While stock car racing often induces eye rolls from fans of more “advanced” racing series like Formula One and IMSA, the fact is that NASCAR is the most followed form of motorsport in America by a wide margin, and roughly one in every three adults in the U.S. is a fan of the series.
Before the big event got underway we had a chance to tour the pits, garages and command center for Chevrolet’s NASCAR efforts with Patrick Suhy, Manager of GM’s NASCAR development program, on the day before the race. The insider access provided some insight into what goes on both on the track and behind the scenes for the racers and the teams campaigning cars in the series.
We learned that there’s a lot more to NASCAR than it might appear from a casual glance, and the overlap between stock car racing and traditional sports car competition is more significant than you might think. Here’s why NASCAR is a motorsport discipline that shouldn’t be dismissed by road racing enthusiasts.
It’s Not Just Oval Tracks
With iconic speedways like Daytona, Talladega and Indianapolis always in the mix, it’s easy to assume that NASCAR runs purely on banked high speed loop-style race tracks. While that’s nothing to scoff at in its own right – just watch the drafting and blocking strategies that regularly occur during one of those races, all of which are happening at or near 200 miles per hour – NASCAR isn’t relegated merely to oval tracks.
In fact, in any given race season there’s roughly half a dozen or more race events that take place on sports car courses, with legendary courses like Watkins Glen, Road America, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Sonoma Raceway on the docket for the 2017 season.
While the cars look more or less externally identical when running on these sports car courses, there are significant tweaks that are made to the chassis, suspension, brake system and other components to dial the cars in for these races. It means that teams need to be able to tune the car for high-velocity speedway racing one weekend and corner-carving road courses the next.
The same goes for the drivers’ skillsets as well. That’s why you see motorsport luminaries like Mario Andretti on hand for the Daytona 500 – while Andretti is perhaps most famously known as a Formula One champion, he also took home a Daytona 500 victory in 1967 and competed in numerous races in Grand National/Winston Cup series (now known as the Sprint Cup).
That’s something to keep in mind if you happen to hear someone dismiss NASCAR as a simplistic oval course format in comparison to those running in series that only utilize sports car courses – NASCAR actually does both.
The Rules Are Designed To Keep The Racing Interesting
While NASCAR may be the most watched motorsport series in the America, it has also been faced with declining viewership over the past few years. Officials have sought ways to combat this, and part of the strategy involves a host of format changes for 2017.
In terms of race format, all NASCAR races are now divided up into three segments with a mandatory caution period. Not only does this work better with a televised format (allowing for commercial breaks during these caution periods and minimizing the chances of missing the action), it bunches the field back together, ensuring that no one can create a sizable gap from the rest of the pack.
Drivers also receive points based on grid position at the end of each of these segments, which encourages drivers to battle for top spots both at the beginning of the race as well as the end, a move that should reward consistency and overall competitiveness rather than last-minute sniping or fuel conservation.
They’ve also made some dramatic changes to the regulations regarding repairs to cars damaged on-track. In previous seasons teams were allotted as much time as needed to repair cars and could go back to the garage if needed, returning to the track once ready. Now teams are provided a five minute pit stop to repair damaged bodywork only – if a repair requires the car to head back to the garage, the car will be forced to retire from the race. Cars that return to the race after repair in the allotted amount of pit time will also be required to maintain a minimum pace.
The changes should not only make the racing safer for racers and fans as the track as well, but also significantly reduce the number of caution periods caused by debris. It also stands in contrast to most traditional endurance racing formats, and requires NASCAR teams to more strategically preserve their cars over a 200 lap race like the Daytona 500 than might have been necessary in previous seasons.
Technical On And Off The Track
“It’s not a spec series,” Suhy tells us as we toured the cold pits and garages at Daytona. While teams are given a set of regulations that dictate the overall performance of the engines they use, they’re not provided identical motors by a third party manufacturer. Instead, teams design and build their own motors in their own shops – the design strategy of how they meet the requirements is up to them.
Since NASCAR specifies fuel injection now rather than carburetors, McLaren provides ECUs for the various teams campaigning cars, and these ECUs are dialed in for the 15 percent ethanol / 85 percent 103 octane race gas fuel combination used in the series.
A visit to Chevrolet’s onsite command center in Daytona’s infield also shed some light on just how much telemetry data is used to both monitor the cars’ vitals and provide real-time feedback to the drivers out on the course while they tune for qualifying and the race itself, which can often be two different setups.
“From a raw speed standpoint it’s tough,” says Jimmie Johnson, driver of Chevrolet’s No.48 Chevy SS of racing at Daytona International Speedway. “If you can have the foresight to know this end of the car is going to need more grip and we can start massaging the attitude of the car, the springs that are in the car, even a little bit of the shape of the body – although you start taking some of the qualifying speed out of it to achieve all of this. But in the race itself, handling is everything.”
And of course, drafting plays a huge role in racecraft here at speedway events. “It’s the equalizer,” says Michael McDowell, driver of the No.95 Chevrolet SS. “I think every time we have finished in the top 10, we probably started 30th, 35th something like that. So you don’t have to have the outright fastest car to run well [at Daytona], you just have to have a car that drives well and that you can move around and make up spots.”
So while NASCAR might not boast the pinnacle of motorsport technologies, there’s still no shortage of competitiveness in the series, along with racing strategies that vary both from track to track as well as from qualifying to the actual race event. The 2017 season is just getting underway now, with no less than four races scheduled across the country for March and host of sports car course events scheduled to take place later this year.
It might not have the highbrow allure of Formula One, but NASCAR is a series that racers and motorsports fans shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss, as the technology, racing disciplines, and overall intensity prove to be well worth any competitive driver’s attention.