One very interesting question that surrounds the sport of NASCAR is if and how drivers prepare to race on each track? Do they have to memorize the layout and features? If so, how do they do that?
If you’re one of those who assumes all NASCAR tracks are just ovals, then you might wonder what there is to memorize, but even the most deceptively simple tracks in NASCAR need careful attention and preparation from the drivers. As with most things in NASCAR, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye!
NASCAR drivers spend a great deal of time memorizing racetracks. Although layout and cornering are of course vital, there are also overtaking points, throttle points, grip and surface elements that need to be planned for before race day that. This is done both in simulation and on practice sessions at the track.
We will be answering the core question of whether or not NASCAR drivers memorize the track, but also looking more broadly at how they prepare themselves for the different tracks.
As we touched on above, assuming that all NASCAR tracks are plain ovals is very misguided and wrong-headed. Even the tracks that from a birds-eye view appear as “simple” ovals contain incredibly challenging elements, be it the degree of banking, difficulty in finding key acceleration points and overtaking opportunities, and so on.
Oval tracks in NASCAR can be divided into different sorts, including tri-ovals (e.g. Michigan International Speedway), quad-ovals (e.g. Lowe’s Motor Speedway, NC), and other unique ovals with features like different-length ends (e.g. Darlington Raceway, SC)
The other broad track category is the road tracks, such as the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, Sonoma in California, and Watkins Glen in New York. These road courses are a lot more like the ones you see in motorsports like Formula 1, with a more complex layout and a series of tricky twists and turns to navigate.
Yes, NASCAR drivers have to take the time and effort to memorize both oval and road tracks. Ovals may appear simpler, but the point of “memorizing” the track isn’t just about learning the layout and what tricky turns and bends are coming next as your progress around the circuit.
The idea that NASCAR drivers on ovals “just turn left” is a gross oversimplification, and really doesn’t do justice to all the pre-race work that’s required.
Besides the track layout, NASCAR drivers have to consider the different levels of banking that occur on different tracks, where the best throttle points are, where it’s easy for cars to get bunched up, or where it’s easy for collisions to occur when one isn’t paying full attention, and so on.
Even the simplest circuit layout may have more complex answers to these questions. For example, it’s quite normal for the degree of banking to be greater on the bends of a track than it is on the straight sections. The difference could be as much as 25-30 degrees.
It’s not just the drivers who have to be knowledgeable on the tracks that they’re driving on. The entire team needs to know everything possible about a track so that they can ready the car for each particular race.
With conditions being different each time, and lessons to be learned from all previous performances, team engineers need to get to work fixing weaknesses and making adjustments — without breaking the NASCAR rules, of course! — to help drivers have every advantage in their next race.
It’s rare for any one member of the team to be a broad expert beyond a single area, either. This means that teams have specialists for the various mechanical components — including tires — as well as for performing individual tasks in engine building and other preparation of hardware.
Stock as they may be, a NASCAR engine can take up to 100 hours to build with many teams building them from scratch with teams of up to 95 people.
While the grease monkeys get to work on the hardware side of things, the drivers also need to maintain good physical and mental health in order to race well through the season. Even with the addition of things like power steering (unlike IndyCar vehicles), a NASCAR vehicle is still a damned hard piece of equipment to control and takes a fierce amount of both physical strength and mental endurance.
Therefore, between races it would be very normal for drivers to be seen working out in different ways, perhaps also engaging in activities that boost their mental well-being such as meditation or relaxation methods.
Of course, drivers all need to study up as much as they can about the track they’re next going to race on. These details will be combed over during the pre-race drivers’ meeting (see below), but they can’t afford to walk into those meetings blind.
To help prepare their knowledge of different tracks, drivers can communicate with their team members and discuss the tracks, of course, but sometimes there’s no substitute for action, and that’s why teams invest many thousands of dollars buying driving simulators that help them learn about different tracks, as well as their cars.
You might be picturing an advanced video game here, but in fact these are next-level simulators in terms of the realism they recreate.
Don’t forget that NASCAR races are typically held over an entire weekend. Some of that weekend time is taken up with real practice on the track, but it’s heavily restricted and regulated for reasons of fairness. The race is on Sunday, leaving two days for formal practice sessions on Friday and Saturday. Each practice session is just 1 hour, with 2 sessions being allowed on Friday, and a further 2 on Saturday.
For each practice session, the teams don’t waste a single second, rapidly placing their pit crews in place and having their drivers circle the track. As they go around, the teams are in constant communication about key throttle points, danger points, where would be good places for a burst to pass an opponent, and so on. They also acclimatize to each individual track.
Friday is for more raw practice, while Saturday is for the fine tuning and ironing out any wrinkles that cropped up on Friday. By Sunday, it’s go time!
Finally, before the race even with drivers feeling that they know the tracks like the back of their hands, the drivers’ meeting takes place where teams go over the race plan and procedures one more time to make absolutely sure everyone is on the right page. The team only works as a well-oiled machine when everyone is familiar with all the details to the same degree.
Racing around a track at upto, and occasionally over, 200 miles an hours needs more than cursory preparation. We have highlighted some of the behind the scenes factors that need to be dealt with before a NASCAR stock car and its driver roll out onto the Track on a Sunday above.
One of the most important aspects is track layout, now ovals are simpler in layout but just as technical in challenges. When hundredths of seconds can mean the difference to winning and losing knowing racing lines, and overtaking points is essential, the only way to do that is to memorize the tracks.
This is equally important on Road courses, where added to the challenge are the order of turns and the speeds of cornering. We would argue that a mistake at a road course is more forgiving than a mistake at an oval in terms of position, not however it terms of consequence!