NASCAR's Hired Guns, the Road-Course Ringers Who Left Their Mark
Although most fans think NASCAR has been an oval-only series for much of its seven-decades long existence, road-course races have been on its schedule since its inception.
In years past, the majority of the sport’s drivers, including many of its top talents, would circle the road-race dates on the schedule and view them with antipathy. Having cut their racing teeth on oval racing, road courses were just too much of a bother. Drivers and crew chiefs saw all the shifting, the braking and the wear and tear on equipment as an annoyance.
Team owners resorted to hiring road-course specialists from the sports car and open-wheel ranks for these races. These "road-course ringers" were some of the best drivers in the world. But even though their talent turning right as well as left was far better than their Cup counterparts, the difficulty in fielding a successful one-off race was often too great a challenge for even the best of teams and drivers.
Most ringers, while entertaining to watch, were not race-winners.
Then about 15 years ago, the new generation of Cup drivers that came into the sport began to look at the road-course races in an entirely different light. Many went to road-racing schools to hone up on their skills. Today, the practice of hiring "ringers" is almost a thing of the past, as the top Cup drivers of the modern NASCAR era are as good or better than their road-racing counterparts on road courses.
Some teams still bring in a ringer, but these days it's likely to add an additional car to their team’s roster.
Here’s a look at a dozen of the more memorable and successful “road-course ringers” in NASCAR over the past three decades.
Maybe the best known and most successful of all the ringers is Canadian Ron Fellows. His 16-year career in NASCAR, while not as successful as his road-racing career, is noteworthy nonetheless.
Outside of NASCAR, Fellow’s racing resume is remarkable. He has won his class in both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans as well as the 12 Hours of Sebring.
His first Cup race was in 1995 for team owner Victor Sifton at Watkins Glen, not too far from his home outside of Toronto. Fellows finished 35th after an engine issue put him out of the race early. But it was the start of a 16-year NASCAR career that continues today.
He’s driven for some of the best teams in the business, including Hendrick Motorsports. He’s raced at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen or both every year since 1998, with the exception of 2012, when a scheduling conflict prevented him from racing in the Cup races. That year, he drove in three NASCAR Nationwide Series events at Elkhart Lake, Watkins Glen and Montreal, scoring top fives in all three events.
Even with his great road-racing talent, he’s not yet won in the Cup Series. He does have four NNS wins. He also has two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wins, as he competed in that series, mainly on road courses, from 1997-2000.
Patrick Carpentier came to NASCAR in 2007 after a career in open-wheel racing, beginning in the Toyota Atlantics series where he was the champion in 1996 and then to CART, where he was a five-time winner.
In 2007, Carpentier competed in six NASCAR events in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series, focusing primarily on the road-course events. The following year he raced a part-time schedule with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, running on both road courses and ovals. But, his expertise was on road courses, and it showed.
For much of his NASCAR career, Carpentier was hampered by poor equipment, which made his time in the sport all the more difficult. In 2007, he started from the pole in Montreal and finished second. The following year he finished second again.
His final NASCAR race was at Montreal in 2012, where he finished 29th, and after the race, Carpentier announced his retirement from racing.
This weekend, however, Carpentier has come out of retirement to compete in the World RX of Canada event during the Grand Prix of Trois-Rivieres.
Jacques Villeneuve is another Canadian who made the move to NASCAR in 2007 after winning the Formula 1 driving championship 10 years earlier. He also won the Indianapolis 500 in 1995.
In 2007, he competed in two oval races (Talladega and Phoenix) for Bill Davis Racing. The following year, he raced in the NASCAR Nationwide series race at Montreal, where he was leading laps but eventually crashed out.
In 2009, Villeneuve again raced at Montreal, was competitive all afternoon and finished fourth in a wild finish that saw Carl Edwards score his first NASCAR road-course win.
The Canadian found success in the Nationwide Series in 2011 and 2012 driving for Roger Penske at both Elkhart Lake (third and sixth) and Montreal (27th and third).
Villeneuve made one Sprint Cup start in 2013 at Sonoma and retired early with engine failure. He also raced in Australian V8 Supercars.
The 43-year-old is still competitive and will also be at the Grand Prix of Trois-Rivieres this weekend competing in the FIA World Rallycross event.
Second-generation racer P.J. Jones is the son of Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones. He began his NASCAR Sprint Cup career driving for Harry Melling at Sonoma in 1993.
Jones has driven for nearly every team owner in the Cup Series, including Felix Sabates, John Menard, Michael Waltrip and his good friend, Robby Gordon. Jones also managed to compete in 58 CART races from 1996 to 1999 while racing in NASCAR.
In total, his Sprint Cup career covered 13 years and 33 races. His best finish was in 2002, when he finished fourth at Watkins Glen driving for A.J. Foyt. His last Cup race was in 2011 at Sonoma where he finished 43rd driving for Robby Gordon.
Scott Pruett began racing professionally nearly four decades ago. He won two IMSA championships and three Trans-Am championships in the 1980s.
His first NASCAR race was in 2000, after a decade of racing in the open-wheel CART series. He agreed to leave open-wheel racing and drive for CART team owner Cal Wells, who had brought his Tide detergent sponsorship to NASCAR.
For the next eight years, Pruett drove for Wells and then Chip Ganassi in a total of 40 Cup races. His best finish was second in 2003 on the road course at Watkins Glen. Pruett was good on ovals, but his three top-five finishes in NASCAR came on the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Pruett continues to drive sports cars today, winning the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona five times (1994, 2007-8, 2011 and 2013). He still drives for team owner Chip Ganassi.
Andy Lally was a successful sports-car racer when, like many other drivers, he turned his eyes to a career in NASCAR in the middle of the last decade. He made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut in 2007 at Montreal driving for team owner Tad Geschickter. He finished 29th after breaking his transmission.
In 2009, he made his Sprint Cup debut at Watkins Glen driving for team owner Kevin Buckler, finishing 27th. He continued to drive for Buckler for the next two years, running nearly a complete (30 of 36) Cup schedule in 2011. He made three attempts at Watkins Glen in a Cup car for Buckler, with his best finish coming in 2010 when he finished 18th.
Lally continues to race sports cars and is still sought after to race in NASCAR on road courses in the Nationwide Series. He ran in the NNS race at Elkhart Lake in June of this year and finished seventh.
“Mad” Max Papis is an Italian-born driver whose resume includes winning races in nearly every type of four-wheel racing. He was the 2004 Rolex Series champion, and he's competed in both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Indianapolis 500 multiple times.
Although his background in racing was on road courses, Papis desired success on ovals, and in pursuit of that goal over the past decade, he has raced in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series.
He started his Cup career with two starts for Haas Automation in 2008. In 2009 and '10 he ran a limited Cup schedule with Germain Racing. His most recent Cup start was last season at Watkins Glen for Stewart-Haas Racing where he started 29th and finished 15th. In total, he's made 36 career Cup starts.
He is often sought out by NASCAR team owners as a driver coach, having spent time working with several teams, including Stewart-Haas, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing, where he currently consults.
Papis still races on occasion, but at 44 years of age, in his role as a mentor and driver coach, he is far more valuable to team owners.
Tommy Kendall is still remembered by many racing fans for his near perfect Grand Am season in 1997, when he won nearly every race but the final two en route to his third of four championships in that series.
From 1987 to 1998 Kendall was a staple on the Sprint Cup circuit as a road-course ringer, competing either at Sonoma or Watkins Glen or both—as he did in 1993 and 1998. While competitive and entertaining to watch, Kendall was handicapped by the difficulty of fielding a car in a one-off situation.
One or two practice sessions were usually not enough time for any crew chief—and Kendall worked with some of the best—to successfully set up a car for a driver not used to driving the car on a regular basis.
His best showing in the Cup series was an eighth-place finish in 1990 at Watkins Glen.
Kendall went on to become a successful television personality and is often seen doing test drives on Fox Sports 1. He recently started driving professionally again with the SRT factory-backed Dodge Viper team, and he competed in the 24 Hours of LeMans in 2013.
Pictured with Kendall is Canadian driver Paul Tracy, a great road racer in his own right, who dabbled in NASCAR in 2006 and again in 2008.
Said’s storied career in NASCAR began in 1998 when he drove for Jimmy Spencer at Watkins Glen. He started from the pole but unfortunately had an early exit when his engine gave way.
Between 1998 and 2014, Said has competed in 48 Sprint Cup races, 23 Nationwide and 65 Camping World Truck Series events. He won driving in the truck series in 1998 at Sonoma and in the NNS in Montreal in 2010.
Said is known for being tough on the competition and on his equipment. He often has had strong showings cut short by mechanical issues. And he’s not one to back down from a fight with some of the sport’s biggest stars.
While he’s won in both of NASCAR’s minor league series, he has yet to find the right combination to take him to Victory Lane in the Cup series. His best finish in the Cup series was third in 2005 at Watkins Glen.
Said has also established a following of loyal fans, the "Said Heads," who show up at the track wearing oversized afro-like wigs similar to Said’s curly hair and cheer for the Californian.
Marc Goossens is a Belgian-born road-racer whose primary experience was racing in the 24 Hours of LeMans when he ran his first NASCAR race in 2006.
He scored a top 10 in his NASCAR Nationwide (then Busch) Series debut at Mexico City in the spring of 2006. He tried his hand the Sprint Cup Series later that year driving for Robert Yates Racing at Watkins Glen. He started 27th and finished in last place (43rd).
The following year he tried Sprint Cup again—first at Sonoma where he started 21st and finished 36th driving for the upstart Riley-D’Hondt Motorsports (co-owned by current Jeff Gordon spotter Eddie D’Hondt). The team was entered at Watkins Glen later that season but never took the green flag after his team withdrew his entry.
In 2007, Goossens co-drove with six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, but the team did not complete the race due to an engine failure.
Veteran driver Robby Gordon has raced nearly everything from sports cars to Indy Cars to off-road racers. He has found moderate success in all of them.
His NASCAR career began in 1991 with the Daytona 500 where he finished 18th. He continued to race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for 19 years, winning three races; the last was in 2003, driving for Richard Childress Racing at Watkins Glen.
As adept at racing on ovals as he was on road courses, road racing was his specialty, and Gordon could out-brake and out-corner the best NASCAR had to offer. He is one of four drivers (John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch are the others) to attempt “The Double,” racing the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 600 in the same day in 2002.
Gordon’s driving style has often been described as “controlled chaos” by the media and his competitors. He is aggressive yet skilled at making his way through the field.
Many still remember him from the 2007 Nationwide Series finish at Montreal.
Ranger was a successful Canadian open-wheel racer who was racing in the Champ Car World Series before coming to NASCAR as a road-racing specialist in 2008.
His first NASCAR event was the Nationwide Series race at Montreal where he finished 28th. The following year he scored his best Montreal finish, ninth, at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, which is his home track.
In total, he’s competed in 17 Nationwide races, primarily the road-course events. And he’s had one Cup start in 2011 at Watkins Glen where he finished 35th.
Perhaps his best success in stock cars is in the ARCA Racing Series where he has won the race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, a road course, for the past four years (2011-14).
Some information and statistics in this slideshow obtained from official media guides and official driver and race track websites. Additional information from Racing-Reference.info
Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis
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