Auto Motor Sports Explained
Auto motor sports explained: a guide for understanding the core differences between INDY, Formula One (Grand Prix) and NASCAR motor sports
It can be quite intimidating, watching a ton of solid iron fly by your TV screen at speeds sometimes exceeding 200 miles per hour. With that velocity and action, how can one hope to understand all the different types of races, cars, rules, and prizes available in world wide motor sports? A good way to start would be to get a handle on three of the most popular, high-profile racing forms: INDY, Formula One Grand Prix, and NASCAR.
INDY is a term that is used to reference both the world famous 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the Indianapolis 500 races are run during the last two weeks of May, and the recently formed INDY Racing League (IRL). The IRL was created in 1996, as an offshoot of a much larger league, the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). Both the IRL and CART are open-wheel racing forms. That means that the single-seater cars are long, sleek, with a cone-line front, a rear-mounted engine, and exposed wheels (no fenders covering the wheel and tire). The bourgeoning IRL is developing a standard for the IRL racing teams’ motors and frame, also known as the engine-chassis combination.
Currently, IRL regulations state that the chassis or frames, can be built by Dallara of Italy, G Force of Great Britain and Riley & Scott of Indianapolis. The rules stipulate the use of a 3.5 liter engine, and a carbon fiber/composite monocoque (single-shell structure) chassis. Presently, the IRL endorses the use of either Oldsmobile’s Aurora V8, or Nissan’s INDY Infinity engines. This distinguishes IRL race cars from Ford and Mercedes powered CART series. The size of the 3.5-liter methanol-powered engine is deceiving, since it can produce up to 650 horsepower, which is more than four times that of the average automobile. It can accelerate from 0 to 100 miles per hour in less than three seconds, but it pays for this velocity by traveling a mere two miles per gallon. The drivers of these incredible machines are themselves amazing. Both the NASA astronauts taking off on the shuttle, and IRL drivers maneuvering their cars around the track curves, must withstand forces up to four times the weight of gravity.
INDY race winners are given 50 points. Second place earns 40 points. Three points are subtracted for each subsequent racer from 3rd to 25th place, with the third place winner getting 37 points and the 25th place winner getting 4 points. The driver that starts the race in first place (or pole position) gets an additional 3 points; the person who starts in second gets two additional points; the third place start gets one additional point. A racer can also earn 2 points by leading the most number of laps during a race.
One of the interesting aspects of the IRL’s formula is the requirement that the frame and engine builders make their products available, at a fixed price, so that more teams can afford to participate in INDY racing. When the IRL began in 1996, it had a mere three scheduled races, and only one well-known driver, Arie Luyendyk. In the year 2000, there are nine scheduled races, with 32 major teams.
Formula One (F1), unlike IRL racing, is not an affordable sport for the average racing team. Formula One, often referred to as Grand Prix ( “grand prize” in French), has a $50 million yearly entry fee, above and beyond team, driver, and vehicle costs. This exorbitant ‘registration’ fee does not prohibit teams from across the world from putting their teams in the race. Formula One is truly a global auto championship with Grand Prix races in Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Britain, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Japan, Malaysia, Monaco (the only one within a town), and the United States (Indianapolis). The Federation Internationale de lÌAutomobile (FIA) founded in 1904, governs F1. It develops and enforces all regulations, restrictions, and automobile specifications related to international auto racing. The FIA organization dictates the cars’ weight, fuel consumption, and engine (liter) sizes. Their current racing car formula limits engine size to 3 liters, without supercharging features. In addition, the car must be a minimum of 600 kilograms (including the driver, and racing equipment). Even with these limitations, F1 cars easily exceed a capacity of 700 horsepower, and reach speeds of up to 351.7 kilometers per hour (218.6 miles per hour).
There are two very unique technical attributes associated with Formula One cars. The first is the use of a semiautomatic gearbox, which lets the driver press a button on the side of the steering wheel to shift up, and one on the opposite side to shift down. The second feature involves the lack of a starter. This is done to reduce ignition sources and thus prevent explosions. Instead of an automatic starter, the teams use a portable starter in the front of their pit. However, if a driver stalls on the circuit, he or she is out of the race, even if the driver manages to restart the vehicle.
Two additional major factors should be noted about Formula One. The race distance/length can be no longer than 305 Kilometers (190 miles), and/or two hours long. More important, Formula One races continue regardless of climate conditions. As a result, the teams are given 40 dry-weather tires and 28 wet-weather tires to use during each race. But safety is always priority, so races in hazardous conditions can be stopped by officials.
There are currently 16 Formula One events worldwide, with two separate world champion titles. The first, awarded to the top driver, the second, the Constructor’s title, is given to the chassis manufacturer, whose car(s) earned the most points during the Grand Prix championship circuit races. A constructor can have up to two race cars driven within a given season, but each car’s points are counted individually. First place winners earn 10 points, while the following five racers earn 6, 4, 3, 2, and one point respectively. No extra points are awarded for leading laps or pole position standings.
Needless to say, that the perseverance of drivers in inclement weather, and the incredible velocities and physical challenges faced on the hazardous tracks, has built an enormous following and superstar adoration of Formula One drivers and their teams.
The same adoration is felt by Americans as they watch their favorite drivers in NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing), also known as the Winston Cup. This truly American-made sport began in the late 1940's, as a competition between rival ‘moonshine’ bootleggers who modified their engines to avoid capture by law enforcement officers. Although the birth of this professional auto sport may seem less than prestigious, the sport has developed into a billion-dollar industry. This success was envisioned by NASCAR’s founder Bill France Sr, back in 1949. His focus was on regular (unmodified) street cars, or late model family sedans, which drivers/teams could purchase with minimum expense. The teams could only “tweak” the engines, which enabled nine car makers to race in the first official Strictly Stock division: Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford, Hudson, Kaiser, Lincoln, Mercury and Oldsmobile. By 1952 however, track hazards, and vehicle speeds made it necessary to bring in modified tires (specifically for NASCAR), and roll cages to protect the drivers. In addition, automobile manufacturers began introducing high performance options on their street cars, thus allowing their use in NASCAR. During the last 50 years, larger V8 engines, including the powerful Hemi’s (hemispherical combustion chamber engines) of the 1960's, improved chassis, ‘slick’ tires, shocks and rear suspensions have all added to improve NASCAR racing performance and enhanced the mass appeal of the sport.
Currently, Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Lumina and Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Regal, and Oldsmobile Cutlass sedans can be run in NASCAR races. Dodge Intrepid will be added to this list in the 2001 racing series. All manufacturers are limited to an automatic, small block, 4-speed, V8's, no larger than 358 cubic inches. However, the teams are free to make certain modifications such as lightening the valves, or altering engine parts. The standard NASCAR vehicle cannot exceed 3400 pounds in weight, and must be made with a full steel chassis and body shell. These powerful vehicles can go from 0 to 60 in 7 seconds and reach a top speed of 330 kilometers per hour (205 mph).
There are 37 NASCAR races across the United States. Superspeedways (over 1 mile long), like Daytona in Florida, and Talladega, in Alabama, produce velocities that frequently exceed 200 miles per hour. NASCAR has two road races, one at Watkins Glen, New York, where the cars race on streets at the southern tip of Lake Seneca, and the Sears Point track in Sonoma, California. Along with the numerous one-mile tracks, NASCAR also runs on half-mile oval tracks such as Bristol and South Boston.
Forty-three cars/drivers can start in each NASCAR race. Each spot in the grid is determined through two days of qualifying. The Winston cup gives 175 points to the first place winner. Five points are subtracted for each subsequent position from second (170 points) to sixth place (150 points). Three points each are subtracted from the 12th to 43rd place with the last position getting 34 points. Five bonus points can be gained for leading a lap, and another 5 bonus points are given to the driver that leads the most laps.
Unlike Formula One, NASCAR races do not continue under rain conditions. Races can be called, or rescheduled due to inclement weather. The reason for this is the “slick” or tread-less tires used on NASCAR vehicles, which are completely smooth to increase traction (contact between the tire and the road). Even during sunny days, tire wear is a critical factor. Vehicle speeds, track banking, outside temperatures, oil/rubber on the track, all work together to determine the life of the tires during a race. The drivers must balance the vehicle handling, wear and tear on their tires, and gas mileage, with their track position. It is tactically better to ‘pit’ for new tires, gas, or maintenance while a caution or yellow flag is out, but this is not always possible. The pit crew and drivers work together to determine the best times to come in for a pit stop, which frequently last no more than 15 seconds.
Mere seconds frequently separate winners from losers in IRL, INDY, and NASCAR.But speed is not the only factor. Excellent crew teams, top of the line equipment, generous financial supporters, fervent fans make it all happen. Fans, who grow their passion for racing to an almost religious following, contribute greatly to the success of these three exciting motor sports. Regardless of the league, our admiration for these fearless drivers, man’s love for the power of the race cars, and the average person’s dream of controlling these ground-dwelling rockets, all make motor sports a powerful, and passionate pursuit.