Watching a NASCAR Race Tips

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What's a 'track bar'?

Keeping the Wheels Straight

A track bar is a bar that runs between the rear wheels on a racecar and helps keep the rear tires centered under the car. It connects the rear axle on one side and the frame on the other. These are sometimes referred to as ‘panhard' bars. If a crew can't correct a loose or tight condition using wedge, then they will adjust the track bar.

   
What do they mean by 'loose' and 'tight'?

Slip, Sliding Away

The first time you watch a NASCAR race there's almost an entire language that seems to along with it. While there are literally hundreds of terms associated with the sport, here are a few you might hear more often then others.

The terms loose and tight are the ones you'll most often hear from the drivers talk about.

Being ‘loose' is one of the terms drivers and crews use to refer to the handling of the car on the track. When a driver turns the wheel the car will tend to feel likes it's sliding, the back end will want to ‘fishtail' towards the outside wall.

Tight is just the opposite of loose. When a car is ‘tight' the driver tries to turn to the left and the front of the car seems to not want to steer in that direction. In this case the car will want to ‘push' towards the outside wall.

   
What is the 'free pass' or 'Lucky Dog' rule?

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Every racecar in a NASCAR race obviously has to complete the required number of laps in a race. If there are 500 laps in a race then you have to go the entire 500 laps. But sometimes cars will lose laps. They may be forced into the pits for repairs or they just may not be fast enough and get lapped by the field. Whatever the case, just because a car loses a lap doesn't mean their race is over. In fact the history of NASCAR has several races where the winner was able to make up a lap, or even two.

There was a time when NASCAR allowed cars to make up a lap by racing back to the yellow flag when a caution came out. If the leader were just past a car that was a lap down, the lap down car would try to pass the leader before the start/finish line and get their lap back. If the car just a lap down were a teammate to the leader, the leader would often slow down and allow his teammate to make up a lap.

There was also a ‘gentlemen's agreement' that the leader would allow those cars who were a lap down to pass him and get back on the lead lap. The leader would slow and allow cars to pass before he crossed the start/finish line. As NASCAR became more competitive however, this ‘gentlemen's agreement' wasn't adhered to and this led to a lot of bad blood between competitors. The practice was also considered by many to be very unsafe. When the caution came out, safety vehicles were forced to wait while the field raced back to the line, if a driver was injured this delayed help getting to him.

Then in September 2003 during a race at New Hampshire International Raceway, driver Dale Jarrett spun on the front stretch his car ended up sideways blocking part of the track. As the field raced back to the caution several cars barely avoided Jarrett. The following week NASCAR instituted a rule that ‘froze' the field when the caution came out. In effect whatever position the car was in when the caution came out was where they were scored.

As a compromise of the old practice of getting a lap back as a caution came out, NASCAR now allows the first car one lap down an opportunity to get their lap back via the ‘free pass' rule. This rule is most widely known as the ‘Lucky Dog' rule. This creates excitement for the cars that are a lap down, as they will race to try and be the first car one lap down, creating a ‘race within a race'.

Why is it called the ‘Lucky Dog'? The first race that the new rule was used at Dover International Speedway on September 21, 2003. Driver Jimmy Spencer whose sponsor logo featured a dog was given the ‘free pass'. One of the television commentators called Spencer the ‘Lucky Dog'. The rule has been

This rule refers to the car that's the first one a lap down. As a race unfolds cars can lose laps, the field passes them. Every time a caution period happens on the track, NASCAR will allow the first car one lap down will be allowed to pass the pace car and go to the rear of the field getting themselves back onto the lead lap.

   
What is a caution period?

The Yellow Flag Waves

Think of it as a ‘time-out' during the race. Several things can cause a caution period during a race; an accident, debris on the track or for any reason that NASCAR decides they need to slow the field down and cease competition. NASCAR can also choose to throw out a ‘competition' yellow. This is a planned yellow that NASCAR will tell teams about in advance, and is most often used to check tire wear on a new or repaved track surface.

   
What does a ‘green white checkered flag’ finish mean?

Going Into Overtime

Also known as ‘overtime' this is the method NASCAR uses to attempt to finish a race under green flag conditions. If there is an accident or a caution flag late in a race, NASCAR will make one attempt to finish the race even if it goes beyond the scheduled distance; in affect adding two laps. Once the caution is clear, the green flag will be waved, on the next lap the white flag for the last lap will be thrown followed by the checkered flag. If an accident or caution happens during the green white checkered flag period, all bets are off, the field is frozen and will finish under caution.

The green white checkered flag finish allows fans to see a race end under race conditions. It's a big let down for fans to sit through a 500 mile race only to have it end under caution with the field frozen.

The risks for drivers and teams are great. If a driver has built up a sizable lead and there's a green white checkered, then the field will be bunched up again for the restart and the drivers behind him now have a chance to win, and if crew chiefs don't estimate their fuel mileage correctly and take into account the possibility of extra laps they could leave their driver high and dry.

   
What's a 'spotter'?

Looking Out For Number One

A spotter is a member of the team that ‘spots' for the driver during a race. Usually stationed on top of the grandstands, they communicate with the driver via a radio and let them know when the green flag drops, where they are at in the field, if there are other cars on the outside, inside or behind them, when to slow for an accident and when pit road is opened or closed. Inside the cockpit of a racecar, the driver actually can't move all that much. Because of safety reasons, drivers are belted into their seats and side headrests won't allow them to move around much.

Spotters are essential in helping to driver know what's going on around them during a race. A great many spotters are former drivers who use their on track expertise to provide a wealth of information to the driver. If another driver seems to be going faster using a different line around the track for instance, they will relay this information to their driver.

   
What's 'Wedge'?

Getting a Handle of the Handling

Part of the science of NASCAR is getting the proper set-up on a racecar prior to the race. Having the right set-up will ensure that the racecar is getting as much speed as possible.

If the team's right, then when the racecar hits the track for the first practice, they will be at or near the top of the speed charts. If not, then they may have a long weekend ahead of them. Teams will use notes from previous races and the experience of the driver or the crew chief to try and get the best chassis set-up they can before they hit the track.

Wedge is the primary method crews use to correct a ‘loose' or ‘tight' condition on a racecar. During practices or a pit stop a crewmember will insert a long wrench through a hole in the rear window and manually rotate the rear spring one way or another. This is known adding or subtracting wedge, tightening or loosening the spring. Another way to correct handeling that crew will use is by adjusting air pressure in the tires.

   
Why are there pit road penalites and what are they?

Busted!

The pit road is a dangerous place during a race. NASCAR has strict rules in place that help to ensure that everyone remains safe. Crewmembers who go over the wall must wear fire retardant uniforms and helmets. When drivers enter or leave pit road they must maintain a safe speed. The pit road speed varies from track to track but is normally between 35-55 miles per hour. When you see the field doing their parade laps prior to the green flag, part of what they are doing is setting their pit road speed. The pace car will lead the field past pit road at the pit road speed mandated by NASCAR. Since NASCAR racecars have no speedometer, the driver uses the tachometer to set the speed according to his engine RPM's and the gear the car is in. NASCAR measures the speed on pit road electronically by measuring the time the car takes to get from one point to another.

If you listen to a scanner during a race, as a driver is coming down pit road the spotter or crew chief will sometimes remind them of the pit road speed by calling out the RPM's and gear. ‘3500, third gear' for example.

Most of the infractions on pit road are for speeding.

Teams can also be penalized for ‘pitting outside the box'. Each pit has a certain marked off area, if the car is over any of the lines the NASCAR official who is assigned to that pit, will signal the crew who can have the driver correct the mistake by moving the car. If they fail to do so, they will be penalized.

Teams can also be penalized for allowing a tire to roll free of their pit box, leaving a piece of equipment on the car, usually a wrench or catch can, or if the driver runs over the air hose entering or leaving the pits.

The punishments for infractions can range from being sent to the end of the longest line on the track, to a ‘pass through', where the driver is forced to driver through the pits at pit road speed to a ‘stop and go', where the driver is forced to come back in, stop completely in the pit box and then return to the track.

Section 9

   
What's a pit stop?

It's the Pits

A pit stop is the process during a race that the team uses to service their racecars and make adjustments in performance. Fuel is added, tires are changed and small modifications are done, all between 13-15 seconds. The number of pit stops that take place during a race are based on factors such as race length, the number of caution periods, tire wear and fuel mileage. A pit stop can be used as race strategy as well. A crew chief can elect to keep his car out on the track while most others are pitting in order to gain valuable track position in hopes that a caution flag will wave soon or that his cars' fuel or tires can make it to the end of the race.

   
I’ve never watched a NASCAR race, what do I look for?

What To Watch For

To someone who has never seen a NASCAR race, watching 43 cars go around in a circle can seem boring. Don't tell that to the 75 million people who call themselves fans.

Various brands and products, that can be found everywhere, sponsor all the 43 cars that make up the Nextel Cup field. And the drivers represent a cross section of America. They hail from California to Maine, from Washington State to Florida. As the sport as grown so has the driver base; there are now drivers who hail from Canada to Columbia and even Australia. All the major American car manufacturers are represented as well. GM, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota.

Focus on one driver, whether you are attracted because of the sponsor, the car make or were the driver is from, choose a favorite. As the race progresses keep an eye on how your driver is doing. Where did he start the race? Is he making his way up through the field? Did his crew set up his car properly? Are they able to make adjustments to the car during pit stops, which are normally less than 17 seconds long?

Once you center yourself on one driver you'll begin to notice the big picture of the entire race and how it's progressing. Is there one driver who is dominating the field? Did a dominating driver have a problem during a pit stop that forced him to the back of the field and he now has to work his way back to the front?

At speeds sometimes reaching two hundred miles an hour, and cars racing inches apart, the tension is always present. One slight mistake by a driver can spell disaster for those around or behind him.

There are many nuances that make up a NASCAR race. It's much more than just a bunch of guys going around in circles.

   
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William Pirraglia