If you are a NASCAR fan, you have most likely had to deal with at least one person asking you why you like it, stating that it is nothing more than drivers turning left for 200 laps. But if you are looking to get into NASCAR, this could be a barrier preventing you from really enjoying it.
Technically, the oval tracks do only have left turns. But there is so much strategy involved, and racing skill, and so it is much harder than simply turning left. Plus, there are also road circuits in the NASCAR calendar, with turns in both directions.
No matter which type of circuit you look at, there is much more to it than simply driving fast and turning in one direction or the other. Like all motorsports, NASCAR involves a lot of skill on the part of the driver, and the whole team has to work together to plan strategic moves.
The Issue Of Left Turns
First, lets address why so many people think NASCAR is all about turning left. Some of the most famous races, such as the Daytona 500, take place at oval circuits. These are exactly what they sound like, and they do only feature straightaways and left turns. This is in contrast to other tracks, which feature both left and right turns and take on more obscure shapes and sizes.
Of the NASCAR calendar, usually around 80-90% of the races take place on oval or oval-based tracks. There are some that are called tri-ovals or D-shaped ovals, and these are basically variations of the classic oval shape that still involve only left turns. Only 3 of the 36 races in the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series took place on road circuits.
This is why so many people just think NASCAR is purely driving fast and turning left. But there really is a lot more to it than that, even on the oval tracks. However, for good measure, let us first consider these outliers. The road courses may be rare, but they are still part of the season and they immediately prove the “left turns only” point to be wrong.
Left And Right Turns
More Right Than Left
The idea of nothing but left turns can be revoked with the simple fact that NASCAR features several road courses races, with them all featuring more right turns than left. Take Watkins Glen for example. It features just 7 turns in total, with 5 of them being right turns. Sonoma, which was also used in the 2019 season, has 12 turns, with 7 of them being to the right.
This immediately blows the idea of simple left turns out of the water, and these road courses require a completely different driving style to the oval tracks. So different in fact, that they require a second car to be used, which is tuned to these tracks specifically. This brings up one of the most important ideas when considering how difficult NASCAR can be.
Not only do the drivers need to have the skill to drive fast on both the oval and the road course tracks, but they also need to be able to do it in two different cars. This means they need to be able to work with two different setups, at the top level of the sport, in order to win races. Having to control two different cars with such precision is no mean feat.
The Driving Skill
When comparing NASCAR to other motorsports, such as IndyCar and Formula 1, it is easy for some to think that it requires a lot less skill, and not just because the cars are turning less often. F1 and IndyCar are famous open wheel racing competitions, which feature that classic aerodynamic race car shape, requiring the drivers to perform at a really high level in a car far from your traditional road car.
NASCAR on the other hand involves stock cars, based on their road legal counterparts. Surely this means they are less complex to drive than F1 cars? There is less technology involved, and fewer buttons and switches for the driver to play around with. Surely it is just driving, like you normally would in a normal car, but just a lot faster?
That could not be further from the truth. While NASCAR doesn’t feature the same advanced technology as F1, the cars still require the driver to have incredible control over them at all times. NASCAR features some of the fastest driving on the planet, with speeds over 200mph all the way around some of the tracks. This requires a lot of concentration.
At these kinds of speeds, the drivers need to be able to make very fine movements in order to pass other drivers and defend against those behind. If they make even the slightest mistake at 200mph it can mean their race is over. The margin for error in all three motorsports is tiny, and in NASCAR there is a lot more close quarters driving.
Unlike in F1, where the drivers do their best to stay away from other cars as they are so fragile, NASCAR drivers regularly need to bump their way to positions. The carsarebig and bulky machines, which when travelling so fast can really do some major damage to others. Thus, the drivers need to be able to slot into positions with so much precision, all while going incredibly fast.
There are also 39 other drivers on the track to negotiate, so asidefrom controlling a speeding bullet for 200 laps, the drivers need to do so while surrounded by others doing the same. This means they cannot get complacent and need to be at the top of their game in terms of concentration for several hours at a time, with races sometimes going as long as three hours.
This means they also need to be able to react to situations as they happen within milliseconds, in order to avoid disaster. The reaction times of NASCAR drivers are up there with the fastest in the world, as they need to be able to avoid someone slowing down in front of them out of nowhere, and guide their car away from danger without also losing control of their own car.
The Strategy And Teamwork
But it is not just the driver that is involved in a NASCAR race. There are full teams behind them, trying to work out what the best strategies are for each individual race. The strategies involve things like fuel consumption and tire wear, and so the driver needs to be able to manage both of these in order to pit at the optimum times and put themselves in the best position strategically.
Strategizing While Driving
They need to be able to think strategically as the race is unfolding, reacting to other drivers going into the pits, and working with their team to decide when to push and when to hang back and stay patient. They need to do this all while still performing at their highest possible level, focusing on strategizing at the same time as driving.
Hard To Compare
While NASCAR is definitely not easy, one can’t help but think that there are harder motorsports out there. IndyCar races on many of the same tracks as NASCAR, and so the two are often compared to each other. But the difficulty when comparing two motorsports is obvious when the cars are so different.
With open wheel racing in IndyCar and F1, the drivers need to be in a completely different frame of mind. They are sitting lower to the ground and have less visibility as a result. They also need to be far more careful when near other drivers, as the fragile nature of these cars means that they can only handle very small bumps.
Differences In Technology
This is in contrast to NASCAR, where contact is a regular occurrence. But this doesn’t mean the NASCAR drivers can do what they want, as they still need to be extremely careful and not overdo it. The technical side of things is one area where the sports differ the most. F1 cars are highly advanced pieces of technology, while NASCAR uses stock cars, with limited technology.
This means the two drivers need to be able to focus on very different things. Where the NASCAR driver needs to think about bumping other cars and maintaining the best lines for 200 laps of an oval circuit at 200+mph, the F1 driver needs to concentrate on switching his brake bias between corners, along with many other switches and buttons.
The Element Of Competition
The bottom line is, all motorsports are hard at the highest level, and even if you think the sport itself is easier than others, you need to remember that the competition is one of the hardest parts. There are 39 other drivers that are all trying to win the race, and so regardless of whether the track or car is easy to drive, you still need to be better than everyone else, which is difficult as it is.
There definitely is a lot more to NASCAR than simply turning left. Between the ability required to beat the 39 other top-quality drivers, and the strategy and timing needed to pull of the right moves at the right times, NASCAR requires a lot of skill. Besides, there are road courses too, it’s not just ovals. So sometimes the drivers find themselves turning right more often than left!