Racing with Bubba: An F1 Dummy's Intro to NASCAR
My inspiration for this article was the (not recommended) movie "Night at the Museum." There is a scene where the night watchman character, played by Ben Stiller, is telling a fictional Southern historical figure from the Civil War that he must stop fighting.
Stiller tells him the outcome of the conflict. "Slavery is wrong. Don't want to burst your bubble, but you guys get The Allman Brothers...(thinks hard )...and...(still thinking)... NASCAR. So just chill!"
It's just a weak gag in a weak movie, yet it seems to encapsulate a smartarse attitude. Racing cars is dumb, therefore watching cars racing is dumb, therefore it is a suitable thing for dumb Bubba in his Southern trailer.
I felt mocked and patronised, for I like my motor racing. As President Kennedy did not quite say, Ich bin einen Bubba.
So it was time to find out a bit more about NASCAR. And I did. And now I have to ask this; if Bubba's as dumb as I've been led to believe, how can he follow NASCAR?
Let me explain my rhetorical question.
I'm an F1 fan of the armchair variety, and have been for many years. F1 has many features I dislike, but it is very simple for a spectator to understand. There is only one way to score points, and that is to cross the finish line.
The winner gets 10 points, second place 8 points, and then it's 6,5,4,3,2,1. Below eighth place scores nothing. He who has scored most points at the end of the season is the World Champion. Ties are settled by who has won the most races.
And that, my chums, is what I call a straightforward sport.
Additionally, it is a straightforward matter to follow a particular driver in F1, for almost invariably each team fields the same two wheelmen for a complete season, and very often for many successive seasons.
The charming simplicity of F1, I have discovered, is in stark contrast to the complexity of the NASCAR world.
There is a plethora of NASCAR series. There are regional series, there are truck series, there are modified series, a Canadian series, a Mexican series. It's enough to make a simple man's head spin.
F1 has a paucity of events, NASCAR sanctions well over 1,000 each year. But the question of which series becomes easy for me because I cannot get to any of the races, there being an inconvenient ocean in the way, and only the Sprint and Nationwide events are beamed down from the satellite to my humble home. It's not a trailer, by the way.
The Sprint and Nationwide series are run in parallel, on the same circuits and often on the same weekends, Nationwide on the Saturday and Sprint on the Sunday.
The Sprint series is named after its sponsor, a telecoms company. Similarly, the Nationwide series is named for an insurance company, and has nothing to do with the British bank of that name.
Of the two series, Sprint is the premier one, with slightly faster cars and significantly greater prize money. It's slightly like F1 & GP2, or like Premiership and First Division in UK soccer. There is some driver crossover, with Sprint drivers occasionally racing in Nationwide.
This practice is termed "buschwacking" (sic) or "claim jumping" and seems to be quite controversial, the complaint being that it displaces regular Nationwide drivers who would otherwise be scoring points and prize money, which totals about $5 million per race.
Unlike F1's salaried drivers, what NASCAR drivers make will depend at least partly on their race success, and the top ones make a great deal. Over the past couple of years, a number of IRL drivers, most famously J.P. Montoya, have defected from IRL to the big bucks of NASCAR.
NASCAR stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. In its early days, ordinary production cars were raced, hence the word Stock, but that is no longer the case.
In the modern day, only the body shells resemble road vehicles. I can't quibble with that, because road cars like Toyota Camrys cannot really wind up to 200 mph, and would not be remotely safe if they could.
The quasi road-going build does however mean that they are not ideal for racing. Their high centre of gravity makes them unstable compared to any open-wheel format.
And I bet you already knew there is a standard engine.
Reading the engine spec is an eye-opener. A few key points; iron block pushrod V8, carburetor, distributor. Ferrari would laugh, but the mechanics do squeeze almost F1 power levels out of those 5.8 litre lumps.
No ECU means no possibility of traction control, ignition mapping and other enhancements, whereas the the road-going namesakes produced by Ford, Toyota, etc., most certainly incorporate all the electronic gizmos that can be packed in.
It does make me think of F1's engine development freeze and talk of a standard engine, and where racing in general is going with the trend towards racing machines that are in some ways technically behind the cars spectators arrive in.
The tightly specified design of NASCAR cars does make the whole business of running a team relatively cheap, and the sport is very accessible to both spectators and wannabe drivers.
When I showed an early draft of this article to a race fan from North Carolina, where NASCAR took root and most teams are still based, he was at pains to stress that the sport has a high-tech approach to maximising results from the specified parts, and I do accept that.
So if anyone thinks I'm sneering at NASCAR as some kind of hillbilly sport, I ain't.
In an earlier paragraph, I summarised F1's simple championship scoring system. NASCAR's isn't like that; I will set out my understanding of it, fully expecting to be shot down in flames if I am mistaken at all.
- Every driver who has led a lap gets five points, but he only gets that once, not for every lap he leads.
- If a driver leads for more laps than anyone else, then he gets another five points.
- Finish points are awarded as follows: 185 for first, 170 for second, 165 for third, 160 for fourth, 155 for fifth, 150 for sixth, 146 for seventh, 142 for eighth, 138 for ninth, 134 for 10th, and all the way down to 34 for 43rd.
- It follows that the most points a driver can score in a race is 195, 185 + 5 + 5.
- In the Nationwide series, the driver who has scored most points over the season is champion.
- In the Sprint series, the 12 drivers who score the most points over the first 26 races compete for Nextel Cup in the last 10 races, this is known as The Chase. The 12 drivers are said to have made "the cut."
- The 12 Chase drivers have their points total so far discarded, and they are awarded 5,000 points each plus 10 points for each of the races they have won out of the first 26.
- The basis for points awarded during The Chase is as previously explained.
- The Chase driver finishing with the most points wins the Nextel Cup.
Phew. You see what I mean about Bubba? He's got to be a smart cookie to keep track of things. In fact, during a race it is only possible to keep track of the leaders, full results are given after the finish.
One of the curiosities of NASCAR is that the rulebook is secret. You can find rules for FIA governed sports on the Internet, but in NASCAR what the management says is what goes, and they've got nobody quoting the rules back to them.
NASCAR has both full-time teams, who contest each race in a series, and part-time teams, who only contest some. That, for me, is a downer.
Teams have as many as five drivers or as few as one; most of the part-time teams are single-driver. Drivers can appear for different teams during a season, and that for me is another downer.
Obviously, I am conditioned by years of watching F1. If you pay a visit to the NASCAR section on Bleacher, you will find lots of passionate stuff on the sport, much of it written by people of the female type. And now you at least know about the cut and the chase!
Most NASCAR races are on oval tracks, in vast stadia holding incredible numbers of spectators, up to 170,000 or more. We in the UK tend to sniff at ovals, but ask yourself what your objections really are.
The reason for that configuration is that it allows all spectators to see all of the action all of the time, something that cannot be said of any F1 circuit.
There are two road-course races this year. The NASCAR (and IRL) definition of a road-course is one that has both left and right turns.
The numbers of people who see a NASCAR race live and in person dwarf the F1 figures, due to the sheer number of races. It is a very big sport indeed.
Forty-three drivers qualify to race, and the large field starts behind a pace car. This is the first yellow flag condition of the race, and you are likely to see others due to alarms and excursions. After that cruise around at 70 mph the pace car pulls off, and the cars are then racing under a green flag.
There is always good wheel-to-wheel action, with plenty of overtaking, and once you get used to looking at tin-tops, it is good fun.
There do tend to be a lot of yellow flags, and some cynics suggest this to stop anyone building a commanding lead. As if! Whatever the truth of that, you will not be watching a procession.
The tip I would give any new NASCAR viewer is to forget about the detail of points scoring. In fact just forget all the detail and enjoy the action, you'll pick the rest up as you go along.
If you're in the UK like me, maybe you'll see if NASCAR is to your taste? It's on Setanta's American Sports Channel, Sky or Freeview, but not on Freesat yet.
The devils do want you to pay for it, so just give up your movies subscription. Too late in the season now though, but something to bear in mind for the spring.
You are guaranteed to see some harum-scarum racing action, and you might just get to love it. Millions of people do, and they can't all be wrong.
To anyone who had made it to the end of this rather long article, I want to say a big thank you. It represents an afternoon of my life, and you've made it worthwhile.
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