Many differences exist between IndyCar and NASCAR and if you have ever sat and watched races in each division, you probably noticed stark distinctions. While the type of tracks and differences in vehicular makeup are the most noticeable, other, more obscure discrepancies exist.
The 5 main differences between IndyCar and NASCAR are:
- Car designs
- Racing style
- Restrictor plate/tapered spacer regulations
Below, we will explore these five major differences in greater detail, providing deep insights into how IndyCar and NASCAR are on opposite ends of the racing spectrum. We will also discuss which series is harder to master, whose cars are faster, and which popular racing series is more dangerous.
Perhaps no larger difference exists between IndyCar and NASCAR than their respective car designs. NASCAR vehicles must weigh at least 3,200 lbs without the driver or fuel, over twice the weight of IndyCars. They also strongly resemble their street counterparts. These vehicles are closed, with front, rear, and side windows, plus netting on the driver’s side window.
IndyCars have a single, open cockpit positioned in the center for the driver. They weigh roughly 1,600 lbs – substantially less than a NASCAR vehicle. Unlike NASCARs, IndyCars feature thicker, open wheels. IndyCars also look nothing like street-legal vehicles and have more aerodynamic wings and other components, like a Formula 1 car.
NASCAR cars are designed to reflect the production vehicle they represent. While they are very different on the inside, they’re not meant to look too different on the outside – it is stock car racing after all.
IndyCar on the other hand is all about speed and aerodynamics. IndyCar cars are sleek, low to the ground, open-wheel race cars that are designed with high levels of downforce in mind. While NASCAR cars do have produce some downforce, it’s far less than that of an IndyCar.
NASCAR engines are naturally aspirated V8s with a displacement of 5.86 liters. They’re capable of putting out around 670 horsepower, although some sources put the maximum number above 700 HP, and they run on Sunoco Green E15 fuel.
IndyCar’s engines are lighter than but about as powerful as NASCAR’s V8s. IndyCar uses 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 engines, and these engines are capable of putting out between 550-750 horsepower. The exact amount of power these engines can put out depends on whether the driver is using their push-to-pass system.
Making its debut in 2009, the push-to-pass mechanism helps drivers overtake opponents thanks to a temporary boost in horsepower. NASCAR engines do not have any features like this.
When you think of NASCAR, you often think of perpetual left turns that take place for a specified distance, often between 160 and 400 laps. Most racetracks on the NASCAR circuit are variations of an oval. As of 2022, there are six road courses on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar: Sonoma, Circuit of the Americas, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, Charlotte Roval and Road America.
In contrast, IndyCar’s schedule comprises mainly road courses, with a handful of traditional oval tracks on the schedule. IndyCar also takes its entertainment to the streets in metropolitan areas like Long Beach and St. Petersburg.
Besides the types of tracks where IndyCar and NASCAR hold their events, their schedules also differ. IndyCar hosts just 17 races, while the NASCAR Cup Series holds 40 events, with 36 of them counting toward the drivers’ overall points totals for the season.
Despite NASCAR running substantially more races throughout the season, they only race for two additional months. This is because NASCAR races almost week-to-week between February and November, while IndyCar races usually have a couple of weeks between them, with the exception of July, when there are 4 race weekends back-to-back.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between NASCAR and IndyCar is the style in which they race. When you watch a NASCAR event, you know you’re going to see cars make contact for the entire race. While NASCAR prohibits cars from outright wrecking one another, it’s common to see them make bump-and-run contact toward the end of races. This becomes commonplace on the last lap.
IndyCar prohibits contact, and even the occasional incidental bump can be disastrous. Since the cars are lighter, faster, and more prone to go airborne in the event of contact, it makes sense for IndyCar to crack down on the amount of contact allowed during an event. The cars can also become damaged far easier than NASCAR cars can.
NASCAR and IndyCar’s racing styles differ further in the number of cars permitted to run during a race. NASCAR has traditionally allowed more cars than IndyCar, and they often race on shorter tracks, which call for tighter packs. Since IndyCar has traditionally seen fewer drivers and larger circuits, it’s more common to see the cars more spread out than their NASCAR counterparts.
Starting in 2016, NASCAR introduced the chartered system, which handed out charters to 36 teams that guaranteed them a place in the field. These teams were required to have attempted to qualify for every race from 2013 to 2015. The chartered system was created to ward off start-and-park teams who showed up to collect bottom-tier prize money.
To further discourage the start-and-park practice, NASCAR reduced its field from 43 cars to a maximum of 40. This left four open positions to non-charter teams. Even with the chartered system in place, NASCAR still allows more cars to enter its races than IndyCar. IndyCar allows a maximum of 33 drivers, but there are times that fewer than 30 drivers take part in a race.
Restrictor plates are a car part that was implemented into NASCAR in 1988 to slow down the fastest cars, so the competition is more equal, and for safety reasons too. These restrictor plates would be used at various superspeedways where the speeds were deemed to be getting too high and it was becoming dangerous, and the performance gap at these circuits was far more apparent too.
Restrictor plate use, however, has not come without debate. While they slow down NASCAR’s powerful engines, use of restrictor plates has also forced cars to race in tight packs, something you see at Daytona and Talladega. While this may make the racing tighter, it has been argued by many that closer racing is actually more dangerous than it was before as a result.
Restrictor plates have since been replaced by tapered spacers, and these vary from race to race. They also reduce the power output of the engine – by limiting the airflow into it – and this allows the NASCAR organizers to have more control over the power and therefore speeds of the cars at any given track. IndyCar has no such restrictor plate/tapered spacer equivalent.
IndyCar is faster than NASCAR. Even without restrictor plates, and despite carrying a more powerful engine, NASCARs can’t keep up with their IndyCar counterparts. IndyCar cars reach top speeds of 230+ mph, while NASCAR cars top out around 200 mph.
Before NASCAR mandated restrictor plates, Bill Elliott set a record with 212 miles per hour in 1987. In the restrictor plate/tapered spacer era, NASCARs often top out at 200 miles per hour, whereas IndyCars can reach more than 236 mph.
On a road course, the lap times between NASCAR and IndyCar are totally different. NASCAR’s fastest lap at Road America, for example, was a 2:14.089 set in 2021. In 2017, Josef Newgarden lapped the track in just 1:43.465. That’s a difference of nearly 30 seconds, largely down to the fast cornering speeds of the high-downforce IndyCar cars.
While NASCAR and IndyCar often race on different tracks, Indianapolis is one of the few oval tracks they share. In 2005, Tony Stewart set the record for fastest lap for NASCAR at Indianapolis during a race at 50.099 seconds, at an average speed of 179.641 mph.
Shifting gears to IndyCar, Arie Luyendyk set the fastest practice lap at 37.610 seconds at an average speed of 239.60 mph on May 10th, 1996. Eddie Cheever set the fastest lap for a race 16 days later with a time of 38.119 seconds at an average speed of 236.103 mph.
While restrictor plates play a role, weight is the real reason NASCARs are slower than IndyCars. Even when you count acceleration, NASCAR still falls short, taking an average of 3.4 seconds to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour. By contrast, IndyCars take just three seconds to hit 90 mph. When it comes to lap time differences on the road courses though, IndyCar’s downforce levels are the difference.
IndyCar is not harder than NASCAR, and NASCAR is not inherently harder than IndyCar. How difficult either racing series is depends on the skills of the driver and what kind of racing they are better at. Both NASCAR and IndyCar require a massive amount of driving skill and awareness.
While it may seem as though IndyCar is harder, given the series’ tendency to hold events on road courses while NASCAR’s events mainly take place on ovals, the real answer to the question boils down to what comes more naturally to the respective drivers.
NASCAR also comes with a unique set of challenges. Although NASCAR races mainly occur on ovals, drivers must account for track surface, weather conditions, type of track (short track or speedway), banking, and the degrees of each turn.
Some tracks pose a greater challenge to drivers who aren’t as used to different types of turns. Darlington, for example, comprises two wide turns and two narrow turns. Bristol and Martinsville are nearly identical in size, but they contain different shapes and surfaces. Bristol hosts one dirt race a year, while its second race takes place on a unique concrete surface.
Meanwhile, Martinsville looks like a paperclip, featuring narrower turns than its half-mile counterpart in Tennessee. The track forces drivers to slow down to under 100 miles per hour through the turns, while they barely eclipse 110 mph on the straightaways.
But the style of racing is also not without its challenges. NASCAR racing is bumper-to-bumper, wheel-to-wheel racing for hundreds of laps. This takes mental endurance, and a lot of driving skill too. From controlling the car to strategically making moves, NASCAR is about far more than just turning left.
IndyCar’s road courses, like NASCAR’s ovals, come with different challenges too. Constant elevation changes entwined with a blend of left and right turns are what makes it seem as though IndyCar is more challenging. Uneven surfaces also pose a special challenge for IndyCar drivers. And, like their NASCAR counterparts, they must also account for different bankings.
IndyCar drivers must also be aware of the changes weather brings to the track conditions. Track conditions could be ideal for practice and qualifying runs, but they can also change come race day and even throughout the race.
IndyCar and NASCAR both feature four primary tiers in their respective series. NASCAR’s most prominent series is their Cup Series, followed by the Xfinity Series, Truck Series, and ARCA Series. The NTT IndyCar Series serves as the NASCAR Cup Series’ equivalent, while the Indy Lights Series stands one rung below NTT. Indy Pro 2000 is the third tier, while the US F2000 sits on the bottom rung.
With fewer drivers in IndyCar than in NASCAR, some fans may assume IndyCar is harder to get into. But it boils down to driver development. If the driver, even at the lowest level of their respective series, continues to make strides, they will continue to climb the ladder toward the top.
However, if a driver does not develop beyond a certain threshold, or if they cannot succeed at the higher level, they will have a difficult time making it to either NTT or the NASCAR Cup Series. To answer this question simply, it’s essentially equally difficult to make it to the top level in both IndyCar and NASCAR.
IndyCar is not necessarily more dangerous than NASCAR. Both series have come a long way in terms of the safety in their racing, and both NASCAR and IndyCar feature plenty of safety advancements both in terms of the cars used and in the rules they must adhere to.
Given the open cockpit that IndyCars feature, you would probably guess that IndyCars are more dangerous than NASCAR. If you add the fact that IndyCars top out at closer to 240 miles per hour, it’s no wonder many people think IndyCar is more dangerous overall.
Despite this opinion, fans continue to debate about which series is safer. IndyCar has fewer drivers taking part in their events and they also hold their events on longer tracks. When coupled with the way IndyCar discourages contact, you could make the case that IndyCar is safer, with contact being rarer than in NASCAR.
However, NASCAR is much safer when you count their lack of driver fatalities and the spectacular crashes drivers have walked away from. NASCAR has not seen a fatality in its top racing series since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001. However, IndyCar has had four fatalities since 2003. The drivers included Tony Renna (2003), Paul Dana (2006), Dan Wheldon (2011), and Justin Wilson (2015).
Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death at the 2001 Daytona 500 was almost NASCAR’s breaking point. NASCAR introduced upgraded safety features with their Car of Tomorrow (CoT), and they also implemented the SAFER Barrier, a softer walled surface that better absorbs impact. While the CoT fizzled out, NASCAR made improvements to both car safety and aesthetics with the Gen-6 and Next-Gen Cars.
Despite the CoT’s criticisms, it passed a major test in 2008. During a qualifying run at Texas Motor Speedway, Michael McDowell lost control of his car and hit the SAFER Barrier at an estimated 185 miles per hour before barrel-rolling eight times. While McDowell’s crash looked horrific at first sight, he was seen moving seconds after the car came to a halt and walked away from the crash.
Despite being the apparently more dangerous of the two series, IndyCar partnered with EM Motorsport in 2021 to further study the impact their drivers and cars suffered during crashes. EM Motorsport already provided their technology to Formula 1, Formula 2, and Le Mans. Notable technology provided by EM Motorsport includes accident data recorders and ear plug accelerometers.
IndyCar hopes that the data collected will help advance the series’ technological safety innovations in the future to prevent further fatalities from occurring. The devices debuted on April 18th, 2021, at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
NASCAR is more popular than IndyCar. Both series have taken their products international and have large fan bases on a global scale. However, as far as spectators go, NASCAR attracts an average of 61,000 fans per race, while IndyCar brings in roughly 40,000.
Despite NASCAR’s recent struggles to gain television viewers, they still average around 3 million viewers per race, while Indy paled in comparison with just under 2 million. While it looks as though NASCAR runs away in the popularity contest, it’s not so clear-cut.
NASCAR’s attendance at the 2021 Brickyard 400 drew just 60,000 fans. However, this number was way up from years past, with the International Business Journal reporting between 35,000 and 50,000 fans showing up between 2016 and 2017. The 2021 Brickyard 400 also drew 4.3 million viewers, substantially lower than the Indianapolis 500’s ratings of 5.58 million.
One major problem with the argument that NASCAR is more popular is that the NASCAR season runs twice as many races as IndyCar. This means IndyCar will probably never catch NASCAR in average number of spectators per season, nor will they eclipse NASCAR in their average number of television viewers.
NASCAR traces its roots to 1949 while IndyCar didn’t start in its current form until 1996. This gave NASCAR five decades to build their product, with Indy struggling to find a fan base. NASCAR also holds the edge in season length and track locations, two things that drive television viewers and fans.
While their product isn’t as diverse as IndyCar’s, with the latter racing on so many road courses, NASCAR has recently added more tracks to their schedule that include stops in Illinois, Road America, and Nashville.
Another reason NASCAR wins the popularity contest is that they do a better job of creating unique brands for their drivers. Drivers build gigantic fanbases thanks to their names being associated with the sport. For example, Chase Elliott’s dad, Bill, was NASCAR’s most popular driver for years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed a similar experience during his time as a driver thanks to his father Dale, and grandfather, Ralph.
IndyCar has always marketed its product more on the racing and diversity of its road courses than its drivers. It’s one reason you rarely see IndyCar drivers endorse products to the same extent as their NASCAR competitors.
NASCAR also holds substantially more fan events than IndyCar. With more races, NASCAR fans can feel more involved. But besides top-tier IndyCar events, there aren’t as many fan-related events. Finally, NASCAR has appealed more to the traditional, blue-collar, and hardworking American, while IndyCar, given its similarities to Formula 1, is often viewed as appealing to the high-end crowd.
There are lots of differences between IndyCar and NASCAR, from the engines and car designs they use to the safety features and the number of fans of each series. NASCAR races are typically held on oval tracks, while IndyCar events are mostly held on road courses with many different types of turns.