NASCAR is the most competitive motorsport series because of what they did to the track.
Sweet Daddy Dee, one of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s cast, gave his take on NASCAR. “What kind of three-and-a-half hours is this? Look, they’re making a left turn! Oh, they’re making another left turn! Oh, they’re making another left turn! I wonder what’s gonna happen next?”
Most of my friends express surprise when they learn I follow NASCAR (which I take as a compliment). Then they echo Sweet Daddy Dee’s comments: “How can you watch a bunch of guys driving in circles? Isn’t it just a bunch of left turns?”
Left turns at 200 mph
A left turn in NASCAR is wild. Have you turned left at 200 mph recently? NASCAR drivers enter corners at speeds ranging from 200 to 220 mph at Michigan International Speedway, one of NASCAR’s fastest tracks. Even at Martinsville, NASCAR’s shortest track at a half mile, corner entry speed is typically 115 mph.
At these speeds turning the car is unlike your drive to the corner market for your late night Rocky Road ice cream blitz. To maximize their speed, NASCAR drivers push tires to the edge of their traction limit, so close that a single bump or gust of wind can push the tires beyond that limit. What is beyond the traction limit? You know, if you’ve ever driven on ice.
Cars in NASCAR are on the verge of wrecking on every turn. Imagine turning the steering wheel at 150 mph, not knowing if the car will turn or, instead, drive straight into the wall. If the front tires slip the car won’t turn. Your instinct as a driver is to keep turning the wheel and slowing down, hoping the tires will grip again. When the tires finally grab the track, the front of car turns hard left and the tail snaps around. You’re dangerously close to a spin. Now you have to turn right, toward the wall(!), to stop the spin.
Once you regain control of the car, it’s time to exit the corner. You ease on the gas, hoping the rear wheels won’t lose traction and cause the car to spin out. All of this assumes your right front tire, the tire that handles the biggest loads on an oval, will not blow out under stress. When that happens hang on tight. You’re along for the ride, straight into the wall.
And that’s one turn. NASCAR drivers do this hundreds of times in a race.
Full contact racing
As if that were not enough, NASCAR is a full contact motor sport. While trying to survive the turn, drivers also have to contend with competitors who are not always cooperative. Other auto racing series have penalties for things like blocking faster cars from passing and “avoidable contact,” a euphemism for “you don’t play well with others.” NASCAR is a self-policing sport embodied in the phrases “Boys, have at it,” and “Rubbin’ is racing.”
You are free to block in NASCAR. Once, maybe twice. Then the guy getting blocked will wreck you. Problem solved. As for avoidable contact, NASCAR uses tactics built upon contact. Consider, for example, the bump draft used on super speedways. One car deliberately bumps the car in front of him (while going 200 mph). Done right, the result is an increase in speed for both cars. Done wrong, the result is The Big One, caps and all, a spectacularly terrifying multicar crash. You won’t see that on a road course.
Where’s the best place for NASCAR-style avoidable contact? The corners.
The impossibility of passing on a road course
Don’t get me wrong. I love road course racing. Besides NASCAR, I follow Formula 1, Indycar, and IMSA sports cars which race mostly or only on road courses. I also drive on iRacing.com, an online, highly realistic virtual racing simulator in which you race cars on tracks of your choice against other online drivers. I race exclusively road courses on iRacing.
But there’s a major drawback to road racing. On a road course, passing depends on the corners. I know you’ve seen a fast car draft up on a slower one on a straight and blow his doors off. That in-your-face maneuver began in the last corner.
For equal cars, there are only two ways to pass on a road course. You either outbrake the other guy going into the corner, sliding under him to pass, or you get on the gas sooner than he does exiting the corner, allowing you to close up on the straights. That’s it. There’s nothing magical taking place.
Most road courses have only a few passing corners. Some tracks, like the venerable Lime Rock track, have only one good passing opportunity per lap. Road racing thus amounts to a bunch of cars driving around in single file, lap after lap, while they size each other up for that one passing opportunity. If they fail on the pass, they have to fall back and try again. Exciting, huh?
With the highly aerodynamic cars used in Formula 1 and Indycar, even corners are not enough to permit passing. Cars with front wings are so dependent on airflow that driving behind another driver can upset your car so that passing is not possible. This leads to boring parade events like Indycar’s recent “desert debacle” at Phoenix in which virtually no passing took place. (And that was on the NASCAR oval.)
To overcome these limitations, Indycar and Formula 1 resort to gimmicks to enable passing. Indycar has a Push to Pass system that temporarily gives drivers an extra horsepower boost. Formula 1 uses a Drag Reduction System (DRS), a flap on the back wing that temporarily opens in passing situations. Despite these “fixes” passing is still difficult, especially in Formula 1 where winning the pole position in qualifying is tantamount to winning the race.
By the way, NASCAR does race on road courses. The top level series races on two iconic road courses, Watkins Glen and Sonoma. NASCAR just announced that the playoff tracks in 2018 will include a road course. The lower tiers run as many as five road tracks each season. NASCAR making right turns is loads of fun to see, in part because most of the drivers have limited road course experience. More important, the cars aren’t designed for these tracks. Following big, heavy stock cars swaying from side to side is like watching UPS trucks racing side by side. It’s a blast.
Its all about the corners
A race is a spectacle, entertainment for a large audience. A three-ring circus, but louder and faster. Imagine going to a circus, looking forward to such a three-ring spectacle, but finding you can only see the red-headed clown with the big shoes standing just in front of you. Everything else is out of sight. Welcome to a road course race.
On a road course, you typically see only the portion of the track directly before you, a corner or a straight. To see the rest of the race you are dependent on large-screen displays trucked in for the day. You’ve just paid good money to sit in the sun and watch TV. Too bad you are not at a NASCAR oval race. The entire track, and the forty or so cars on track, are in full view.
What NASCAR has done is to create tracks that are all corners, maximizing passing opportunities and the excitement of side by side racing. I’ll admit I don’t have the stats to back me up, but I’m convinced you will see more competitive passes for position in a NASCAR race than in any other top tier motor sport race. Add to that the full-contact, always-edge-of-wrecking style that is NASCAR and you have an unparalleled entertainment spectacle unfolding in full view of the paying customers in the seats.
Yeah, they’re making another left turn. That’s what it’s all about.
What do you think? Do you know where I could get lap by lap stats to compare the number of competitive passes per race for the NASCAR, Formula 1, Indycar, and IMSA?