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Useful Notes / Motorsports

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Motorsport is an incredibly broad category of sports that is very simple to define: it's any competition involving something with a mechanical engine. Obviously, motorsport includes auto racing, which is by far the most famous type. What most people don't realize however, is that motorsport includes competitions - racing and non-racing - of anything (and we mean anything) with a motor, from aircraft to watercraft to snowmobiles to lawnmowers.

The following have their own pages


Ever since the earliest days of the automobile, there have been folks who have attempted to organize races. While there were earlier attempts (included a few farces where only one competitor showed up), the first race is universally agreed to have been the Paris-Rouen in 1894. Within two decades, the first purpose-built racetracks had sprung up around the world.


Naturally, with even the smallest race cars being larger than the average person, and going at speeds well above accepted road speed limits, safety has always been a major concern - both for the drivers and for the spectators. Especially in auto racing's early days, fatal accidents were incredibly common. The deadliest accident in motorsport history was the 1955 Le Mans disaster, where a car flew into the crowd and killed 84 people. That incident led to auto racing being banned in several countries, including Switzerland (where most disciplines remain banned to this day).

Thankfully, safety improvements in the major series have made injuries and deaths far less common than they used to be. Not so thankfully, major ones only came after deaths of well-known and well-loved (or hated) competitors - namely, Ayrton Senna in Formula 1 (1994 San Marino Grand Prix) and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the NASCAR Cup Series (2001 Daytona 500).

Safety improvements can take many forms, of course. Car construction is the most obvious means, but driver items (like the HANS device) were brought to the fore after Earnhardt's death, along with the 'SAFER' barrier meant to reduce the forces of a crash into a wall. Even procedures can be changed, whether how to reply to a caution period or what a driver should do after an on-track incident in front of him/her.

Types of Auto Racing

Open-wheel racing

Open-wheel racing is the oldest and most well-known form of auto racing worldwide, and the two highest sanctioning bodies are Formula One and IndyCar. It is so named since the cars have no fenders above the wheels, considered to be "open."

Stock car racing

Stock car racing is today the most well-known form of auto racing in the United States, where the highest-level sanctioning body is NASCAR. Stock car racing is named because, initially, the cars were the same cars that were sold to everyone on the market ("stock"). As any fan can tell you though, as time went on, the cars became less and less "stock," and by the 2000s, the manufacturer decals (and likely not even those) were possibly the only thing "stock" left.

Stock car racing has its origins in Prohibition, where moonshine runners in the American South would use ubiquitous but illegally modified road vehicles to evade the police. When Prohibition ended, the moonshiners had nothing to do, until someone got the idea to organize races. These became popular entertainment in the South, and soon dirt ovals sprung up all across the region. NASCAR was founded after World War II in 1948 by businessman Bill France Sr. as a way to consolidate and organize these widely disparate races. By the 1970s, the races had mostly moved from dirt to paved tracks. An explosion in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, coupled with some slight disputes within IndyCar sanctioning organization(s), cemented NASCAR's place atop the American racing hierarchy.

Reflecting its humble, blue-collar origins, stock car racing has always had a reputation for being more aggressive and down-and-dirty its open-wheel counterparts. Using one's car to push and/or shove competitors, a criminal offense in open-wheel racing, is perfectly acceptable (and even encouraged) in stock car racing, and many, many races over the years have been determined by this. (Deliberately wrecking competitors is still frowned upon.note )

Stock car racing is arguably a branch of Touring Car racing, as stock cars have many elements of touring cars (modified usually 4-door production cars), including body similarity and strength, specialization, and frequency of car contact during races.

A large Fandom Rivalry exists between open-wheel and stock car fans, particularly within the United States.

Endurance Racing

Endurance racing, unlike standard races where the winner is the first to cover a certain distance, involves racing for a certain time.

The most famous endurance race is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is racing for 24 hours straight around the circuit at Le Mans. Since few, if any, people have the sheer willpower, strength, or stamina to drive race cars for 24 hours straight,note  each car will usually be driven by a team of 3 or 4 drivers who take shifts.

Notable North American endurance races include the 24 Hours of Daytonanote  and the 12 Hours of Sebring, which both race under the Weather Tech United Sports Car Championship banner in 2014, after several years of being administrated by rival sports car racing bodies - the Rolex Sports Car Series for Daytona and the American Le Mans Series for Sebring.

Racing flags

Despite advances in communications, radios, lighting, and so forth, one constant in just about any motorsports event is some guy waving a flag. There may be just one at the start/finish line at a local dirt track, or perhaps one with some assistants at Daytona ... or several scattered around a long road course at various points. However many there are, their main purpose is to control and direct the competitors. These can vary amongst sanctioning bodies, but a few stand out.

  • GREEN: Go. All's well in the world. Basically, normal racing conditions (e.g. 'It's been a weird day. We've had about two laps under green and fifty not.')
  • YELLOW: Caution. Something's wrong. Don't race; just proceed calmly, and no passing for position (unless a car can't keep up at the reduced pace due to a mechanical problem). Some sanctioning bodies (Formula One being the most notable) will have these in sections for minor incidents, a 'local caution' or 'local yellow', with a green flag waving past the point to signal all's well. More severe incidents can cause a 'full course caution', or more often 'safety car' period: the entire track is put under caution conditions and a safety car is sent out of the pits to lead the field and set the pace. Most oval tracks don't use 'local' cautions. In these cases, all cautions are run behind a safety car.
  • RED: Stop. Whatever happened, all drivers will be directed to a certain area and told to just park it. Mild reasons include not wanting the last laps of a race to be run under a full-course caution, or rain on an oval course. Major reasons include things like 'track blocked by stationary cars and/or debris', 'cars not right side-up', 'walls/barriers damaged/broken', or 'driver ejected from a car or in a dangerous position on the track'.
  • BLUE: A faster car behind you (often almost a full lap ahead of you) is about to pass. This is often called a 'courtesy' flag, and you have no formal obligation to let him by (except for most open-wheel series, especially Formula One and its support series).
  • BLACK: Go directly to the pits. Either your car has a mechanical problem that makes you a moving hazard (e.g. oil leaking onto the track), for which you get no penalty, or you do get a penalty-for reckless driving, leaving the track/cutting corners, speeding in the pit lane, and a multitude of other infractions-and must return to the pits to serve it-if the incident severe enough you will likely be disqualified.
  • WHITE: Warns of an on-track slow moving car that drivers racing at full speed must watch out for, or is waved to indicate when the leader crosses the line to start the final lap.
  • CHECKERED: Signals the end of the race, when the leader crosses the line in first. Drivers that cross the line afterwards are considered finishers no matter how many laps they completed.

Some bodies will have different flags for various purposes, and of course conduct under each flag is regulated by your sanctioning body.


Well, you have to race on something ...

Ovals (and variants)

Best known for Stock car and Sprint car races, these tracks are generally oval shaped. Their turns are only in one direction and 99% of the time are banked. Asphalt or dirt, this is generally where an aspiring stock car driver will start his or her career, often at a local speedway. These range from very short local dirt tracks to 2+ mile Superspeedways.

Given the variation in number, track length, or banking of turns, there are several types of ovals:

Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Floridas one of the better known tri-ovals; one side of the oval has a small curve in it, making it resemble a triangle. This came about because Bill France Sr., NASCAR's founder and the designer of Daytona (and its sister track Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama, the next best known tri-oval) wanted a frontstretch design that would improve line of sight for fans so those at the edges of the grandstands wouldn't have to crane their necks so much as the cars ran around the track. As of 1988, NASCAR and other sactioning bodies with Daytona and Talladega require any cars racing around their ovals to have restrictor plates on the cars, which reduces their horsepower and acceleration, which in turn lowers speeds and makes racing safer. For this reason, they are referred to as "plate superspeedways" or just "plate tracks".
Any other oval 1.75 or more miles in length that does not require the use of restrictor plates are called superspeedways. Here, the ovals are confined or turns are tight enough enough for bodies to not have to worry about dangerously high speeds. However, they are still long and usually very fast.
These are ovals that range in length from 1.15 to 1.75 miles. They usually have moderate banking-from 12 to 24 degrees-and have consistent throttle patterns throughout. The most common type of paved oval throughout the world and United States due to the tendency of very minor differences to exist between two and the large amount present due to NASCAR's popularity boom and countrywide expansion attempts in the mid-late 90s.
1.15 miles or less in length, these tracks are cheap to build, feature various banking levels, and often produce the closest and most exciting racing. While several paved ovals, such as Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Iowa Speedway, and ISM Raceway (Phoenix) exist, there are hundreds of short dirt ovals around that are very cheap to race on.

Road courses

Inspired from when races were held on actual roads, these courses feature multiple turns in either direction (although generally moving either clockwise or counterclockwise). They're purpose-built, and may feature different configurations for different racing leagues or sanctioning bodies.

Street circuits

Some venues aren't purpose-built tracks. Instead, with the support of the local, regional, or national government, streets will be closed off for racing, whether a few blocks for go-karts in Illinois, or the famed Circuit de Monaco for Formula One. In any case, temporary walls/fences/barricades will be set up to help contain things.


A blanket way of covering courses that have a bare indication of where the racing surface is. These can range from "short course" setups that are just one to two miles in length (such as those found in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series, which races primarily in the U.S. Southwest and Pacific Northwest) to rally courses that are thousands of miles long, meant to be run over the course of days.

Terms and techniques

Pit stops

No tyre will last a significant distance of full blown racing, and race cars are not known for fuel efficiency. Pit stops (done on specialized pit lanes that divert off the track adjacent to the start/finish straight or line and merge back on after it) allow a crew to replace tyres and fuel during a race on a circuit (road or oval), and make various adjustments. This can range from adjusting handling setups to repairing minor damage to swapping the driver. Pit lanes can get congested, of course, especially if for some reason (say, a full course caution) everyone decides to get service done. Note that unlike other sports there are no formal time outs—if you spend 20 seconds changing tyres, and everyone else spends 13, your car will emerge 7 seconds behind the pack. For series with shorter races or quicker cars, a slightly faster pit stop can mean the difference between winning and losing a race(or emerging in front of or behind a rival, more important if in a series overtakes are harder to perform).

Racing line

This is THE place to be, especially in a corner. Essentially, it's trying to make the widest-diameter circle when in a turn. Staying glued to the inside means you have to slow down to take a turn that sharp; contrast turning right with turning left. Yes, that works wherever you are. One of those is sharper than the other. The other you can turn faster on. Same principle. Naturally, if another car's where you want to go, you'll have to make do ...

Of course, track conditions and tire composition can affect whether one line or another is even viable for racing. For instance, NASCAR's oldest paved track, Martinsville Speedway, has turns that are banked at 12 degress, which is relatively flat by their standards, and are extremely tight, in much the same way as "hairpin" turns at road courses. Naturally, many drivers approach these turns in the same manner as a hairpin, trying to outbrake their competition going into the turns, something that's more effective on the inside lane. Additionally, tyre wear at Martinsville tends to take the form of "marbles", large pieces of rubber that sit loosely on the track instead of being matted in like the smaller pieces that allow for increased grip during the course of the race. These pieces collect on the outer grooves, and when they adhere to the tyres, they cause the cars to lose grip, which forces a driver to slow down even more or risk spinning out. Because of these two factors, the bottom lane is the only viable lane at Martinsville, and to some degree or another most ovals with low banking.

Drafting / Slipstreaming

This refers to following another car in its aerodynamic wake. Two cars doing this can drive faster than one, or it can allow a rear car to pass a front one. Note that 'bump drafting' is not really aerodynamic about how it speeds up the car in front ...


Most racers don't like being passed. Basically, this means putting your car so it ... blocks another. This can be dangerous; Carl Edwards tried this twice in the final lap of a race in 2009. He got away with one move. The second, Brad Keselowski was already at his fender. Edwards' car ended up in the catch fence. (The fence ABOVE the retaining wall.) NASCAR lets nature enforce blocking restrictions (as mentioned); other leagues may prohibit it (to avoid things like that).

Safety Car / Pace Car

As noted above, sometimes the entire field needs to be slowed down in order to safely clear something from the track, but the race itself doesn't need to be outright suspended or stopped. For these full-course cautions, a safety car (or, typically for stock car racing, a pace car) will be sent out, lights flashing, to set the proper slow pace.

DO NOT HIT IT. In fact, don't even pass it without authorization; the whole point is that you're supposed to go as slow as it is. (If somehow the safety car is damaged or has a problem of its own, this rule may be waived. This HAS happened!)