Why I Watch NASCAR

“They only turn left.”

“They drive around in circles for hours and hours.”

“Watch Formula 1. At least they also turn right.”

“How the hell do you watch that redneck sport?”

Pick some combination of the previous four sentences, and you will have the typical response I get whenever I tell somebody that I watch NASCAR. Saying that you enjoy NASCAR in Illinois is like saying that you are a “white trash”, NRA card carrying, bible thumping, Republican hillbilly. Of course, in my case, that could not be farther from the truth. I am, in fact, an Indian (born in India) with slightly Democratic leanings from a middle class family in the suburbs of Chicago. But yes, it’s true. I love NASCAR. Therefore, I feel it is my duty to respond to these common criticisms. So, if you have an open mind, I would like to educate you on why exactly it is that I watch cars drive in circles.

“They only turn left.”

I could be simplistic and explain that NASCAR drivers race on road courses (right and left turns) twice and year to refute this comment. However, this sentence reveals something deeper about the perception of NASCAR. Most people think that racing on ovals does not take any substantial skill. Add to that the fact the TV broadcasts often distort the true speed that the cars run at and the result is a sport that looks as easy as a trip to the supermarket.

First of all, driving on normal roads isn’t easy for everybody. Exhibit A: look up the Driving School scene from the movie Gone in 60 seconds.

But, of course, there are many of us that are competent behind the wheel. However, knowing how to follow traffic rules on nice three lane streets is nothing like what a NASCAR driver must do in turn one of Daytona.

Picture this: You are behind the wheel of a stock car. Now picture the stock car moving at 185 mph. Most of us have never traveled at that speed on the ground. I had the good fortune of doing just that this past summer on a stock car ride-along. To say the least, it is equally terrifying and exhilarating. Quite honestly, despite watching NASCAR for nearly a decade, I still had no real conception of how fast 185 mph is. To put it in perspective, the highest speed limit I have ever seen on a US interstate is 70 mph.

If the speed doesn’t scare you, then the idea of having to take any type of turn should. The immense G-forces throw you far back into your seat while you struggle to turn the steering wheel. Consider that the wheels are attempting to alter the path of two tons worth of heavy metal traveling at extremely high speeds. Now, imagine doing that with five or six other cars within mere feet of you. The closest analogy is being in the middle of Chicago rush hour traffic going at 185 mph while every driver around you is driving like that idiot who always weaves through cars as if he is late to a meeting with God. That is what oval racing is all about. It is about the close racing and the sheer speed of the vehicles. I will elaborate on the numerous advantages of oval racing over road course racing later on when I address the comparisons to Formula 1.

“They drive around in circles for hours and hours.”

It’s true. NASCAR races are long. They are the Motorsports equivalent of marathons. Not surprisingly, marathons are also not the first entertainment choice of many people in the northern part of the US. I can understand why the length of the races can be a turn off. After all, most people don’t enjoy watching more than three hours of something. Though most NASCAR races fall within this time limit, it is neither uncommon nor surprising when certain races (especially the 500 milers) stretch to the four or five hour mark.

But the length of the races is part of the draw for me. In many ways, races play out like novels. Characters come and go in terms of importance and nothing that happens for the first 90% of the novel guarantees anything for the final 10%. There is always something to follow during the course of the race. At the beginning, I usually get a good idea of who the major players are going to be for most of the afternoon. The contenders for the win start to rise to the top and there may even be one car that dominates long periods of the race. However, crashes, mechanical failures, and pit strategy can eliminate even the best of cars. So every lap has the potential to be a race-changing lap. If one plays close enough attention, the strategy can be interpreted as decisions are being made, especially as the race enters the waning laps.

Then there are the finishes. There are three types of NASCAR finishes. The least intriguing one is when a car pulls away from the field over the last few laps and wins by a comfortable margin.

The second most intriguing one is known as a fuel mileage finish. Essentially, crew chiefs will gamble on the chance that their car can make it to the finish without pitting towards the end of the race. Usually, this involves stressful fuel-saving measures on the part of the driver. The end result is a pulse pounding finish in which the car that leads at the beginning of the final lap has a decent chance of running out of fuel by the end of the race.

Finally, there are finishes which involve epic on-track battles. Examples include:





This is what every racing fan dreams of: two or three (or even eight) cars going at it for the win on the final lap. It’s fairly easy to see why those particular finishes are dramatic. That is why people who believe that NASCAR races are always boring are ignorant because these finishes are not extremely rare.

But to say that every race ends like the ones I showed above is ridiculous. The majority of races do not end with photo finishes or crashes on the last lap. However, if one knows that he or she is looking for, every race can be entertaining and intriguing. Basically, understanding the inner-workings of the sport is fairly crucial in order to enjoy it. It is like soccer or tennis. If you don’t understand it, watching it can be a bore.

“Watch Formula 1. At least they also turn right.”

This is by far my favorite criticism of NASCAR to address because those that say this are usually ignorant of actual workings of the two sports. On the surface, it would appear that Formula 1 takes a lot more skill than NASCAR so let us strip down these two sports and their differences. Formula 1 races are held entirely on road courses which feature both left and right turns with extreme variations from corner to corner. NASCAR, on the other hand, is dominated by oval tracks which exclusively feature left turns. Formula 1 cars are easily the most advanced race cars in Motorsports and produce 1500 horsepower per ton. Stock cars, while significantly more advanced than they are given credit for, are nowhere near as advanced as Formula 1 cars. Despite all this, if given a choice between watching a Formula 1 and NASCAR race, I would choose the NASCAR race 10 times out of 10.

Formula 1 technological advancement has actually hurt the quality of the racing. The cars have so much aerodynamic down-force that the cars essentially stick to the track. In other words, Formula 1 race cars are so finely tuned that driving them is not as difficult as many think. There is something to be said for controlling that much power and hitting braking points as accurately as Formula 1 drivers do but the accomplishment is not nearly as impressive as it sounds.

The racing quality itself suffers as a result. Since the cars are so finely tuned, the race is essentially won before the car even takes the track. I remember watching Formula 1 races where the leader after the first turn was not challenged by the rest of the field for the entire race. The end result is that the race is transformed into follow the leader. Not particularly compelling as far as on-track action goes.

NASCAR races are a completely different animal. I have already spoken about the amazing finishes that it produces on occasion but even the normal action on track during the middle of the race far exceeds that of a Formula 1 race. The reason for this is two-fold. The car itself has a lot less down-force which means the cornering grip of a stock car is significantly less than that of a Formula 1 car. The car slips and slides as it makes its way through a corner. As the tires wear out, this sliding becomes an even greater issue leading to some close calls as the race continues. Oh and of course, spectacular crashes. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UJ5jD6OJiE)

The second reason for the improved on-track action is the tracks themselves. As much as they are derided for their simplicity, oval tracks produce great racing. The width of the tracks allows for passes to be made in the corners and down the straightaways. It also allows for the driver to search around in the corners to find the cornering line that suits his or her car best. It is not uncommon to see cars on three different grooves as they go through a corner. As a result, battles for position on track are more common.

As far as the skill difference between the two, I would argue that the gap is not nearly as large as many believe. The aforementioned differences in aerodynamic qualities between a Formula 1 and NASCAR car means that a NASCAR is much more unstable in corners than a Formula 1 car is. The brakes on a stock car are notoriously bad compared to their Formula 1 counterparts. The bottom line is that it can be argued that driving a stock car is more difficult than driving than a Formula 1 car with great effectiveness. As former Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya said on an episode of the British show Top Gear, “To drive, I always said there is nothing that drives like a Formula 1 car. But [stock cars] are a lot more unpredictable. They slide around a lot. They have no brakes. I mean, when I tell you, no brakes ‘cause the car is so heavy and the brakes are so tiny.”

In the same episode, 4-time NASCAR champion and former open wheel star Jeff Gordon said, “I gotta say, you know, I think ovals are more challenging and it’s because the corner starts way over and there and ends way over there.”

Comparing the two sports is ludicrous because the skill required for each is so different and cannot be oversimplified. The drivers who reach the pinnacle of their respective sports work just as hard at perfecting their individual crafts. While it may not be certain which takes more “skill” per se, to say that NASCAR takes no skill or takes less skill than Formula 1 cannot be factually supported. The evidence is in the results. Juan Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve are both accomplished Formula 1 drivers who attempted the jump to NASCAR. Neither has had any significant success.

“How the hell do you watch that redneck sport?”

Well, on the surface the answer is simple. I watch it because it is exciting. I watch it for the drama. I watch it for the great finishes. But more simply, I watch it because I understand. People may look at the sport as a gimmick. They may think it is simple. But it doesn’t matter because I get it.

What do I “get” exactly? I get the thrill of a three-wide battle for position on the final lap. I have an understanding of what those drivers are going through and it makes their feats even more impressive. I feel the anxiety that goes along with a fuel mileage race. I know what the crew chief is thinking because like him, I did the math in my head, and it is clear that the car will be close on fuel at the end.

But maybe my attraction to this sport runs deeper than that. Maybe I watch it for the reason that many people watch other sports. Most sports fans will tell you that watching a game without a rooting interest is no fun at all. We, as fans, need a team or person to root for. It forces us to invest more than time into the game. We invest a little bit of ourselves.

NASCAR is no different. Watching races would be unbearable without my favorite driver. I know because Dale Earnhardt, Jr., my favorite driver, missed two races with a concussion this past season. Those two races became much duller even though they were high quality races.

Furthermore, when Earnhardt, Jr. went through a long dry spell from 2009 to this past year, I suffered through it with him. I almost decided to give up watching NASCAR because each race he struggled in was painful. But each race represented another opportunity for him to break his losing streak. This is where NASCAR separates itself from other sports. In no other sport is the phrase “anything can happen” more applicable. Each weekend provides the opportunity that one will see a star born or an underfunded team beat all odds and capture the win. As for Earnhardt Jr., he, I, and his enormous legion of fans celebrated a long awaited win this past June.

The draw is deeper still. NASCAR represents so many of my own principles and the values that I grew up with. It is the working man’s sport. Those in it are not in any way fundamentally different than you or I. They aren’t significantly more physically gifted than you or I and therefore don’t appear as God-like physically as many athletes. You can pass them on the street and they wouldn’t draw any attention because they look like you and I. To me as an immigrant, their stories seem familiar because the sport itself represents the American dream. Therefore, the ultimate draw for me is that I can connect with the sport in a way that I can’t with any other sport.

Therefore, I will kick back this Sunday, February 24th with a Pepsi in hand and a Dale Jr. hat on my head while I watch cars drive in circles for 3 and a half hours during the annual redneck holiday known as the Daytona 500. Maybe you should tune in. Who knows, you might surprise yourself.

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