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 Xfinity 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.-- Tony Stewart
This is a list of regular NASCAR drivers who have shown particular prowess on road courses, though several of these drivers were full-time road course drivers before transitioning to stock car oval racing.
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.
Ron Fellows has won the most races by road ringers, winning in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series mostly at Watkins Glen and once in Montreal. He almost won 3 Cup series races, finishing second at the Glen in 1999 & 2004, and dominating at Sonoma in 2003.
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".
In the late 2000s, the "ringer" has steadily disappeared from the Sprint Cup Series. Factors contributing to this trend are:
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 did not compete for Michael Waltrip Racing the following season, though did run for Latitude 43 Motorsports for 8 races. 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