," said Martin. "Most drivers are apprehensive about change, but they are just trying to make it better. It should make for better racing. Their ideas look good to me."
Said Wallace: "I told Steve (Page) that they better look at changing the track again after they opened the Chute (in 1998) and now they will. This new move will be great and it should really make next year's race a lot more exciting."
The Chute was originally constructed in 1998 with the intention of giving fans better visibility of the road course. The original move also shortened the course - from 2.52 to 1.95 miles - and would provide fans with 40 additional laps, meaning more opportunities to see the stars. The third objective was to provide better competition. The first two objectives were met, but the third didn't work, which is why officials are now correcting it, with the aid of drivers.
"Closer, more competitive racing is what these changes are all about," Page said. "That's what the fans want, it's what the drivers want and what we want. We appreciate all the time these drivers spent with us this year. Now we can look forward to seeing the action move from drawings and simulators onto the track where it belongs."
"What I see with the modified Chute is that it could very well give us the best of both worlds. The fans will continue to get a great area to watch the race and we'll be able to pick up two more passing zones (at Turn 4a and 7). This looks like a good option to me," Schrader said.
Drivers say the modification will likely allow for passing in Turn 7, which will become a second-gear turn. They are hopeful it could become similar to the hairpin at Turn 11, where drivers try and out-brake each other to create passing zones.
"From what I can tell, we're going to get one passing zone at Turn 7 and maybe another one at Turn 4a," noted Said, who won the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event at Sears Point in 1998 and will compete in the Dodge/Save Mart 350. "The problem before was that we were never straight when we were braking. We were turning the whole time, which makes it tough to pass. By braking in a straight line, it will enable us to dive on the inside of someone to make a pass. I just think it's great that a track took the time to talk with the drivers to develop this."
The original 12-turn, 2.52-mile road course will still be used for all road-racing events at Sears Point that are not NASCAR-sanctioned.