Gridlock Guy: Answers to NASCAR questions for the average Atlanta commuter

A Brief History of NASCAR

As those who know me well are aware of, covering and watching NASCAR is a huge hobby of mine. In fact, it's almost my only hobby. I file reports for News 95.5/AM750 WSB when I go to the races, post sporadically on my racing blog, host a racing podcast called "Five to Go", and fill-in as a pit reporter and a play-by-play announcer for the Performance Racing Network. Coming off of the Daytona 500 and our home race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, racing is on my brain and I spend these weekends each year at the track.

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With traffic reporting as my main gig, I like to cover really slow cars and really fast ones. Similar to my traffic reports sometimes, my NASCAR reports sometimes get steeped with the sport’s lingo. Someone hearing an Atlanta traffic report for the first time won’t understand it nearly as well as a native. So I am going to interrupt this Atlanta traffic space to answer some of the most basic questions I get from very intelligent people about NASCAR. Hey, at least I am writing about cars.

Why is going fast and just driving left a sport?

Because curling is. No. Stock car drivers are not just on a Sunday drive. The television product does not do justice the amount of skill drivers need to hurl their cars into turns, turn and hit the brake until the cars set, and then get back on the gas as soon as possible. The best drivers (and mechanics) can do this with the least braking and most finesse. And they all do this within inches of each other, 20 rows deep.

I have driven go karts before at both Andretti’s Indoor Karting and K1 Speed. I drive hard and wear myself out after just a five-minute race or two. And the drivers that actually compete at those tracks can drive laps around me. It’s because they “brake” by taking the correct line in each turn, avoiding actually having to slow down. The speed charts reflect this.

Atlanta Motor Speedway has 22-year-old pavement that wears out tires and forces drivers to take different lines through the turns to find maximum grip, as their times per lap slow two to three seconds over the course of a run on a set of tires. Most drivers identify Atlanta as one of their favorite tracks because of this.

And the race teams have a huge task in building different cars and setting them up differently for each track. AMS is a high-banked 1.5-mile oval, which is totally different than the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway or the .5-mile Bristol Motor Speedway. And when NASCAR changes the aerodynamic and engine packages on the cars, the playbooks for the mechanics change. So, yes — there is far more to NASCAR than driving fast and going left.

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Do racecars have headlights and where are the door handles?

NASCAR began as a true showcase of showroom cars. As speeds increased and the sport became more refined, teams began building their own cars that more just resembled street cars. The cars these days really are mainly marketing tools for Ford, Chevy, and Toyota, but the manufacturers do want the machines to at least resemble what consumers buy.

So the cars have headlight, taillight, and grille decals that look very similar to the real models. The bodies, which are a different material than a street car, have some contour lines that match regular cars. But they also have to meet certain aerodynamic standards to handle the high speeds and handling characteristics in a race. Racing a street vehicle in its pure form in a 175 mph circle would not put on a good show and would be incredibly unsafe.

Drivers climb in and out of the windows, because having a part where a door would open would be both unsafe and would disrupt the air on the side of the car. A net goes tightly over the driver’s window, while the rest of the windows and windshield are Plexiglass, so they do not shatter in a crash.

Why can’t NASCAR race in the rain and why do they change tires so much?

Racing at high speeds creates a need for a high-contact patch on the ground. So Goodyear creates tires with different rubber compounds, depending on the tracks. The tires are supposed to create high grip, which means they wear out quickly as the hot tracks chew up the rubber. Pit crews change tires several times during a race because of this.

These tires also do not have treads, because a treaded tire creates a smaller contact patch. Teams sometimes use rain tires on a road course (a slower track that turns both left and right), but those races move at much slower speeds. A common race, like at Atlanta Motor Speedway, would go horribly in the rain. The drivers would have to run so slowly on the high banks that the racing action would be less-than-tepid. If they drove faster, they would wreck. They are not racing on a regular road, but on a high-banked track. That just simply would not work in NASCAR. Just think of how badly rain ruins Atlanta commutes at slow speeds.

Race fans may find the above questions ridiculous, but non-NASCAR sports fans ask me ones like these all the time. There may not be much practical application from this exercise to your daily commute. Consider, though, that NASCAR began with a group of moonshiners souping up their road vehicles to outrun the law and eventually made that into a multi-billion dollar sport. And current manufacturers use data from the racetracks to shape the cars you drive. Hopefully you have now gained a little more appreciation for the sport I love.

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Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.

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