A: Oh, I like this question! I know some road racers/drivers think that “just going around in circles” is boring, but I can tell you that it’s not. In fact, it’s some of the most fun and challenging racing I’ve ever done. And here’s the most important thing: what a driver learns on an oval will make them a better road course driver.
Okay, let me get to your question…
First, I’d say great oval racers are better at reading what’s going on up ahead on the track, and anticipating the movements of other cars and track conditions. This helps them make better decisions and react faster to changing situations. A lot of that comes from how they use their vision. A piece of advice I was given the first time I raced an Indy car on an oval was to look so far ahead that I’d be able to see the rear of my own car. Yes, a bit of a stretch, but I got the point. And it’s not just looking far ahead that matters, but thinking further ahead.
It’s a common thought that the car’s setup is more important on an oval than it is on a road course, and I’d agree with that. So, great oval racers are more sensitive to what the car does and needs, and are better at communicating that so the setup can be tuned. Road racers tend to drive around handling problems more than oval racers – great oval racers know when to try to compensate, and when not to. Often, trying to drive around a handling problem on an oval leads to a visit with the wall.
Related to these things is the ability to adapt to changes in track grip, the tires, and how the car is handling. Sure, I said that great oval racers know when not to try driving around a problem, but they also know when and how to.
Great oval racers are very precise and smooth in their driving, making gentle and controlled steering inputs. This allows them to maintain better control of the car and optimize their speed through the corners. My experience says that if a road racer matches their line through a corner consistently by a few inches, then oval racers are within a few fractions of an inch. That’s the precision it takes to be great on an oval.
Because traffic on an oval is a constant, the best oval racers simply have better racecraft. That is, they’re better at setting up passes and getting through traffic, as well as knowing how to defend their position. Again, some of that comes from how they use their vision, but also by being aware of who is around them, thinking ahead, and making good decisions.
I’d also say the best oval racers are better at managing their mental state. That is, they stay calm when that’s not easy to do, make better decisions because of this, and stay focused.
So, sure there are some driving techniques and skills that separate the best from the less-than-best, but I think it’s more the mental game that makes the biggest difference. Managing their state of mind, thinking strategically, looking and planning ahead, being aware, and making good decisions are what the great oval racers do better than most. When I watch a great oval racer use these abilities, and manage their car, their driving, and the traffic, I’m blown away by how good they are.