You may not realize the NASCAR pace car has more roles beyond pacing the field when a caution flag waves. The pace car rarely sees the limelight, but it is one of the most important if not the most important safety aspect in NASCAR.
The NASCAR pace car keeps the field moving at around the pit road speed during both cautions and the parade laps preceding the race’s initial green flag. This allows the pace car to set the pit road speed, while also giving the drivers a chance to warm up their brakes, engines, and tires.
Below, we will look closer at the NASCAR pace car’s roles, what kind of car the pace car really is, and we will also dive into its history. We will also cover notable events involving the pace car, and reveal whether or not it has ever crashed during a NASCAR event.
What Is The Pace Car In NASCAR?
The pace car in NASCAR, also known as the safety car, is a special car that drives ahead of the racers during the parade laps. It’s a neutral car with no connections to any teams, even though it may be from the same manufacturers, and it exists to keep drivers from racing during warmups.
When you attend any sporting event, you will notice that the players spend a considerable amount of time warming up. They need to go through the motions to prepare their bodies for the event that is to come, and you may even see them start warming up an hour-and-a-half before the event.
For example, if you played high school football, you may remember the quarterbacks taking the field 90 minutes before the game began, with other players entering the field 15 minutes later. Within a half-hour, the entire team was out running positional and team drills.
The same thing occurs for NASCAR, except the drivers must also warm up their car’s tires, brakes, and engines for the upcoming 300 to 500-mile event. They must also get used to driving at the pit road speed since they, sooner or later, will need a change of tires and a fuel refill.
However, NASCAR needed a system in place to prevent the drivers from racing one another during a warm up period, an intermission, or a caution. To do this in a safe and effective way, they use a special car to ensure the playing field remains fair when the race is not running under green.
Enter The Pace Car
Also known as the safety car, the pace car drives in front of the drivers during the countdown to the green flag, also known as the parade laps. These are the few laps where the drivers warm up and prepare to race for the event’s initial stage. Safety cars are used for similar purposes in other motorsports, such as F1 and even MotoGP has a safety car.
You can always tell when the pace car is on the track, since it looks nothing like the other cars in the field. This allows drivers to distinguish the pace car from its 35 to 39 competitors during specific moments of the race, like the parade laps or when the race is under caution.
A driver with no connection to the NASCAR teams also drives the pace car. This further ensures fair play during the parade laps or a caution period. Think of the driver of the pace car playing a similar role to that of an NFL referee or an MLB umpire, which shows off the importance of the role.
What Kind Of Car Is The NASCAR Pace Car?
The NASCAR pace car is a modern car or truck that’s often the same make and model as those on the tracks. It’s differentiated from the racers by having a color scheme that’s either bright or a mixture of light and dark colors. They are also not NASCAR cars, but rather are altered production cars.
When you watch a NASCAR race, you may notice that the pace car changes design often. The pace car must wear different attire to distinguish themselves from the opposing teams just as an official does in any given sport. The difference is, while an official’s attire does not change, the pace car’s design changes to fully ensure it does not resemble the competing cars in the slightest.
This is in the interest of safety. Many times, NASCAR cars have paint schemes that they use from race to race. However, they may change sponsors, unveil an alternate scheme, or use a throwback paint scheme for a specific set of races.
When such instances occur, NASCAR must ensure that all 36-40 drivers on the track can tell the pace car apart from its competitors. Therefore, it is normal to see the pace car’s make, model, and body changing as needed, often weekly.
Safety Colors And Aesthetics
If you have ever worked in a warehouse, you will know within seconds who is on the safety committee. They often wear vibrant orange and green colors to set themselves apart from the other workers. If the job involves hard hats, they are often those same shades of orange or green.
The pace car is no different. They will either contain a bright color scheme or a solid mixture of light and dark colors that do not resemble the other cars on the track. However, if the pace car uses a darker paint scheme, they will also have bright-colored markers or labels.
They always have sirens perched on the roof in case the drivers still have trouble telling them apart from the other cars. Further, NASCAR does not want the pace car, despite its different look, to be an eyesore to spectators and television viewers.
Therefore, NASCAR will use the latest car models to serve as the pace car.This allows them to blend in aesthetically with the other 36-40 cars while simultaneously maintaining a distinguished look.
Not A NASCAR Car
You may ask whether a pace car is the same as NASCAR cars that run races for between 300 and 500 miles. They are not, but rather are production cars with altered, high-performance engines.
When you catch a close-up of the pace car, you will notice that they look nothing like their NASCAR counterparts.Pace cars have real head and tail lights, they do not contain the same Goodyear Eagle tires that NASCAR cars use, and they do not have safety netting on the window.
Types Of Cars Used
NASCAR does not use a standard pace car. Instead, they go with cars of the same makes and models of the manufacturers that grace the track. As of 2022, you will see Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota, usually Camaros, Mustangs, and Camrys.
Since NASCAR is slowly reverting back into a “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” series, it further justifies why they use the latest models for many races instead of using one standard car throughout a 36-race season.
Not Always A Car
If you exclusively watch NASCAR Cup Series events, you may think that the pace car is always a car. However, in the NASCAR Truck Series, they often use a pace truck instead.
And just as in NASCAR Cup and Xfinity, where they use newer models and years for their cars, the same thing holds true for the pace trucks. And just as with the Xfinity and Cup Series, the Truck Series does not use a standard truck, but varying pace trucks for each race in the season.
When Is The NASCAR Pace Car Used?
The NASCAR pace car is used during the parade laps to allow drivers to warm up their cars, and any time a caution flag is waved, including when there’s debris on the track, there’s a crash, or a stage is ending. This ensures no racing goes on while there are potentially dangers on the racetrack.
You always see the pace car used during the parade laps leading to the green flag. This allows the fans to catch a live view of the race’s starting grid, the drivers a chance to warm up their car, and the broadcast to introduce the starting grid to television audiences.
The pace car, however, does not only enter the track during the parade laps. Any time you see a caution flag wave because of debris on the track, a crash, or to end a stage, the pace car will lead the field for a determined number of laps until favorable track conditions return.
In the event of a competition caution, NASCAR pre-determines the number of yellow flag laps and the pace car will lead the field for the pre-determined number of laps unless NASCAR says otherwise.
Lucky Dog Rule
Once the yellow flag waves for any on-track incident,the pace car immediately exits the pits and the drivers must immediately file behind it.Only the Lucky Dog, the first car not on the lead lap, may pass the pace car during this time. However, the Lucky Dog may not pass the pace car until pit road opens and the pace car’s driver signals the Lucky Dog to pass.
How Fast Does The Pace Car Go In NASCAR?
While the pace car’s speed varies depending on the NASCAR event it’s at, it generally maintains a speed 5 to 15 miles per hour higher than the track’s pit road speed limit. It works to enforce the speed limit both on and off the pit road, to ensure cars are traveling at safe speeds.
When you see the pace car take the track, you will notice that it forces the drivers to slow substantially. Regardless of how fast of the track they are on, it is common to see the pace car keep the drivers from accelerating faster than half of the race’s average speed.
The pace car’s speed varies for each respective NASCAR event.So the speed you see them driving at Daytona is not the same speed you will see them pacing the field at a shorter track like Martinsville.
Often, they travel at a speed roughly similar to the track’s pit road speed limit, usually between 5 and 15 miles per hour higher. The higher speed is necessary because they are also responsible for keeping the drivers and cars primed for an effective start or restart.
Using the Daytona-Martinsville example, the pace car must drive substantially faster before a restart at Daytona as opposed to Martinsville. At Daytona, the pace car drives around 70 mph, 15 mph higher than the pit road speed. At Martinsville, they drive at just 35 mph, 5 mph above the pit road speed.
Who Drives The NASCAR Pace Car?
The pace car is driven most often by retired NASCAR drivers, as it requires special skill to drive. Famous examples of past drivers include Elmo Langley and Brett Bodine. There are also honorary pace car drivers that drive alongside the real pace car, and contain individuals not involved in NASCAR.
You may not realize it, but driving the pace car requires a special skill.Therefore, you will not see any random individual driving it. However, you will see those who are not involved in NASCAR serving as honorary pace car drivers.
These honorary drivers often drive alongside or behind the actual pace car and they rarely pace the field to the green flag following the opening parade laps. Some honorary drivers may drive a pace car to the green flag if they are skilled enough, but this is rare.
One notable moment involved Richard Petty pacing the field in a replica of his Generation 2 STP car at the Darlington Raceway. Pacing the field during the parade laps behind the pace car, Petty did not exit the track at his scheduled time, drawing a black flag.
Often, retired NASCAR drivers drive the real pace car.And they hold onto the profession for an extended period of time, with drivers like Brett Bodine driving the car for fifteen seasons. Below are a few notable pace car drivers from the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Elmo Langley: 1989 To 1996
Langley started driving the pace car eight years after his last Cup Series race in April 1989. His tenure lasted until November 1996, when he unfortunately died of a heart attack in Suzuka, Japan.
Langley was scheduled to drive the pace car for NASCAR’s exhibition race, the Thunder Special Suzuka.However, while test driving the car three days before the event, he complained of chest pains, which ultimately led to his death upon arrival at a nearby hospital.
During Langley’s NASCAR career, he recorded two wins in 535 starts, along with 193 top-ten finishes, and one pole award. Langley finished a career-best fifth place in the NASCAR Cup standings in 1969 and 1971.
Brett Bodine: 2004 To 2018
Bodine’s claim to fame had little to do with his actual driving skill, having recorded just one win and 61 top-ten finishes in 481 starts. Instead, Bodine is known for being the last of the single-car owner/driver competing in a full-time schedule in NASCAR.
Upon retiring from NASCAR following the 2003 season, Bodine went on to drive the pace car for the next 15 seasons. He also played a huge role in the Car of Tomorrow’s (CoT) development, driving prototype cars for NASCAR’s Research and Development (R&D) center.
Has The NASCAR Pace Car Ever Crashed?
The NASCAR pace car has crashed. While the pace car is the least likely to crash, it’s crashed at the 1988 Winston Open, caught fire at Daytona Sprint Unlimited in 2014, was pushed by a driver at Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 in 2021, and has been bump drafted by numerous drivers.
Of all the cars in NASCAR, the pace car is the least susceptible to crashing. Often, you see the pace car do its job during parade laps and return to the pits until the yellow flag waves. You may not even watch the race when the pace car is on the track since there is barely any action going on.
But the pace car has been around NASCAR forever, and with 30-plus events throughout most of the organization’s existence, the Law of Probability states the chances are pretty good that the pace car has crashed multiple times.
You may go a season or even an entire decade without seeing an incident regarding the pace car. But you may be surprised that not only has the pace car crashed, but also that bizarre incidents have surrounded it.
During the exhibition Sprint Unlimited in 2014, the event remained under caution for an extended amount of time. Not because one of the two-dozen drivers taking part in the event crashed, but because the pace car caught fire.
As the car veered from the track, smoke billowed from under the car which seconds later erupted into an all-out blaze at the car’s rear. NASCAR safety crews pounced onto the scene and extinguished the fire within seconds, allowing the race to continue as scheduled.
Twenty-six years before the incident at Daytona, Brad Noffsinger crashed into the pace car in the infield at the 1988 Winston Open. Unfortunately, this crash resulted in a security guard suffering a broken ankle.
However, the crash was not necessarily on Noffsinger. Following the race’s conclusion, he cut a tire and lost control of the car, which veered through an open gate and hit the parked pace car head-on.
Bumping The Pace Car
Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace were known to bump draft the pace car and even pull ahead of it during a caution flag when Elmo Langley drove the car between April 1989 and November 1996. .
There was also a recorded incident in which Tony Stewart provided a bump draft to the pace car that former NASCAR driver Brett Bodine was driving. NASCAR immediately ordered Stewart to back off of the car, to which he obliged.
New Hampshire 2021
Late in NASCAR’s 26-race “regular season,” Kyle Busch crashed during a rain-filled Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 just three laps into the event. Initially, NASCAR officials allowed the race to go on as scheduled, since only mist was falling at the time.
However, soon after the green flag dropped, the mist evolved into rain, prompting NASCAR to halt the race given less-than-optimal track conditions. The problem was, Busch and other prominent drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin also crashed.
Busch’s car, however, suffered damage heavy enough to retire for the race, as NASCAR refused to allow him into a backup car since the race already started. Frustrated, he pushed the pace car before he turned onto pit road. Busch was fined for the incident.
The Pace Car’s Most Bizarre Incident
Perhaps the most bizarre incident regarding the pace car occurred at the 1986 Winston 500. You may have seen sporting events that involved fans running onto the field. A similar event happened here, except a then-20-year-old fan stole the pace car and took it for a ride around the track.
The fan entered the car, not occupied by its driver before the race began, and led track police on a low-speed chase around the superspeedway. However, maintenance trucks set up a makeshift roadblock in Turn Two while police chased the driver around the track on motorcycles.
The broadcast speculated whether the fan would attempt to drive through the block. However, the fan stopped the car and allowed police to take him into custody without further incident.
The NASCAR pace car plays several extremely important roles, including leading drivers during parade and caution laps to control the speed of the cars behind. It’s distinctive from the cars of drivers, and is often driven by former NASCAR drivers. It’s had multiple incidents in its lifetime.