My first impression when driving NASCAR's new roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway? Wow.
I was provided the opportunity a few weeks ago to drive a pace car for some laps around the road course/oval combination of a track at Charlotte, and I left knowing that nothing has prepared competitors for this.
It's not uncommon for NASCAR drivers to be introduced to tracks that they have never competed at during their careers, as that exercise typically happens during a driver's rookie season.
As an example, I assure you no racetrack in North America can prepare drivers for their first visit to Darlington, Pocono or Bristol, as each has special characteristics that separate them from each other.
But as unique as each of those venues are, most drivers do have the value of referencing experiences from another track they traveled along the way to help accelerate their learning curve.
You can often make a comparison between turns or degrees of banking. For instance, you can say this particular turn reminds me of such and such, like Bristol reminds me of Winchester, and I can enter the turn the same way I drove Turn 3 at Nashville.
It's why during my driving days following every practice, qualifying event and race, I would record all of my thoughts about the racetrack that day. It would include the things I did well, things I discovered and even the things I struggled with while driving.
Those notes and mental memories may have been how I managed a bump on corner exit, how I changed my approach to a corner during the race to enhance my speed through the center, or how I improved my acceleration on a corner exit.
My notes would prove invaluable each time I returned. I would often reference and depend on the volume of information I had stored in my mind, along with the hard drive of information I used, to improve and evolve as a driver.
Charlotte's road course creates challenges beyond any track I have ever experienced. It is difficult, if not impossible, to apply the same approach of comparing it to other places in portions of the circuit because no other comparison exists.
During testing at the track this summer, most drivers struggled to maneuver through the course and several crashed. Those results fostered a greater sense of vulnerability for drivers and team members alike. Drivers repeatedly expressed concern regarding the paper thin margin of error associated with the road course portion of the layout. There are walls to the inside and outside, with little room to escape if you drive over the edge or exceed the track's limits.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson perhaps described it best when talking about how most drivers feel about the task ahead: "You are on pins and needles afraid you are going to bust your butt. There's not a calm place around here."
The challenges of the roval are not exclusive to drivers. Crew chiefs are challenged by equipping a car for turns 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the traditional Charlotte Motor Speedway oval -- one that requires a conventional setup and meeting the requirements of a road coarse setup, designed to support left and right turns that must allow for heavy braking. It is going to be a compromise, at the very least.
How about the challenges of gearing your racecar for the high speed of the oval as well as the low speeds associated with the infield? What if the track slows much more than anticipated as the surface dirties from potential calamity? Conversely, what if the speeds actually increase, as drivers improve in this learn-as-you-go environment?
And how about the spotters? How do they support and protect their drivers through this track with no previous experience to draw from?
At Watkins Glen and Sonoma, spotters have the experience of knowing where to preach offense and where to recommend defense because the passing zones are well-defined. At Charlotte's road course, passing zones may be determined through a process of elimination and that could prove to be an ugly scene for many.
In all my years in this sport, I cannot remember drivers, crew chiefs and spotters expressing this high level of apprehension in advance of one specific race. Within all the dread and concern exists opportunity for those best prepared mentally.
The drivers I project will do well in Sunday's historical race are Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. They all will be walking a tightrope as they press forward to identify the limits of each turn, each breaking zone and the transitions between road course and oval.
They will be competing with a completely different frame of mind, much less risk.
Whether young or old, experienced or not, they'll all be walking the same tightrope on Sunday, but without a net.