200mph in a 'brick on wheels': The overlooked skill of Nascar and how to get into the south's favourite motorsport

Dave Maclean@geordiestory
Wednesday 13 March 2019 21:37
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The first notable thing about a Nascar race is the parking lot. Really.

Superfans camp out in their high-end camper vans for days ahead of a race, forming a thriving community where people grill, gather and get fired up for Sunday’s action.

But flying high above many of these RVs are fluttering Confederate flags, along with Trump 2020 banners.

Despite races in cities such as Ontario, Canada, few sports are as uniquely southern as stock car racing, and The Independent’s day out at the Daytona 500 a few weeks ago illustrated that fact.

To residents of the coastal cities derided by right-wingers as ‘elites’, it can feel like another world.

But despite the head-scratching that can be had outside, inside the speedway, it’s clear to see why Nascar attracts an average of 4.6 million television viewers for each race.

It’s high-intensity racing fun, with frequent challenges for the lead, spectacular crashes in a hail of sparks, all with thousands of fans cheering drivers on.

But to a newcomer the sport can seem impenetrable, and some of the subtleties can be lost. Here’s The Independent’s guide to Nascar and how to enjoy it.

2019 Daytona winner Denny Hamlin emerges from his car after the race

What is it?

“It’s a four-hour chess game played with cars that weigh more than a ton.” That’s how 2018 winner Austin Dillon describes a typical Nascar race. There are hundreds of calculations and decisions to make throughout a race, which would be difficult enough were they not made behind the wheel of what one engineer described as a “speeding brick”. These stock car races are several hundred miles long, with hundreds of laps around a different track each week.

How many drivers are there?

Scores of them. Nascar, unlike many other sports bodies, is not a league - it’s a sanctioning body. That means it sets the rules for entry, and if you can pass them, you can take a shot. Nascar races take place at privately owned speedways that are host to scores of non-Nascar events throughout the year. It’s an expensive business, though, so your cousin Terry isn’t likely to be able to cut it with his souped-up motor.

How does the season work?

It’s one of the longest seasons in all of sports, with 36 races spanning 10 months. The season starts in February with the Daytona 500 and goes on right through to November. After the first 26 races, 16 drivers are selected to compete in the final 10 races based on their points so far. These are called the Nascar playoffs.

When’s the final?

OK, this part is strange. The Daytona 500 is effectively Nascar’s Super Bowl, the big event that even people who aren’t into Nascar will tune in to watch. It takes place in - as you’d guess - Daytona, Florida. It started out decades ago on the beach at Daytona, it now happens on a sprawling 2.5-mile track. The winner collects a six-figure sum. But unlike the flagship fixtures in other sports, the Daytona 500 takes place at the start of the season, and not the end. While that means things peak on day one, there are other highlights along the way, such as Talladega.

The iconic Daytona speedway, bathed in sun at this year's race

Aren’t there a bunch of crashes?

Yes, at this year’s Daytona 500, The Independent watched as a 20-car pile-up took out a bunch of the frontrunners minutes before the race’s end, triggering stunned gasps. But despite the carnage, deaths are rare. The last one was Dale Earnhardt in 2001, despite dozens of high-intensity races every year.

How much athleticism is involved? Aren't some of these guys pretty old?

It varies by drivers, but some of the details thrown around are startling. Driver Corey LaJoie said his heart rate sits between 160 and 180bpm for several hours during races. “I lose about seven or eight pounds of fluid during race. Your body is mashed potatoes when you get out of there.” As the sport has gotten more sophisticated, drivers have gotten younger.

What's the vibe like between players and fans?

Unlike many other big sports, there's a lot of access. “I love so many different sports, I’ve been to a lot of different sporting events, and I’m even a bit of a soccer fan,” says Dillon. “But what sets our sports apart from the rest is the fan interaction with the talent, the drivers.” Spectators can get surprisingly close to the pit lanes ahead of races, watching mechanics tinker away under the hood of the cars. And, in the build-up to a race, drivers can be seen meandering among fans on their way to the track in the early morning, signing photographs and shaking hands.

Who's the star driver?

Like all sports, things get more interesting when you’re rooting for someone. Sure, you can enjoy the spectacle without, but many fans wear t-shirts and caps celebrating their favourite drivers. And, if they’re in the lead (or close to it) when their favourite's car zooms past, they’ll jump to their feet, wave their cap, and cheer them on. From 2003 to 2017, the most popular driver was Dale Earnhardt Jr. Now in semi-retirement, he’s been surpassed by Chase Elliott, a 23-year-old from Georgia.

Chase Elliott one of the sport's most popular drivers

How does the weather affect a race?

Temperature is key. The hotter the asphalt, the slicker the track is. That means there’s less overall grip and speeds are slower. Meanwhile, cooler temperatures lead to more downforce on the car and less drag, which in turn should make it run faster. A lot of drivers will try to wait for cloud cover for their qualifying laps, to get a faster time.

Wind speed and direction will also play a part, affecting how cars handle when going into the key corner sections. On a dry track, crews will look at the track temperatures, and predicted track temperatures to decide which pressures to keep their tyres at. Tyres heat up and expand as the race goes on, so if the temperature is too high at the start, they risk blowing a tyre on the track.

Something as minor as a big cloud coming over the racetrack can change a race, transforming the driver with the best setup into a driver who’s struggling.

Heavy rain will take out a race before it starts, going ahead on the next available day instead. It’s rare, given that most of the venues are in pretty locations. If rain comes down heavily during a race, a winner will be determined if more than 50 per cent of the laps have been completed.

Tens of thousands of spectators turn up each week to watch the races

Who's that on the roof?

Right up on top of the speedway clubhouse, high above the racetrack, are silhouettes of people who look tiny because they’re so far away from the action. Mic’d up, with binoculars in hand, they're members of the various driving teams, with direct links to the drivers and the ability to help them get a better feel for where various competitors are around them.

Is it all white southern dudes with confederate tattoos?

The demographic, on the face of it, is as you’d expect. Lots of white people, and lots of people from the South, and guy-heavy. But that’s changing, according to Nascar president Steve Phelps, who points out that the number of new women fans is growing at a faster rate than any other sport. The average age of fans hovers at about 48, but is slowly creeping lower. The likes of Daniel Suarez, who’s Mexican, has also led to an increased interest from Hispanic people. Meanwhile Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace Jr is one of the most successful African-American Nascar drivers ever, which Phelps is hopeful will increase African American interest in the sport.

"There’s a focus on patriotism, and support for the military," he said. "And those things are positive. But I’d be personally happy - to see fewer confederate flags here."

What happens after the race?

The winning car is torn down during a three-hour process to make sure the vehicle met all Nascar guidelines, and then rebuilt. If any of the specifications have been breached, the win can be voided and handed to the next-placed driver.

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