NASCAR: Ranking the 10 Best Venues to Watch a Race

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2012

NASCAR: Ranking the 10 Best Venues to Watch a Race

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    In my book, Trading Paint: 101 Great NASCAR Debates (2010, Wiley & Co.), one of the chapters that I received the most feedback from fans and readers on was the best racetracks in NASCAR.

    Obviously, such a list is subjective—for example, while some people may love Daytona International Speedway, others may hate it—but it's always fun to banter between friends and fellow fans about which are the best of the best tracks in the sport.

    Borrowing from that theme, Bleacher Report presents the 10 best venues in NASCAR. You may not agree with some of our picks, but that's the beauty of such a topic: No one is totally right or wrong with their favorites.

    So without further ado, here are the 10 places that really get our motors running, presented in countdown format from 10th to first.

No. 10 Sonoma Raceway (formerly Infineon Raceway)

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    The name may have changed (Infineon decided not to renew its naming rights earlier this year), but the track itself remains. While it's difficult to get to, once you get to Sonoma Raceway, it's one of the most beautiful and picturesque venues of any racetrack I've ever seen.

    And it's that beautiful setting that only enhances the great road course style racing there. I mean, at what other tracks can you find couples or families camped out, enjoying picnic lunches or sipping wine and watching as the cars go by?

    To paraphrase a song by Billy Joel, "A bottle of white, a bottle of red, perhaps some great racing at Sonoma instead."

No. 9 New Hampshire Motor Speedway

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    Without question, New Hampshire Motor Speedway is one of the most popular tracks among race fans—particularly those that live in the Northeast—for its thrilling side-by-side action around the one-mile flat racing surface, it's picturesque and bucolic setting and perhaps some of the friendliest fans around.

    Boston is only an hour and a half away, New York City is about three-plus hours away, and if you want to try a different culture, Canada is just a short drive away as well.

    While NHMS is somewhat isolated geographically in the middle of a very large rural and lakes area, there's a plus side: It's all racing and nothing but racing every time you go there.

No. 8 Las Vegas Motor Speedway

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    Since Las Vegas Motor Speedway was reconfigured and the fan-favorite Neon Garage in the infield was constructed, the entire experience of attending a race there has improved dramatically.

    Arguably one of the best one-and-a-half-mile tracks on the circuit, the beauty of LVMS is not just the great racing that usually takes place there, but also the ability for fans to take in a show on the nearby Strip, to enjoy world-famous cuisine at bargain prices (particularly buffets) and for no additional charge, watch impromptu air shows (for free) from fighter jets that take off from Nellis Air Force Base, directly across the street from LVMS.

    Las Vegas has also become the new home of the NASCAR Awards Banquet at the end of each season. Unlike the former home—New York City—the city of Las Vegas has embraced NASCAR and made a true destination city even better with all of the week-long activities that surround the banquet.

    If there's one downside to LVMS, it's that there's only one race there each year. But track owner Bruton Smith continues to work on that, trust me.

No. 7 Phoenix International Raceway

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    Name me one other racetrack around where you can watch all the action while sitting on the side of an adjacent mountain. That's the beauty of Phoenix International Raceway, where the seating and aesthetics are considered among the best in the West, if not in the entire sport.

    Oh yes, and where else might you see an occasional wayward snake in the brush nearby, straining to see what's going on at the track below.

    The flat one-mile racing surface provides plenty of side-by-side racing action and fender-banging. It's kind of like the bigger brother of the half-mile track at Martinsville Speedway.

No. 6 Talladega Superspeedway

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    When I think of Talladega Superspeedway, the first word that typically comes into my mind is "massive." At 2.66-miles around, Talladega offers an expanse unlike any other track in NASCAR. I often tell folks who wonder what the overall facility is like because of its size that 'Dega could very easily fit a small third-world country in its huge infield—it's that big.

    The racing there is also very good, although at times the racing gets overshadowed by the massive wrecks that take place—the so-called "big one"—much like the 25-car pileup we saw two weeks ago there. Such results are the nature of the beast of restrictor-plate racing.

    And while many drivers can't wait to get into and out of 'Dega, fans love to visit, camp, view the adjacent International Motorsports Hall of Fame and, in general, just have a good old time. If you ever wanted a good example of "Sweet Home Alabama," Talladega is definitely the place.

No. 5 Darlington Raceway

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    This is old-school NASCAR racing at its best.

    The oldest track on the circuit, it warms the heart to see how this track has resurrected itself over the last six years, going from a track that lost one of its two annual events and appeared on the verge of losing the other to one of the most beloved tracks for both drivers and fans alike.

    More than $20 million in improvements have helped revitalize Darlington, but more important, those improvements have helped bridge generations of racing and brought generations of race fans together in their love and admiration for the 1.366-mile egg-shaped facility.

    And while numerous fans were disappointed when the track lost its traditional Labor Day weekend event, it has bounced back with an equally popular new tradition on Mother's Day weekend.

    Talk about reinventing itself, Darlington has done that—with style, class, panache and great success. If you've already visited places like Bristol, Daytona, Indy and Texas, this place should definitely be next on your list.

No. 4 Texas Motor Speedway

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    Races at Texas Motor Speedway are more than just challenging the one-and-a-half-mile racetrack.

    Rather, they're full-fledged events with sideshows including concerts, exhibitions, displays and activities that engage fans.

    Oh yeah, and the racing is pretty darned good as well. It's like a three-ringed circus—minus the bearded lady (although if having a bearded lady would help sell tickets, track president Eddie Gossage would hire her—he already has used capuchin monkeys to draw attention and promote races).

    With a loyal fan base that keeps coming back year after year—not just because of the two races there each season, but also for the overall experience—TMS lives up to the reputation of its home state, where things are always bigger and better in Texas.

No. 3 Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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    NASCAR will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary of racing at the legendary Brickyard, otherwise known as Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    Without question, this is one of the most historic and legendary racetracks in the world, and NASCAR has certainly added to that history and legacy in its time racing around the two-and-a-half-mile facility.

    Plus, a trip to IMS would not be complete without a first—or return—visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. While obviously heavy with displays from the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500, NASCAR has developed an ever-growing presence there as well.

    Much like Bristol and Daytona, if you can make even one trip to Indy, you would leave there with memories that would last a lifetime.

No. 2 Daytona International Speedway

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    Host to NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway has always been at the top of the list for drivers.

    If you win there, you are in very select company, having conquered one of the most difficult tracks in the sport.

    While the early July night race is a visual spectacular with all the lights and sparks flying from the cars, the Daytona 500 is the place to be, if you can make it.

    It's where the new season begins, where hopes, dreams and optimism flourish. If you want a little dessert to go with your racing smorgasbord, the beach is less than six miles away, and Walt Disney World is a little over an hour away in the opposite direction.

    Plus, if you come down for the 500, you're only a short distance from Major League Baseball spring training.

    More than anything, they don't call the Daytona 500 "The Great American Race" for nothing—it almost always lives up to its billing.

No. 1 Bristol Motor Speedway

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    If you have a bucket list—or even if you don't—and there is only one racetrack that you must visit in your life, Bristol Motor Speedway is the place.

    Take a bowl-shaped arena that may be equally conducive to host a football game, squeeze in 160,000 fans and then add 43 race cars bouncing off of each other on the so-called "World's Fastest Half-Mile," and you wind up with BMS.

    For many fans, a trip to Bristol is like no other, a veritable pilgrimage to the Mecca of stock car racing. Sitting in the stands and watching cars jockey for position is a feast for the senses—the colorful sights, the almost-deafening sounds, the smell of burning rubber and the sweet taste of potential victory that can turn sour and be taken away in less than a split second.

    NASCAR visits BMS twice a year, but if we had to pick one race to attend, it is always the Saturday night race under the lights in August—an experience like no other.