A Beginner's Guide to NASCAR

NASCAR (which stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is one of the fastest growing spectator sports in the country, especially among women. Yet if you’re flipping through your television stations and come upon a race for the first time, or if you have a significant other who is a fan, you may have taken in the rush of cars, the noise, and all the hoopla and wondered, “What’s the big deal about a bunch of cars driving in circles for four and a half hours?”

The Big Deal

To appreciate NASCAR is, for one, to grasp the fact that the drivers can complete a race (not to mention finish in the top five) at all. Consider that the average driver is literally installed into the car’s cockpit with a five-point harness, is wearing a heavy, fire-resistant Nomex suit, a helmet with earplugs and a radio feed to his crew and sometimes, to the television announcers. Temperatures can reach up to 130 degrees inside the cockpit, and the driver is trapped there for the length of the race. Cars zoom around a tightly curved track at speeds up to 200 miles per hour, often mere inches from their competitors. At times, they face exhausting gravitational forces equivalent to those pulled by a test pilot. They have that right foot crushed to the metal and hands locked to the wheel, and need to be consistently aware of flying debris and the condition of their vehicles, not to mention worrying about what the other 41 drivers are doing.

But there is more to NASCAR than sheer speed. Or waiting for the cars to crash.

The Basics

NASCAR oversees many different types of racing across the US. The one most commonly referred to as simply “NASCAR” is the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. (Sponsored by, you guessed it, NEXTEL.) These races are usually on Sundays.

The Cars…

These are not your father’s stock cars. While they may be based on four-door American-built cars (the currently eligible vehicles for NASCAR are the Ford Fusion, the Dodge Charger, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and for the first time, the Toyota Camry), NASCAR NEXTEL Cup cars are modified to be as finely-tuned as racehorses, and can be just as temperamental. And expensive. Just check out the number of logos on the car and you’ll know the kind of sponsor bucks it takes to keep these cars going, not just through the race but through an entire racing season. Plus, get into a wreck during practice and you have to have a backup car. This is also why the logos are now printed onto a giant sheet of Mylar that wraps around the body of the vehicle. Because it would cost too much to replace them all individually should the car get knocked around a bit during a race. And while the cars might look the same from race to race, underneath the body can be different guts, optimized for different types of race conditions. For “short track” racing (which requires a lot of turning and therefore, constant braking) you need larger-caliper brakes and pads; for larger tracks, such as Daytona, teams use smaller brakes and pads because there is not as much braking required. Also, depending on race conditions and strategies used, the rear wings, the nose, or the height of the car can change. But you can’t make just any change you want: NASCAR officials strictly regulate what you can and can’t do to your car.

The Strategy

Yes, the fastest guy (or gal) is often the one who wins. But a kind of chess match develops as the drivers jockey for position. Drivers usually don’t race alone. A major sponsor will have teams of drivers on the course at the same time. And often these drivers work together to block out other drivers so their team members can get into a more advantageous position. A strategy called “drafting” is used to work with the physical pulse of air created as a car moves forward (compare this to the wake of a ship or the buffeting you feel in your car on the highway as you’re passed by a fast-moving truck) Drafting can either push other drivers out of your way, or let him or her tuck in behind a leader and ride the “calmer” air the lead car is pushing away. Marathon runners also use this strategy: stay close behind a leader and you can save your endurance for the last kick to the finish line. The team member who helps you do this is called your “draft partner.”

Also important to strategy is making efficient pit stops. NASCAR’s pit crews put Jiffy Lube to shame. These speedy professionals can change all four tires, fill the gas tank and sometimes adjust a thing or two on the car’s body – all in twelve to fifteen seconds! But if any delays getting out of the pit (on a large track a car can cover the length of a football field per second) can cost a driver dearly. And a bad pit stop – for example, if tire’s lug nut is not securely tightened and falls off – will cause further delays, since race officials will force the driver to return to the pit to have it fixed.

The Track

Currently the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series (which runs from February to November) consists of 36 races on 22 different racetracks. While most tracks are oval or “D” shaped, and two races are run on road courses (Watkins Glen in New York and Infineon Raceway in California’s Sonoma Valley). And they don’t all have to be the same size. The Martinsville Speedway is a mere half-mile (requiring drivers to make those “short track” modifications mentioned previously) and the giant Talladega Speedway (2.66 miles). Most are banked (which means the track surface is slanted, to make all that turning easier), and the angle could be as steep as the roof of your house.

The Races

The NASCAR Nextel Cup Series season kicks off officially in February, with the popular Daytona 500. Some of the other major races include the Brickyard 400, run on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the exhausting Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway (near Charlotte, NC), which can last up to six hours. Each race win is worth the same number of points, and the driver with the most points at the end of the season wins the NEXTEL Cup. (This is not always the driver with the most wins, but the one with the most consistent top finishes)

And A Few Props For Those Drivers

Add more enjoyment to your NASCAR experience by picking a driver you like and rooting for him or her. Some of the current heavy hitters are Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmy Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Learning the rivalries, the personalities and the team partners also helps. And there’s lots of info on rules, drivers, and current standings on the web if you want to know more. Or, for the brave, you can also go on line to buy tickets for a race near you and experience the roar of the crowd and the volcanic rumble of the track in person.

But for now, install yourself into your easy chair and let’s go racing!

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