Most people know that they race V8 methanol-powered cars, they race on ovals, they crash every now and then, and little else. Many people find it hard to understand some elements of NASCAR, for example the competition caution or the playoff system, and today we’re here to introduce the world to this amazing racing series!
NASCAR stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing and currently represents the most important racing events organizer in the United States. The cars have a common prototype, but three brands put their logos on the body: Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota. The presence of Toyota has been controversial for a long time as the American public dislike the presence of a non-american brand in the series.
These competitions run mainly on ovals, with some exceptions. In recent years, NASCAR started to add some more road courses, but still takes care of keeping the series oval-based. Nowadays, the cars are built by specialists based on the profiles and specifications detailed by NASCAR and the engines are supplied by the major manufacturers, ensuring an even level of competition for all participants. However, car developement is up to the teams and so some cars are better than others and some teams (Hendrick, Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing) are top-tier.
It is known that alcohol traffickers in the United States during the era of prohibition and high taxes used expert drivers who modified ordinary cars to carry heavy loads in their boots. These drivers had to develop driving skills to evade police, especially when their cars were fully loaded.
The drivers and mechanics of these cars began to meet on dirt ovals and show their skills by competing against other drivers. Soon these competitions attracted the attention of more people and popularity rose.
By 1947, after the World War II, stock car racing began to re-emerge as an event that attracted a great deal of public attention.
By this time, each promoter ran the competition as fairly as possible according to their own rules. Events were isolated from each other and drivers from one region rarely raced in another under similar rules.
The historic benchmark for the sport was set by Bill France Sr., promoter of Daytona, by uniting the major stakeholders in the first stock car association, NASCAR, born in December 1947. Two months later, on 15 February 1948, the first race in NASCAR history was held at Daytona Beach and won by Red Byron in a modified Ford.
Building of a myth
Traditionally since 1949 Daytona stands out as one of the most important NASCAR tracks. First it was a cirucit on the beach, then a permanent course has been built near the airport, becoming the first ever superspeedway (defined as a full-flatout track), its importance stands out for its layout of 4 km where all the corners have a camber greater than 30 °. The Daytona 500 is nowadays the most important race of the entire championship, it’s run in february and has an enormous number of spectators every year.
With the passing of time, the Charlotte track in North Carolina, where the longest race of the season, the Coca Cola 600 miles (given its current name) has been run since 1963, was added. Later the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama has been built, becoming the longest oval of the season at over 4.1 km. At Daytona and Talladega, speed restrictor plates are applied on cars, preventing the engine from developing more horsepower and thus limiting top speed.
Bristol in Tennessee is one of the most curious races of the season being one of the shortest of the season, this track is known as “The last great Coliseum”. It’s a short oval, half a mile long, with high-banked corners. In the 70’s the Pocono oval (which is actually a triangle) also entered the scene as one of the most difficult and longest tracks of the season, it is similar in size to Daytona. NASCAR used to race also on the Indianapolis oval, but recently the track has been deemed inappropriate for that cars and so the race moved on the Indy road course. Every year, in august, IndyCar and NASCAR race there in a joint weekend.
About the road courses, Sonoma and Watkins Glen were the firsts. In the Xfinity Series, the second as per prestige, road courses have been a wider part of the calendar for a long time. Recently, a “roval” has been added to the calendar: at Charlotte, in october, the circuit features a part of the oval and a part of a road course. This year, NASCAR is going to race for the first time on a street circuit.
The vehicles are impressive for their characteristics: at more than 1,500 kg, they are the heaviest racing cars in the world, have 5,900 cm3 V8 engines producing 780 hp at 8,000 RPM and exceed 320 km/h. They are 5.8 metres long and 1.8 metres wide.
The task of oval tuning is an art, we can mention some configuration details such as the choice of torsion bar stiffness, which will influence the oversteer or understeer. The 4 wheels have different pressures, the right ones are larger in diameter than the left ones, as they travel more distance than the inner ones.
The camber, caster and stagger settings vary according to the camber of each track. In qualifying, the radiator air intake is completely cancelled (only 4 turns) to prevent air from entering the engine bay, thus preventing the air from acting as a brake when it hits the engine, the radiator and the walls of the aforementioned space.
Improper tuning can be a driver’s personal hell, as happened to Jeff Gordon, one of NASCAR’s top stars of the last decade. There is a race called the “Coca Cola 600” at Charlotte, a 1.5-mile oval. The race is 600 miles long and 400 laps, approximately 4 hours of action. Gordon qualified 3rd, but last-minute adjustments made his car, as the drivers say, “too loose”. He lost cornering stability and grip all over the track. The result was disastrous, dropping to 30th in the final result, 7 laps down on his teammate, who won the race.
The points system and playoff rounds determine the champion of the season. First off, every race is split in three or four stages. The first stages award a small amount of points and one playoff point, while the last awards full points, five playoff points and the race win.
In september, with 10 races still to go, the playoffs start. Race winners have direct access to playoffs, then the best for points up to the filling of 16 spots are taken. In case of more than 16 different race winners, championship points will decide. Only drivers that run the entire championship, or at least plan to, are eligible for playoffs.
The winner of the regular season earns 15 playoff points, second place earns ten playoff points; third place eight and so on up to the 10th. Then, all the playoff drivers get their points brought to equal, with the addiction of personal playoff points for everyone that give a small advantage.
The number of championship drivers in contention for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will decrease after every three Playoff races, from 16 to start; 12 after Playoff race 3, eight after Playoff race 6; and four after Playoff race 9. The same process for playoff points repeats every time.
A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Playoff race automatically clinches the winning driver a spot in the next playoff round.
Four drivers will enter the 36th and final race of the season, the NASCAR Cup Championship. The official finishing position alone will decide the champion.
And now, as the championship is goint to start this weekend at Daytona, after the Clash of Los Angeles, the season opener non-championship round, what about getting involved?