By Adam Brewton
Founded in 1948, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR, is a sanctioning body that hosts auto racing events all over the country. These events range from small local races to the pinnacle of stock car racing, the NASCAR Sprint Series. When people talk about NASCAR, they’re almost always referring to the Sprint Series. While just about everyone knows that stock car racing can trace its roots back to the days of bootleggers and moonshiners, today it’s one of the largest spectator sports in the world. And the Chevrolet NASCAR program has enjoyed unprecedented success, with 11 consecutive Manufacturer Championships.
Although their bodies are based on the models you can buy at your local dealer, the cars used in a NASCAR Sprint Series race are worlds apart from your everyday commuter vehicle. NASCAR has strict rules governing the dimensions of the cars that all teams must follow.
The bodies are made of carbon-fiber and very thin steel, and are merely the skin of the car. The actual structure of the car comes from the roll cage and other tubing. The latest versions of NASCAR vehicles are referred to as GEN-6 cars, and they started being used in 2013.
The engines are very different as well. Although the Chevrolet SS comes from the factory with a powerful V8, the setup is entirely unique for the racecar version. Produced by a variety of manufacturers, the engines must all meet NASCAR specifications. They’re 358-cubic-inch V8s that use a carburetor to deliver fuel to the engine, and can produce more than 850 horsepower. Road-going cars use electronic systems to control fuel delivery. The drivers must shift gears using a 4-speed manual transmission, and all the cars are rear-wheel drive.
Despite using what may seem like antiquated technologies, these cars can reach speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.
Drivers are drawn to NASCAR because of the highly competitive nature of the sport. The guidelines placed on the cars to even the odds mean that it’s up to the drivers and their teams to win the race using skill and strategy. It’s not uncommon for racers and even champions from IndyCar and Formula One to try their hand at it.
Just as with any other sport, there are legends and legacies. The legends, like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, began racing back when the cars used were modified versions of what you could buy at your local dealer. Both Petty and Earnhardt had sons who’ve gone on to become successful racers in their own right. Even those completely new to NASCAR racing have heard the name Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But NASCAR isn’t just a boys’ club. From the first female racer, Sarah Christianson, in 1949, to Janet Guthrie in the late ’70s, to current racer Danica Patrick, NASCAR’s female racers have always been just as competitive and fierce as their male counterparts.
NASCAR races happen on a variety of tracks all over the country. The tracks are broken down into 4 basic categories. The main three are variants of the oval shape. Daytona International Speedway is considered a tri-oval, thanks to a kick-out that creates an extra turn.
1) Short tracks are generally 1 mile or less (Bristol Speedway 0.53 miles)
2) Intermediate tracks are generally between 1 and 2 miles in length (Las Vegas Motor Speedway 1.5 miles)
3) Super speedways are more than 2 miles in length (Talladega Super Speedway 2.66 miles)
4) Road courses are generally between 1 and 2 miles in length (Sonoma Raceway 1.99 miles)
Road courses require a different car setup, as well as a different team strategy, because they have both left- and right-hand turns, and very short straightaways compared to their oval cousins.
Each driver’s starting position is determined before the race during qualifying. Each team is given time to set up for the track and practice. They then establish a qualifying time by running a lap. On race day, the driver with the fastest qualifying time is placed at the head of the starting grid, also known as the pole position.
During the race, drivers stay in communication with their team through a radio headset mounted in their helmet. Teams relay information to the driver about other competitors’ positions, talk strategy and receive information from the driver about how the car is performing. If small adjustments need to be made during a pit stop, the pit crew can be ready to make the adjustments as soon as the driver pulls in. If the car is loose or tight, the pit crew will make quick adjustments to the car’s suspension. Being loose causes the rear end to lose traction and the front of the car to spin toward the inside of the corner. Being tight causes the front end to lose traction and the car to slide toward the outside wall of the corner. If they adjust it too much, the driver can communicate this and adjustments can be made during the next pit stop.
A typical NASCAR pit stop involves changing all four tires and refilling the car with 24 gallons of fuel. All this happens in 15 seconds or less. A botched pit stop, or even a delay of a few seconds, can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Now that you know the basics of NASCAR, you’re ready to watch your first race, in person or on TV!
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Adam Brewton is the automotive contributor to Primer Magazine and currently serves as the supervisor of Student Services for Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Alabama. His hobbies include adventure racing, anything involving the outdoors, and zombies. He spends his free time enjoying all these things with his wife and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @adambrewton.