The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing operates three major auto racing circuits in the United States. The Winston Cup series is the most well-known group of races, and is essentially the "major league." Right behind that is the Busch Grand Nationals, consisting of teams who are usually working towards getting major sponsors so as to move into the Winston Cup series. Parallel to these two circuits, NASCAR operates the Craftsman Truck Series, where replica of current-model pickup trucks are raced on the same tracks. This writeup deals primarily with Winston Cup races and rules, but most of the content is similar for Busch and Craftsman races as well.
The races run by NASCAR are by far the most popular stock-car/closed-wheel events, to the point where the name has become synonymous with stock car racing within the United States. As an organization, NASCAR competes primarily with IRL (The Indy Racing League) and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) for audience and sponsorships. It receives many of its participants from other racing circuits like those sponsored by SCCA, NHRA and primarily ARCA.
On paper alone, NASCAR is "National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc.," a company which operates races. It is a privately-held company headquartered in Daytona Beach, Florida.
In 1949, this corporation began running the "Strictly Stock Series," a racing competition featuring direct-from-the-assembly-line vehicles as an "American response" to some of the special purpose racecars that were being designed and built for other competitions (and also as a marketing gimmick for American car manufacturers). The first year featured eight races and produced Red Byron, the first NASCAR champion, who piloted a 1949 Oldsmobile.
The races, rules and organization morphed over the years, as legends like Richard Petty and David Pearson participated in the league. In 1972, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company entered in a relationship with NASCAR and the "Modern Era" of racing began with the re-designation of NASCAR's primary racing circuit to the "Winston Cup Series." The formerly "stock" cars became increasingly modified to permit more effective racing, eventually becoming today's closed-wheel machines that have only external appearances in common with their showroom brethren.
In the 1980s, NASCAR exploded in popularity as some of the winningest drivers in the sport's history competed in hyped races. With the flood of young, marketable drivers in the 1990s, NASCAR quickly became a mainstream sport not limited to backwater fans. More names of NASCAR participants became recognized in households North of the Mason-Dixon and inside city limits. Almost constant rule changes by the race officials to promote a competitive atmosphere have helped set the stage for NASCAR to become one of the biggest ratings draws on television in the twenty-first century.
NASCAR also sanctions small racing circuits around the country to varying degrees, in support of the "auto racing community". The company tends not to be as involved with officiating these races but they do provide guidance, monetary support, and expertise. Popular series include:
along with other regional racing series.
Whereas most sports have local teams, the competitors in NASCAR races have no "home field." While every team has a headquarters (most within an hour drive of Charlotte, North Carolina), the constituents of the team tend to come from all over the country (the Southeast, California and New York seem to be the locations of common hometowns) and therefore have to prove themselves on the track to gain fan support.
Like any team, NASCAR teams consist of members who train and practice for various specialized roles. Some of the roles on a racing team include:
- Driver: Like the pitcher, the quarterback, or the goalie, the driver is who receives most of the attention. The driver operates the car during the race and represents the sponsor of the team. These are the celebrities of NASCAR. And, they're the ones who get the chicks.
- Pit Chief: Most NASCAR Pit Crew chiefs know the car better than anyone else. They communicate with the driver and make the decisions on tire changes, refueling, and handling adjustments -- and then command the pit crew to carry out the necessary tasks.
- Tire Changer: The tire changer's primary responsibility is to remove the five lug nuts on a wheel, pull it out of the way, place a wheel with a replacement tire into position and tighten the captive lug nuts on the new one. Repeat. Why replace the whole wheel? It's a lot easier than removing and mounting a tire. But don't argue semantics with a NASCAR fan.
- Jackman: The jackman carries a special kind of lever over "the wall", places it under the car, and lifts the entire car with a single motion of its extended handle (unlike the repetitive ratcheting of consumer auto jacks). After the tire changers finish replacing the wheels on one side, he lets the car down and rushes to the other side to lift the other half of the car in the air.
- Gasman: Carrying one or two large red plastic containers, the gasman jumps over the wall and adds fuel to the car -- although if he spills any or doesn't properly insert or remove the spigot, the team could be penalized crucial seconds.
- Spotter: The eyes and (inner) ears of the driver are supplemented by the spotter, who sits on an elevated platform somewhere in the center of the race track. The spotter has binoculars, computers and radios to help describe track conditions to the driver and receive information about the car's handling so as to relay it to the pit chief.
- Owner: Participating in NASCAR races is expensive and the money has to come from somewhere. The team owner is responsible for managing the sponsorships, hiring a pit crew, driver, and maintaining the staff of engineers and mechanics who design and build the cars and keep them running. Often, a NASCAR team owner will "own" more than one team that will work together to find appropriate car settings for a given track or to fend off an aggressive competitor during a race.
NASCAR fans tend to be rabid in their support or mocking of the teams, centered primarily around their interaction with the drivers. Although without any "home teams," it's hard for many people to understand how the fans can become so affixed to particular drivers. For the most part, fans pick their favorite or least favorite driver based on rather inconsequential reasons, which the fans justify retroactively with statistics once they have followed the team through a number of races. Typical reasons one will find for a fan to initially chose a driver:
- "Mark Martin finished ahead the three drivers from my hometown, so I'll root for whoever is beating him."
- "My company runs the webpage for Rusty Wallace, so I decided to follow him."
- "I shop at Home Depot all the time, and my kid sister works there, so I like Tony Stewart."
- "Ryan Newman graduated with a degree in engineering -- so did I! I hope he wins."
- "Dale Earnhardt is an aggressive driver and does what it takes to win the race, that's why I like him."
- "Dale Earnhardt takes unnecessary risks that put the other drivers in danger, that's why I don't like him."
- "Dick Trickle. Nuff said."*
(Note: these are dramatizations. Mostly.)
As noder Dann has pointed out, without a favorite driver, watching NASCAR is just watching a bunch of cars drive in circles. In order to enjoy watching the races, one must pick a driver to focus on, if only to understand how small decisions made during the race affect standing, progress, and later conditions. Watching the driver as he progresses through his career (Figuring out which of the above rationalizations is based on the one described by Dann is an exercise left to the reader.)
The fans also seem to have much more disposable income than those who follow other sporting events, as is evidenced by some of the items available at "Souvenir Gulch" at most race tracks. Team-sponsored trucks, independent vendors, official NASCAR booths, and any number of other individuals set up a carnival midway like corridor of commerce at every race. NOMEX-brand flame-retardant suits bearing all the logos of the team sponsors, die-cast car miniatures available in 1:4, 1:16, 1:32 and 1:100 scales, T-shirts, jackets, life-size cardboard stand-up photos, plaques, flags, actual car hoods and fenders, replica car hoods and fenders, used helmets, spent tires, hats, nightgowns, grills, stickers, pillowcases, snowboards, keychains, tents, silverwear, curtains... and on and on and on. While most, if not all, of the products are available online, via mail order, and in stores, the merchandise is not nearly as awe-inspiring or oppressive as it is along the Souvenir Gulch.
Races are typically run on Sunday afternoons, starting around 1:30 PM. Some, however, occur on Saturday nights at tracks with lighting installed. This is particularly true of the "all star events," most notably The Winston, held historically in Charlotte, North Carolina's Lowe's Motor Speedway. Every race is dubbed with a name, usually indicative of its primary sponsor. Typical race names include NAPA Auto Parts 500 or the Coca-Cola 600. The number is the "advertised length" of the race -- although how it is measured differs from track to track. Usually 500 or 600 refers to how many miles the race covers, but for some races held on short tracks it is simply the number of laps (1000 laps at Martinsville in an attempt to drive 500 miles would be painfully monotonous for even the most die-hard fan). Either way, this number is set to provide an event that lasts roughly four hours under typical conditions.
As a fleet full of trucks show up at a speedway each week, there is much to be done to prepare for the race weekend. The starting grid must be determined and cars must be adjusted to the conditions of the track. Teams spend several days getting ready so that each race can go off smoothly so as to provide the highest entertainment value to the fans.
A day or two before the race, the teams must qualify. During the qualification period, each team is scheduled time where their car can run the racecourse alone. Several laps are made while the pit crew adjusts the engine, suspension, tire pressure, and aerodynamics of the car, trying to get the best combination of speed, acceleration and steering capabilities. The driver then tries to complete two laps as fast as possible. The average speed is computed based on these two laps and the drivers are ranked fastest to slowest. The team with the best two-lap time will start in front of all the other cars; this driver is said to have the pole position. In NASCAR Winston Cup races, the team sitting in the pole position receives an award from the Anheiser-Busch company at the beginning of each race called the "Bud Pole award."
Once the teams are ranked, the top 43 are said to have "qualified" and may participate in the race. Other teams which had slower times may also end up participating in the event that one of the 43 other cars experiences trouble before the start of the race; these teams are provisional racers. (There are conditions in the rules to allow for a 44th racer, but these are very extenuating and rarely occur in practice.)
Following the qualifying, there is a period where the teams are again given free reign of the track for a short period. This gives them time to make final adjustments to the cars prior to the start of the race. For the Winston Cup races, this period is usually shortly before or after (but on the same day as) the Busch Grand National race, and tickets are sold to the event. This is one of the best times to get a good glimpse of (and sometimes a chance for an autograph session with) one's favorite driver. It has become known as "Happy Hour" and is often sponsored by various beer and tobacco companies from season to season.
On race day, prior to the race, the crowd is entertained with pre-event fare similar to any sporting event. The drivers are introduced, often a speech is made by a local (or national) dignitary, a religious officiary offers his attempt at a non-denominational prayer that invariably invokes Jesus and the word "safety", the "Bud Pole" trophy is given to the driver who earned it during qualifying, the National Anthem is performed (of the United States and of Canada if any Canadian teams are participating -- though oddly no Japanese National Anthem was performed at the 2002 MBNA All-American Heroes 400, where Hideo Fukuyama became the first Asian participant in NASCAR). At the tail end of the National Anthem, an assortment of US Air Force jets typically fly over the track in formation at dangerously low altitudes. (The fans eat this shit up.)
Finally, a guest celebrity of some form issues the instruction, "Drivers, start your engines!" The cars, parked silent on pit road, suddenly roar to life and are led around the track by the pace car. During these few warm-up laps, the starting order is read aloud for a final time -- mostly for the benefit of fans listening on the radio or watching television, for the car engines are too loud for anyone at the track to hear -- and the fans in attendance are often too drunk to hear. The pace car ducks out of the way as the green flag is waved and the race begins.
While the goal of some drivers is simply to stay in the race (slow cars are "black flagged" if they can't keep up with the field and are asked to cease driving), for the majority of the racers the goal is to come in first. To cross the finish line ahead of the other racers, this takes strategy, skill and luck.
While being in front of all the other cars would seem to be the ideal position to win a race, there are aspects to racing that complicate the matter. Cars behind the leader can maneuver very close behind the first car, forcing the car in front to do all the "work" of being non-aerodynamic -- allowing the cars which follow to have a greater fuel efficiency. If the trailing car moves in even closer, it can disrupt the airflow of the lead car to the point where the car in front will lose downforce on the rear tires. Without downforce, the car acts like an airplane wing and loses traction with the track and can no longer maintain its previous speed. This is a technique often used immediately before a pass attempt. Additionally (later in the race), the lead car will often have to contend with slower cars which are being lapped. Choosing when to make breaks for the front and when to stay back and let someone else do the work becomes a major part of the strategy that leads toward a good finish.
Besides navigating turns at high speed, being subjected to high G-forces, and avoiding other vehicles and debris on the track, drivers also have to pay attention to the way their cars are handling. "Too tight" and "too loose" are descriptions that are often uttered by drivers over their radios. These car conditions (with symptoms of fishtailing or being difficult to steer) can usually be adjusted by altering the balance of the car (the "wedge") or by changing the air pressure in the tires. The driver must be trained to recognize this behavior and properly describe it to the crew so that it can be dealt with.
Race cars, like other automobiles, are complicated machines which require maintenance. When driving 400 or 600 miles, every car in the field will need fuel and probably new tires. While driving at speeds over 100 miles per hour, it becomes difficult to perform these tasks on the cars, so there is a place provided to the teams where the cars can come to a stop and be taken care of. Pit road, usually located parallel to the "front stretch" of the track, near the start/finish line is a flat segment of road divided into a number of parking-space sized boxes where a driver can park the car and the team's crew can work on it. The pit crew basically can perform three types of work on the car: (1) add more fuel (76 brand), (2) replace the tires (Goodyear brand), or (3) adjust the suspension. Any other work will typically only be done if the car is unraceable and for that, the car is driven (or towed or pushed) off the track and into the garage area. NASCAR rules limit the number of people allowed "over the wall" (e.g. on the track) at any given time, so some maintenance functions (like wiping clean the air intake on the front of the car) are performed by crewmembers behind "the wall" with long poles attached to their tools.
When Things Go Wrong
During every race, something goes wrong. There is an accident or a car part falls loose on the track. Sometimes a driver will brush the wall, tearing scraps of rubber off his tires, and his car skids to a halt in a cloud of smoke. Immediately, the team's spotters radio to the drivers behind the problem location notifying them to "go low" or "go high" to avoid the detritus and/or other cars. Keep in mind that these cars are heading into a cloud of smoke with zero visibility -- while traveling at 120-150 miles per hour.
Once the problem has been dodged, it still needs to be dealt with. NASCAR officials running the race determine what to do about the issue by putting the race under caution. This status is signaled to the drivers by waving a yellow flag above the start/finish line. As soon as the drivers cross the finish line, they slow to match the speed of the pace car and are not allowed to pass each other. This causes much contention as the drivers race TO the finish line so as to have the best position in the pack for later when the caution period ends.
After one lap of caution, the NASCAR officials have determined the best way to clean the track. Any necessary vehicles and crew are dispatched (ambulances, tow trucks, men with oil dry and brooms, and truck-towed jet engines which blast hot air on the track to dry any spills) while the single-file column of cars plods around the track at 45-60 miles per hour following the flashing lights of the pace car.
When the caution flag initially was deployed, pit road was "closed" by NASCAR. The reasoning for this is so that all teams can have time to assess what happened with equal distribution of race condition information. Weird, but that's the way they do it. After the first lap under caution, pit road is "opened" and drivers often use this slow period as a chance to get new tires and gasoline. As they leave pit road, the slow pace of the pack allows them to stay on the same lap and only lose as many positions as there were drivers on the same lap -- under normal racing conditions, the 15 seconds to perform the pit stop combined with the time lost traveling down pit road at <50 miles per hour would almost certainly cost the driver a lap if not more.
As the wreckage is cleared and the track cleaned, the race is able to resume. The pace car enters pit road and a green flag is waved at the start/finish line. The drivers accelerate and the race continues, usually minus whatever cars were disabled in the accident. It is worth mentioning that the number of laps completed continues to increase during a caution period -- many new fans fail to notice this and are confused by some situations that arise due to extended yellow flag conditions.
Under some circumstances, usually because of a particularly messy crash involving multiple vehicles or an accident in the last 10 laps of the race, the officials deploy a red flag instead of a yellow flag. When this occurs, the entire fleet of cars is brought to a halt while the track is cleaned. Once the problem is remedied, the cars accelerate from a standstill to full speed and continue the race. Sometimes a red flag will be deployed because of rain and the drivers will be forced to return to pit road before stopping, where they wait until the NASCAR officials determine whether or not to continue the race or end it early.
When the race leaders enter the final lap, the race officials wave a white flag at the start/finish line, indicating to fans and drivers that the race is essentially over except for those few cars on the lead lap. As the winning driver crosses the finish line, the black and white checkered flag is waved and the race is completed. The other cars complete the lap they are on, then pull into pit road. Some pull up next to the winning driver as he completes one additional lap at (relatively) slow speed. During this "victory lap," the winning driver waves to fans and, immediately before crossing the finish line the final time, will do a "burn out" maneuver where he locks his car into a tight spin, damaging the tires and sometimes the engine. This creates a big cloud of smoke and excites most of the fans. After this, if the car is still mobile, he drives it into "victory lane" (another feature of a race that is invariably plastered with the logo of a major sponsor) where he is presented with an award appropriate for the race (a plaque or trophy) and is helped out of the car by a celebrating pit crew.
Race Wrap-up and NASCAR Seasons
Based on each driver's position in the pack at the end of the race, points are distributed to that team. The first one to cross the finish line receives 175 points; the amount decreases from there to the 43rd place driver who gets 34 points. Anyone who holds the lead during the race -- during any lap -- receives 5 bonus points, and the driver who holds the lead for the most laps receives an additional 5 bonus points. Often the one to receive the "most laps" bonus points is not the driver who wins the race. Over the course of the season, the points are accumulated and the team with the most points after the last race is awarded the Winston Cup. Because of the way the points are distributed, it's (theoretically) possible for a driver to take the Cup without having won a single race! Many NASCAR fans point to this as either the major selling point or the major drawback of the points system.
The NASCAR Winston Cup season runs from February through November and usually consists of 35-40 races. These occur at a number of speedways and racetracks around the country (39 races on 23 tracks in the 2002 season), with multiple races at the "hotspots" like Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, and Dover International Speedway (aka "The Monster Mile"). Several of the racetracks, most notably Watkins Glen International in New York and Infineon Raceway in California, are "road races" similar to F-1 or CART courses: they have weaving tracks with left and right turns and relatively few long straightaways.
Notes and References
The male pronoun is used for drivers and other team members throughout. This is not meant to preclude the participation of women in the sport and in fact there are several involved with NASCAR. However, they are greatly outnumbered -- as an example, in the 2002 Winston Cup series there was only one female driver, Shawna Robinson, who drove in seven races.
For lots of information on NASCAR, I recommend watching a race on Sunday or actually going to the track. Tickets can be very inexpensive (as low as $6) but be warned -- unlike every other sport of which I am aware, the price of a ticket is INVERSELY proportional to the seat's proximity to the action; that is, the cheap seats are right next to the track and the people pay through their teeth for the nosebleed section. If you are in the first 50 rows, you will almost definitely want to wear some form of ear protection. Bringing ear protectors or ear plugs will be much more economical than purchasing them at the track. Oh, and be sure to wear lots of sunscreen.
Failing that, you can read about NASCAR at any of the following excellent websites:
- http://www.iscmotorsports.com/ (A company which operates 12 tracks as well as MRN Radio, the official NASCAR radio coverage network, among other services for the racing community)
- http://sports.yahoo.com/rac/nascar (Adequate coverage of NASCAR, with some statistics that can't be found on NASCAR.com)
Of course, the NASCAR info on E2 isn't to shabby, either. At least it won't be when I'm finished.
* Yes, he's real.