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Think You Could Drive in NASCAR?

How fast do NASCAR cars go? Is turning left really that hard? What’s with the Next Gen cars? We answer those NASCAR questions and more!

America’s Favorite Motorsport

NASCAR lineup - nascar.com
NASCAR lineup - nascar.com

NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, started out as just a couple of guys racing their stock cars up and down Daytona Beach. Today, NASCAR has grown into one of America’s most beloved motorsports while keeping the tradition of racing in Daytona still going strong, although that sandy beachfront has been long replaced by the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. The Daytona 500 is coming up, but it’ll look a bit different than previous years thanks to the new Next Gen car update.

We’ll want to take a look into those Next Gen cars before they make their first ever superspeedway racing debut, because they are unlike anything NASCAR fans have ever witnessed in the motorsport’s nearly 75 years of history. While we’re at it, we figured it’d be fun to look at how much effort the drivers have to put into every race, both physically and mentally. There’s a lot more than just putting the pedal down and turning left when it comes to driving in a NASCAR race. Think you could drive in NASCAR? Let’s find out.

What It Takes to be a NASCAR Driver

Carsforsale.com actually had its very own sponsored NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car driven by Landon Cassill. I get to see that decommissioned car every day when I walk into the office now, but there’s still a chance in the future that we see a return of logo plastered on one of these new Next Gen cars. Anyways, I bring up our NASCAR past because we learned about some important factors that should be considered before trying to get behind the wheel of one of these high speed racecars.

Heat

Helmet ventilation - ftw.usatoday.com
Helmet ventilation - ftw.usatoday.com

The heat coming from the engine only blocked by a simple firewall coupled with the high temperatures during the summer makes for some speedy saunas on the oval track. NASCAR drivers experience seriously uncomfortable temperatures while circling the track for hours on end, and that’s all while wearing a full-length fire suit, racing gloves, and a padded helmet. The in-car temperature has been known to reach 120°F and even up to 150°F during initial Next Gen car testing.

NASCAR drivers don’t have the luxury of just turning on the AC or rolling down the windows like we do on a hot summer’s day. Instead, drivers have created some nifty ways to dissipate heat within the vehicle and for themselves. NASCAR cars feature some venting on the polycarbonate windows that bring in turbulent exterior air to circulate throughout the cabin. Drivers also experience a little air flow through their helmet thanks to those same window vents. The air runs through some tubing before circulating in an ice packed cooler to create a swamp cooler type of experience that’s directed into the helmet. Drivers have also been known to use products like cool shirts under their fire suits that circulate cold water throughout tubing lining the clothing product.

Cooling shirt - coolshirt.com
Cooling shirt - coolshirt.com

In the end, the number one thing NASCAR drivers will say is important before, during, and after a race is staying hydrated. These competitors take in a ton of water, because all that heat inside the cars can really take a toll on their bodies even with some of the helpful cooling gadgets. Plus, having that extra water consumption can be a lifesaver if any of the cooling efforts fail. Drivers like Brian Vickers have experienced some terrible times in a NASCAR car that had its cooling assistance devices break. Vickers lost nearly 16 pounds following a single race when both his air and water bottle stopped working. Sounds like a quick weight loss regiment, but that’s a seriously grueling and dangerous experience nobody wants to go through.

G-Forces

NASCAR drivers - nascar.com
NASCAR drivers - nascar.com

Another toll on the body that NASCAR drivers experience is G-force. G-force is a calculation based on the force of gravity or acceleration that is put on a body. If you’re sitting still, you’re currently experiencing one G. Now, NASCAR drivers are speeding in excess of 200 mph around high banked turns and can experience up to three G’s. That amount of G-force can make a 160-pound driver feel like their 480 pounds in turns. That three G number may not seem too bad considering that jet pilots can withstand up to nine G’s, but that much G-force repeated for hours can take a toll on a normal person. Intense G-force can cause dizziness, disorientation, and blurred vision. The fact that these NASCAR drivers can keep precise control of cars that can reach 256 mph while sometimes experiencing those side effects says something about how well trained and in good health these athletes are.

Athleticism

NASCAR pit stop - nascar.com
NASCAR pit stop - nascar.com

Like any professional athlete, NASCAR drivers have to hit the gym or at least undergo some cardio to keep themselves at peak performance. Driving a car for over 500 miles while experiencing repetitive G-forces and unrelenting heat really pushes these drivers to their physical limit. They need to overcome these physical obstacles for hours at a time with virtually no breaks. “I thought they had pit stops?” you might ask. However, a full pit for fuel and four tires can take at most 16 seconds (with no technical problems). That’s hardly enough time to catch your breath and stretch your legs and a full-service stop is rarely taken by leader cars, so two tires or just fuel considerably drops that pit stop time. The only real break in the action drivers experience is a caution or red flag. Even then, the drivers are confined to their hot car for the duration of the racing stoppage.

Reflexes

NASCAR drivers - nascar.com
NASCAR drivers - nascar.com

Every second counts on the NASCAR track. A race can go from drafting single file up the straightaway to an utter mess of metal and screaming tires the next. NASCAR drivers need to have some lightning-fast reflexes to handle the tight knit driving they experience. Drivers need to be able to keep a level head on their shoulders and know their car as they navigate the pack with just inches between racers. Thankfully, NASCAR drivers have a little extra help when it comes to reacting to accidents, debris, or that rival hot on their tail. Spotters are constantly keeping their eyes on the race, more so than the average NASCAR fan. They communicate with the team about what’s happening ahead and behind so that the drivers can react or adapt to the current race situation.

NASCAR also has a lot of hand and foot movement going on inside. You didn’t think they were running automatic transmissions in these things, right? Drivers have to operate a three-pedal setup while maintaining a speeding car that can lose traction at any moment given the slightest error. Taming these NASCAR beasts needs a lot of effort and skill. There’s only one way to learn that.

Experience

Formula 1 car
Formula 1 car

NASCAR drivers don’t just decide to hop into the driver’s seat without any prior experience. And I’m not talking about having a standard driver’s license, they need to have racing experience. A lot of the best drivers started out a lot smaller to get where they are today. Go-kart racing is the typical starting point for a lot of NASCAR drivers. There are also those that circled the dirt tracks first in late models or sprint cars. Heck, even Juan Pablo Montoya had experience in Formula One before taking on the NASCAR world. If you think you’ve got the hours in the driver’s seat, the reflexes, athleticism, and can handle the toll this motorsport puts on your body, then there’s just one thing to look at left. The car.

The Next Gen of NASCAR

Richard Petty's 1970 Plymouth Superbird - historygarage.com
Richard Petty's 1970 Plymouth Superbird - historygarage.com

NASCAR was originally considered “strictly stock” in its conception. Aside from some adjustments and weight reduction modifications, this meant cars straight from the dealership were circling the NASCAR tracks. Then came Generation 2 that featured homologation special models like the Plymouth Superbird and Ford Torino Talladega. Onto Generation 3 that brought the designs back into the shape of showroom cars on the exterior, but featured some significant modifications under the skin.

Then came Generation 4 that featured virtually no stock components and only shared some visual association with civilian cars in the form of stickers at the front and rear of the vehicle. This was the turning point from stock to full on engineered racecars. Following Generation 4 we received the Car of Tomorrow and then the more recent Gen-6. These previous NASCAR car iterations were best described by drivers like David Ragan who called them “… the most souped up, high-tech 1970 Ford Mustang that you could ever imagine.” And Aric Almirola summed them up as “… a 60-year-old machine that had been just polished and engineered to be works of art.” He went on to say “I mean really, that’s what we were racing. We were racing racecars that were just developed to the minute detail to get everything out of every part and piece to make them works of art. They were incredible racecars for what they were.”

NASCAR Next Gen - nascar.com
NASCAR Next Gen - nascar.com

For the 2022 season, NASCAR has introduced the Next Gen car, a highly modern take that aims to level the playing field and create more of a challenge for NASCAR teams based on driving and tuning skills. There has been plenty of praise and just as much hate thrown around concerning the Next Gen car, but whatever the stance on the update, this is the new normal going forward. Here’s a quick rundown on what is new and changing thanks to NASCAR’s Next Gen car.

Sheet Metal Has Been Replaced

NASCAR Next Gen car - nascar.com
NASCAR Next Gen car - nascar.com

The days of bumper rub and minor collisions with the wall creating a jagged, crumpled mess of the car’s exterior is no more. The exterior has been replaced by a composite material made up of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic panels. This new exterior material is more durable and cheaper to replace than the archaic sheet metal of old. You’ll also notice that the exterior body lines look a lot more like a modern civilian coupe than that of the NASCAR proportions we were used to before.

A Cheaper Fix

Under that new skin is a modular cage system that’ll make repairs easier and more affordable for NASCAR teams. The new system is made up of a center cage that is bolted to a front and rear subframe. This allows teams to easily remove a damaged front subframe due to a minor collision and replace it in an instant. Better than putting in needless man hours repairing or building a new steel tube frame.

Updated Suspension and an Independent Rear

NASCAR has been running on an old school live rear axle for a long while now. The Next Gen car has done away with that in favor of a more modern independent rear suspension, like the ones found in nearly all new cars. These NASCAR cars will now be running on an advanced four corner independent suspension with four-way adjustable dampers. Should make the road courses a lot more interesting too.

All-New Wheels

Five and single lug-nut wheel - nascar.com
Five and single lug-nut wheel - nascar.com

The five-lug pattern has been a pit stop staple forever it seems, but the new NASCAR wheels have done away with it in favor of a single center-locking lug nut setup similar to the one found on Formula One cars. Along with this lug nut change comes larger 18-inch aluminum wheels in place of the heavier 15-inch steel wheels we’ve been accustomed to. They’re more stylized, lighter, and more closely resemble production car wheel sizes.

Wider Tires with Shorter Sidewalls

Attached to those new wheels are new tires. Goodyear is still providing the rubber, but the tire design has changed in a couple ways. First, they’ve made the tires wider and the sidewalls have been reduced. This update doesn’t provide as much flex to the sidewalls in comparison to the previous design. This has made drivers concerned about the wheels not providing enough flex to feel for loss of grip and subsequently the need to correct the car. However, these were some of the same complaints brought about when the switch from bias ply to radial tires was made, so there’ll just be a lot of trial and error coming up. Goodyear is working to crack the code on durability and grip when it comes to these new tires, so we could be seeing a couple different tire formulas throughout the year depending on conditions.

Larger Disc Brakes

Those larger wheels also open up for larger disc brakes to be installed. Larger discs mean better efficiency while braking and better dissipation of heat. This should help with potential brake failures and degradation of the pads throughout the race, making for a safer NASCAR experience.

Improved Aerodynamics and Downforce

Side exhaust on Next Gen car - nascar.com
Side exhaust on Next Gen car - nascar.com

NASCAR has finally added some better aero for the underside of the car. At the rear you’ll now notice an adjustable rear diffuser that changes based on the length of the track. This diffuser will help with downforce and generate less turbulent air from under the car. NASCAR also introduced a carbon fiber undertray that helps create a flat surface for air to travel across the bottom without generating drag from some of the underside components and create more downforce. This underfloor design does come with a setback though, as it traps heat inside the cabin more. To help reduce some of that heat, the Next Gen car features a shorter exhaust pipe that exits out the side rather than the traditional position at the rear.

Transaxle and Sequential Manual Transmission

The old 4-speed transmission paired with a rear differential and axle is gone in place of a 5-speed sequential transmission and transaxle setup. It’s still a manual, so drivers aren’t completely abandoning a racecar necessity, but the H pattern is gone in favor of a more linear one. That new transaxle also helps reduce a lot of unnecessary weight by combining multiple parts into one simple component.

More Horsepower

The added aerodynamic components are creating a little more drag on the straights when racers initially tested, so that means more horsepower on those superspeedways. The previous generation was capped at 550 horsepower when racing larger tracks, but these Next Gen cars are bumping up to 670 horsepower. That usually means more tire wear, but it sounds like Goodyear has some durable rubber prepared.

Think You’re Ready for the Next Gen of NASCAR?

Clash at the Colusseum race - nascar.com
Clash at the Colusseum race - nascar.com

The new Clash at The Coliseum race kicked off this NASCAR season and showcased the tighter handling capabilities of the Next Gen cars on a very short track. The historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum laid down some asphalt to create a quarter mile oval and the racing stayed true to its naming, because there was plenty of clashing. But the true test of these cars is coming up, the Daytona 500. The two and a half mile trioval track will be the ultimate proving grounds for these new cars. Can they hold up for 500 miles of racing? Will the heat inside the cars become more of a problem? Are the drivers going to be able to keep control of these new machines? Guess we’ll find out.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2015 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Jesse McGraw

Jesse McGraw brings his life-long car obsession into his writing. A fun childhood that involved growing up around race tracks, working on a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, and collecting Hot Wheels developed into a strong appreciation for automotive history. If there is an old, obscure, or rare car, he wants to know about it. With a bachelor's degree in Web Development & Design from Dakota State University, Jesse can talk shop about car or computer specs, focusing on classic cars, imports, and car culture.

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