Flow Racers is a reader-supported site. Purchases made through links may earn a commission.

Why Does A NASCAR Car Only Have 5 Gears?

The Next Gen NASCAR car only has 5 gears, and it is logical to wonder why this is the case.  Besides providing a more simplified approach, the new design helped NASCAR provide more innovations. You may be wondering why NASCAR unveiled a new 5-speed transmission in their Next Gen car.

NASCAR cars only have 5 gears because of their simplicity. Besides shifting down for pit stops and cautions, NASCAR drivers do not need to shift gears often except when they race at specific tracks. The 5-speed sequential transmission also has a reverse gear, although it’s rarely used. 

Below, we will discuss the Next Gen car’s transmission layout. We will also touch on why NASCAR stuck with 4 gears for so long, and we will even talk about how often NASCAR drivers really need to shift gears during a race.

Why Did NASCAR Cars Used To Have 4 Gears?

NASCAR cars used to have 4 gears as it was both simple and traditional. Many fans love NASCAR because of its insistence on tradition. The “keeping things as is” strategy has remained a draw for the sport since it gained prominence in the 1970s, and that’s why they stuck with 4 gears for so long.

However, tradition can also be a nuisance when it is not paired with innovation. And NASCAR has done a fantastic job following the tradition with innovation approach in the 21st century. Especially in terms of safety with the advent of the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) and the Generation 6 car.

Yet when they could help it, NASCAR maintained a traditional approach. And many car components have never changed because they simply never felt the need to change them.

A Four-Speed Tradition

Ford boasted a popular 4-speed transmission dating back to the 1950s. Car enthusiasts also lauded the 4-speed for its simplicity and endurance. This motivated NASCAR to mandate the 4-speed, leaving teams with no choice but to adopt them until things changed in 2022.

And while NASCAR cars have engines and body components that change from manufacturer to manufacturer, they also boast strict guidelines for their teams. Given the 4-speed transmission’s simple design, yet high endurance capability, it made sense for NASCAR to mandate them.

NASCAR lauds itself on their teams building cars that are safe, yet test their drivers’ skills. But they also embrace simplicity and cost-effectiveness, given the overall funds it takes to run a NASCAR team. The 4-speed transmission checked all the boxes.

The Transmission In The Next Gen NASCAR Cars

When NASCAR unveiled the Next Gen cars, a new transmission was one of the components.While some thought NASCAR would go with an automatic transmission, NASCAR still wanted to challenge their drivers’ skill in every possible aspect without sacrificing safety. Therefore, the transmission remained manual.

However, they changed the transmission dramatically, along with most of the cars’ components. These new cars featured improved aerodynamics and downforce, new horsepower in the engines, wider wheels, and sleeker bodies.

As for the new transmission, the Next Gen car ditched the 4-gear, H-pattern gearbox in favor of a 5-speed, sequential transmission. It was also much more simplified, with the floor-mounted gear shift requiring drivers to push one notch to shift down and to pull a notch to shift up.

Why Stick With Manual Transmission?

Besides the fact manual transmission requires more skill from its drivers, it is also more cost-effective. NASCAR drivers also prefer manual, since it is said to provide more power and speed, while teams embrace its continued cost-effectiveness.

By sticking with manual transmission, but providing the upgrade to a 5-speed sequential, this displays NASCAR’s willingness to take the tradition with innovation approach. It also shows that NASCAR may even provide further upgrades to their transmission as they see fit in the future.

The Rear Axle

The Next Gen car’s transmission also has a new home at the car’s transaxle unit, which you will find at the car’s rear. The location is said to provide more balance to the car’s drivetrain.

It also let NASCAR develop a full-sized underwing, which helps to provide an additional 1,000 pounds of downforce to the car. Finally, the new rear axle comprises two independent half-shafts that float on the rear suspension, completing a layout similar to what you will find on a Chevy Corvette.

Is There A Clutch Pedal?

If you drive manual transmission vehicles, you are probably used to the clutch pedal. And you probably knew the previous generations of NASCAR cars also had a clutch pedal located on the left-hand side of the brakes.

With so many changes to the Next Gen cars, you may be wondering whether there is still a clutch pedal or if NASCAR did away with them in favor of another method for their drivers to shift gears. But one look inside the car reveals that the clutch pedal remained in its familiar position.

Rev Matching

However, NASCAR drivers rarely use the clutch. Rev matching is the preferred method of shifting gears. And while it involves a learning curve, drivers have found that they can shift gears more smoothly using the technique as opposed to the clutch.

This method takes pristine skill, as drivers must match their car’s speed with their revolutions per minute (RPM). And without a speedometer in the car to tell them when they are matching RPMs, they must have a sound feel for their car’s speed. If they fail to match their speed with RPMs, drivers will blow out their transmission, which will in turn end their race day early.

Do NASCAR Cars Have Reverse?

NASCAR cars do have reverse. They need a reverse gear, along with their 5 forward gears, in order to reverse back to their pit stall if they overshoot, or if they need to back up out of a tricky situation after a crash. NASCAR drivers will rarely use their reverse gear.

NASCAR cars are designed for one primary purpose: To move forward as fast as they possibly can. They are not designed to go backward. And if they move backward too quickly, they can go airborne. However, with the improved aerodynamics and downforce packages in the Next Gen car, this will not occur to the same extent that it used to.

There are also times when a driver needs to back up. Therefore, you will find that NASCAR cars have reverse gears. For example, if a driver misses their pit stall, they will shift their car into reverse. However, this is a rare occurrence. In the Next Gen car, when a driver needs to back up, they lift the lever, as opposed to pushing it when they shift down or pulling it when they shift up.

How Many Times Do NASCAR Drivers Change Gear Per Race?

NASCAR drivers usually don’t change gear many times throughout a race on an oval track. They’ll only shift up and down on the starts and restarts, and when entering and leaving the pits. On a road course however, a NASCAR driver might change gears 1000+ times during the race.

When you look at high banking at Daytona (31 degrees) or Talladega (33 degrees), drivers don’t need to even use the brakes when they turn. Instead, the high banking allows them to decelerate and maintain a speed high enough they also don’t need to shift down.

Even 1.5-mile tracks like Atlanta, Texas, and Charlotte require little downshifting because their banking is still steep enough for drivers to drive at a consistent speed.

Shifting Gears Varies

Road courses have varying turns and some are so narrow that a driver must slow significantly to get around them. This will require a change in gears.

NASCAR races at six road courses: Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Circuit of the Americas (COTA), Road America, the Charlotte Roval, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Each of these road courses have turns that require drivers to shift into lower gears every lap, like Turn 11 at the Sonoma Raceway. They also have lesser banking than most oval tracks,which means more shifting. 

All Races Require Changes In Gears

Regardless of whether drivers are racing at Daytona, Martinsville, or Sonoma, there are many times during each race that drivers need to change gears regardless. When the yellow flag waves, drivers must shift gears to drive the speed limit during a caution.

Drivers also need to shift gears to park during a pit stop. And of course, they must shift up when exiting pit road and when returning to full speed when the green flag waves following a caution.

Number Of Times Drivers Shift Gears

Some drivers will shift gears dozens of times in some races, especially on the road courses. But at venues like Daytona, Talladega, and Atlanta, you may only see drivers shift about two-dozen times tops, depending on the number of caution flags and pit stops they take.

Final Thoughts

NASCAR Next Gen cars only have 5 gears because they are easy to make and use. The 5-gear sequential model is carefully located to maximize the car’s aerodynamic features and allow for a full underwing. This helped give the cars another 1,000 lbs of downforce.