Road course ringer
A road course ringer, also known as road course specialist, road course expert, or a road runner, is a non-NASCAR driver who is hired by a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series or Nationwide Series team to race, specifically on road courses.
Current NASCAR national-level road courses include Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Mosport. Former road courses include Riverside, Topeka, Mexico City, and Montreal. Typically, only two or three races a year will be a road course in any of the top three divisions, providing limited opportunities for ringers.
NASCAR describes road course ringers as "drivers who specialize in turning both left and right," and says that "perhaps the greatest road-course ringer in NASCAR history might be Dan Gurney" after he won four straight NASCAR races at Riverside. He lapped the field at the 1964 event.
"Ringer" is a slang term commonly used in sports to describe a particularly good competitor who is brought in to win in a specific match as opposed to competing in the entire schedule. It can also be used to describe a professional athlete who competes in amateur sports; a softball team might have a "ringer" who used to play minor or major league ball. The term does not relate directly to racing and does not refer to the shape of the race course.
A road course ringer is often brought in when either the normal driver is inexperienced at road courses, or if the driver is having a poor season and the team needs an excellent qualifying run to qualify for the race. Sprint Cup Series teams who are near the bottom of the top 35 in owner points hire a ringer or adept former competitor like Terry Labonte to ensure that they remain in top 35 to keep a guaranteed starting spot in future races. It is not unusual that a lower level team's best finish would be at a road course because of the use of a road course expert. Some full-time drivers are adept at racing on road courses, but they are not considered road course ringers. Road course ringers have competed in championships which race primarily road courses, frequently in IndyCar or sports car racing series such as ALMS or Grand Am.
I think a handful of guys, or 10 guys, 12 guys that really like going to the Glen and like going to Sonoma and look forward to those races. Then there's probably half the field that can take it or leave it. Then there's a quarter of the field that would be fine if we didn't go.
Notable road course ringers
For a more complete list of current ringers, click here.
- Mark Donohue
- Ron Fellows
- Dan Gurney
- Tommy Kendall
- Tomy Drissi
- Scott Pruett (although he ran the 2000 season full-time, and took wins and poles in open-wheel oval track racing)
- Jacques Villeneuve (attempted the full Sprint Cup Series season in 2008 with Bill Davis Racing)
- Boris Said (although he does compete on a part-time NASCAR schedule)
- Brian Simo
- Max Papis (has run full seasons in the Cup and Truck Series; currently a driver coach at RCR)
- Alex Tagliani
- Mattias Ekström
- Andrew Ranger
- Kenny Habul
- Alex Kennedy
This is a list of regular NASCAR drivers who have shown particular prowess on road courses, though several of the these drivers were full-time road course drivers before transitioning to stock car oval racing.
- Jeff Gordon (9 wins 6 consecutive 1997-2000, 19 top five, 26 top ten, 8 poles out of 42 starts)
- Tony Stewart (7 wins, 5 second place, 12 top five, 19 top ten, 2 poles, in 22 starts)
- Mark Martin (4 wins and 19 top five finishes out of 41 starts as of December 2010)
- Robby Gordon (has won at both Infineon and Watkins Glen since becoming full-time, winning at both tracks in 2003, second at Infineon in 2010)
- Terry Labonte (has driven as a ringer after his semi-retirement in 2006)
- Juan Pablo Montoya (qualified for the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup, won at Sonoma in 2007 and Watkins Glen in 2010)
- Marcos Ambrose (two-time V8 Supercars touring car champion, two-time Watkins Glen winner)
- Michael McDowell (runs most road courses in Nationwide Series; full-time driver in Cup)
- David Gilliland (full-time since 2007; finished second at Infineon in 2008 with Yates Racing)
- Kurt Busch (1 win at Infineon 2011, 2013 and 2nd at Watkins Glen 2010, 7 top five, 11 top ten, 2 poles out of 26 starts)
- Kyle Busch (3 wins, swept races in 2008, 5 top five, 10 top ten, 2 poles out of 18 starts)
- A. J. Allmendinger (1 Sprint Cup win & 2 Nationwide wins, all at road courses; won the 2014 Cheez-It 355 at The Glen to earn a Chase Berth)
- Jerry Nadeau (nearly won at Sonoma in 2002 for Petty Enterprises before a mechanical failure)
- Casey Mears
- Cole Whitt
- Carlos Contreras
- Justin Marks
Dan Gurney won 5 NASCAR races as a ringer, while also succeeding in Formula One. The last win by a road course ringer in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race was by Mark Donohue in 1973 in a Penske Racing AMC Matador in the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside.
Current ringers Fellows, Said, and Pruett had combined for 13 Top 10 finishes in their 35 career road course starts (as of 2007). Said has the only two poles by a road course ringer, but only one was in a road course race. Said qualified on the pole for the 2003 Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Sears Point Raceway and almost won the pole for the 2007 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, when rain cancelled the conclusion of the trials while Said was on the pole. Due to Said not being in the top 43 in points, which is how NASCAR determines the starting lineup in the event rain washes out qualifying, he wound up not making the field and missed the race. Boris Said later won a Nationwide Series race in Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Quebec.
Often, the disadvantage of having the NASCAR race car in itself, with its heavier car, narrower tire, smaller (compared to premium road-racing cars) brakes, (especially with inexperienced drivers) pit stops, and most often longer races (all NASCAR road course races are at least 200 miles/322 kilometers or longer) have hurt the "ringers".
Decline in the Cup Series
In the late 2000s, the "ringer" has steadily disappeared from the Sprint Cup Series. Factors contributing to this trend are:
- The Chase for the Sprint Cup has made it counterproductive for teams to sacrifice the driver points of their full-time drivers in exchange for a possible win by a road course specialist.
- Because of this, full-time drivers have been forced to become more proficient on road courses, which in turn means that the average NASCAR driver today is a much better road course driver than in the recent past.
- A number of drivers with extensive road course experience are now full-time NASCAR drivers, such as Montoya (Formula One and Champ Cars), Ambrose (V8 Supercars), and Danica Patrick (IndyCar Series).
The decline of "ringers" was dramatically illustrated at the 2009 Watkins Glen race. Only one road course specialist was substituting for a driver in a fully sponsored, full-season NASCAR team—Patrick Carpentier for Michael Waltrip Racing. He is considered likely to lose his road course seat in the 2010 season[dated info] when Martin Truex, Jr. takes over the team's full-time ride. Fellows drove in the race with the part-time Phoenix Racing, Said is now a part-owner of his team, and three other specialists were with lower-tier teams without full sponsorship. "Ringers" are nowadays more likely to be found in the Nationwide Series, which uses NASCAR's traditional driver points system without a "Chase", or in second-tier Cup teams.
- Borden, Brett (August 10, 2007). "Road race twists bring out new faces". ESPN. Retrieved 2009-03-15.
- Network, Mike (June 22, 2008). "Infineon: How Well did the Road Course Ringers Race?". Bleacher Report. Retrieved 2009-03-15.
- Aumann, Mark (April 17, 2008). "Gurney was the sport's first 'road-course ringer'". NASCAR. Retrieved 2009-03-15.
- Jensen, Tom (August 8, 2008). "Road Course A Challenge at Watkins Glen This Weekend". Speed Channel. Retrieved 2009-03-15.[dead link]
- Speedway Media
- Bowles, Tom and Heffelfinger, Toni. What's the Call? Road Course Ringers, Frontstretch, June 29, 2005
- Caraviello, David (2009-08-08). "NASCAR's road ringers reaching end of their era". NASCAR.com. Retrieved 2009-08-09.