5 Terms Casual NASCAR Fans Should Learn

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IJuly 31, 2013

5 Terms Casual NASCAR Fans Should Learn

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    If you are a new fan to NASCAR, you have probably wondered what the announcers were talking about at some point over the course of a television broadcast.

    Whether they were talking about the features of the new Gen-6 car or the way that a certain driver's car was handling, NASCAR has enough jargon to make anyone's head spin.

    In the following slides, I will explain five fairly common terms in the world of NASCAR that you have heard but may not know what they mean in the context of a race.

1. Generation-6 Cars

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    Without a doubt, you have heard announcers make some sort of reference to the new Gen-6 cars. But what is so special about these cars? Haven't the athletes always driven this car?

    To answer these questions, let's jump back in time. In 2007, NASCAR introduced the Car of Tomorrow or COT. It was the safest car the sport had ever seen, and it made the manufacturers more equal than ever before.

    Almost immediately, there was a negative feeling toward the COT. It was wider and heavier than cars of the past. Drivers disliked that the COT had so much parity; it was easier to drive than its predecessor, which took away some of the advantages of drivers with more skill.

    Fans disliked the car because it lacked the eye appeal of the previous cars. 

    The COT looked less like a stock car and more like "a flying brick" as Tony Stewart so aptly dubbed it. The rear spoiler that had always adorned the back of race cars had been replaced by a wing that became dislodged with minimal impact.

    After a few years of tinkering with the COT, including replacing the wing with the more traditional spoiler, NASCAR retired in favor of the new Gen-6 car.

    These new cars go back to a more stock-car look, with each manufacturer regaining their own identity. More than ever, the cars that roll out on the track now are similar to the production models that each manufacturer produces.

    The Gen-6 cars is lighter and faster than the COT and has far less downforce, which makes it harder to handle. That not only puts the skill back in the hands of the driver, but also forces the crew chief to figure out ways to make the car handle at its best.

2. HANS Device

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    Safety is always the top priority of NASCAR. Whether it's the fans attending the race, the pit crews or the drivers, NASCAR is always looking at ways to ensure that everyone involved is as safe as can be.

    Since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 2001 Daytona 500, many steps have been taken on behalf of driver safety. SAFER barrier walls have been installed at virtually every track on the circuit, and roll cages inside the cars have been revamped, but maybe the biggest safety measure was the mandated use of the HANS Device.

    The HANS (Head and Neck Support) Device is a small carbon-fiber device that is set behind the driver's neck. The two straps that hang down from the device (see the picture above) are then secured to the driver's helmet.

    Once all of that is in place and the driver is in the car, the shoulder belts are then secured over the arms of the device, keeping it in place.

    The idea behind the HANS Device is that in the event of a crash, while the seat belts hold the driver's body in place, the HANS device will keep his head in line with his body, as opposed to being free to snap back and forth.

    The device originated in the 1980s but was not mandated by NASCAR until October, 2001, after it had been successfully tested by drivers over the course of the season.

3. Loose vs. Tight

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    If you ever have the privilege of attending a race in person and use a scanner to listen in on a driver and his crew chief, you will hear the driver complain that his car is either tight or loose. 

    If a driver says that his car is tight, he means that when he turns the steering wheel, the car doesn't turn and continues heading straight, pushing up toward the wall.

    This is because the front tires of the car lose grip before the rear tires. As a result, drivers have to let off the gas earlier in the corners to compensate for the lack of grip and thus get their cars to turn.

    Conversely, if a driver says his car is loose, he means that when he turns the wheel, the back of the car begins to fishtail, inevitably spinning the car out. You will sometimes hear the driver refer to this as the car "stepping out."

    While a tight condition is a result of the front tires losing grip, a loose car is a product of the rear tires losing grip. Anyone who has ever driven a front-wheel-drive car in snowy or icy conditions has probably experienced what a loose race car feels like.

    While each driver has his own preference to how the car is set up, certain circumstances dictate what the handling of a car will be like. Track temperature, tire air pressure and tire wear all contribute to whether a car will be tight or loose.

    During a race, the pit crew can try to change the car's handling. Track bar adjustments, wedge adjustments and spring rubbers are all employed as ways to alter the handling.

4. Clean Air vs. Dirty Air

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    During post-race interviews, you may hear drivers refer to being out in clean air or being stuck in traffic with dirty air. What they are referencing is the air turbulence and how it affects their cars' aerodynamics and handling.

    The car that is in the lead of a race has the luxury of getting clean air. As it speeds around the track, it is racing through a wall of air that for the most part is undisturbed. This provides the driver with the optimum downforce and allows the car to handle at its best.

    This forces the trailing cars to drive through dirty air. As the leader breaks through the undisturbed air, it causes a ripple effect, generating a lot of turbulence for the trailing drivers.

    The result of this is a lack of downforce to the cars, which can affect their ability to handle properly.

    The advantage of having clean air is becoming a popular late-race pit strategy. More and more teams are stray from the conventional norm of pitting for four fresh tires late in a race. Instead they are opting to go with only two tires or not even pitting at all, just to get out front and get the clean air.

    On two different occasions this season, Matt Kenseth has parlayed clean air into a race win. At Las Vegas and Kansas, he was able to hold off Kasey Kahne, who had fresher tires in both instances, because Kenseth was able to exit pit road first and avoid being stuck in the dirty air. 

5. Lucky Dog

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    Most fans, even the new ones, have learned that the Lucky Dog Award is given to a driver who is a lap down or multiple laps in certain situations. But how many fans understand the history of this practice or why it was implemented?

    Prior to the inception of this rule, when a caution came out on the race track, there was a gentlemen's agreement among the drivers not to race one another back to the start/finish line. Instead, everyone just slowed down and maintained their positions.

    The exception to this unwritten rule was that the drivers who were a lap or more behind the leader would race back to the start line in an attempt to beat the leader back to the line and earn their lap back.

    In 2003, when the caution flag flew at a race in New Hampshire, Casey Mears was racing back to the line to regain his lap when he narrowly missed hitting one of the stalled cars that had been involved in the accident that led to the caution.

    This prompted NASCAR to ban racing back to the line because it presented an unsafe situation. Some cars were zipping around the track at top speed, while others were running at half-speed or were stalled on the track altogether.

    Instead, NASCAR implemented the "Lucky Dog" or beneficiary rule, as it is more officially called. The rule instantly freezes the entire field and allows just the first car that is one or more laps down to the leaders to regain a lost lap.

    The rule was installed immediately following the incident in New Hampshire. It is yet another example of safety being NASCAR's top priority.