I thought I’d follow up from our conversation last Friday and talk a little about why people like NASCAR. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan, and I certainly prefer other kinds of racing to it. But as our Friday commenter Steve Ufelder (also a racing mystery writer, in two senses of the word!) pointed out, in NASCAR there’s a lot more passing and just as much skill required. The difference is in the vehicles.
People always say, you don’t really get NASCAR until you attend a race in-person. Television doesn’t really convey the magnitude of the story. I have to agree. I went to a race last year in Fontana—a big track, which isn’t my favorite, but it’s nearby—and on the very first lap at speed, I understood.See, with sportscars and open-wheel cars, there’s a lot of downforce. Those cars are built to find grip on the track and create downforce with wings and inlets and body panels. When you’re watching open-wheel, prototypes, or sportscars race, they look like they’ve got grip all the way up until they’ve broken loose—there’s not much time between the car being stuck to the track in a corner and the car spinning because the wheels no longer grip. The difference with stock cars (NASCAR) is that by the time they’ve broken loose, they’ve been looking like they should break loose for a long, long time.
Put simply: stock cars just shouldn’t be driven that fast or that hard!
That’s what really hit me when I saw a race in person. The full field of 43 cars roared by, hitting close to 200 miles per hour, with less space between them than I’d leave between parked cars, and I thought, “Good grief, there is just NO WAY those cars should be going that fast.” Every one of the 43 cars in the field is probably a fraction of an inch from being out-of-control at all times. Usually for three or four hours over 400-500 miles. In a hot cockpit. With reduced visibility.
The job of every racecar driver is to drive the car at 10/10ths, to take the car to its limits, to the edge of its capabilities—and keep it there, without going over the edge and wrecking. Stock cars are simply bigger, heavier, and more technologically simple than the sportscars I prefer—but I’ll never claim those drivers aren’t every bit as skilled as those in other series. I’m still not sure I get the appeal of watching NASCAR on television, but seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling the race in person is pretty awesome.