If you were put in a car and told to drive it around a circuit up to 400 times, how long do you think you’d make it before you felt you needed a break? The Coca-Cola 600 is a 600-mile race; the Daytona 500 a 500-mile race…if you’re driving on the highway on a journey that long, you’ll probably take several breaks on the way, right?
With NASCAR Races being so long, small breaks are needed to maintain concentration. Stage racing allows drivers to take breaks during the race to refocus. Cautions also offer a break during the race and the 3 month off season, while not a holiday, allows down time from the stresses of racing week in week out.
How about if you’re a NASCAR driver? Do these drivers get to take breaks amidst these hellish 500-mile and 600-mile races? We’ll try to find out more below.
Natural Breaks in the NASCAR Race
NASCAR Stage racing.
Since 2017, the staged structure of NASCAR races has allowed for natural breaks to occur in the race, though in terms of “breaks” as a rest period, they’re really felt more by the fans than by the drivers themselves.
A typical NASCAR race is now divided into 3 stages — except the Coca-Cola 600, which has a fourth stage to accommodate its extra laps and miles — with the first 2 stages covering about half the number of laps, and the final stage covering the second half. NASCAR structured races like this from 2017 in order to create more of a sense of competition with drivers able to rack up points in the early stages regardless of the final result.
While the first two stages are dedicated more to drivers getting their bonus points, the final stage is run more traditionally and the winner of the final stage is the overall champion of that day, getting more points than are available in the first 2 stages combined.
With stages comes a natural need for breaks, but as we mentioned earlier, these are more geared towards fans and TV viewers than they are towards drivers and teams. Let’s say the first stage covers 65 laps, the stage starts with the traditional green flag, and ends with the green checkered flag. At that point, a mandatory caution period begins, originally intended to be about 5 minutes, but in some cases lasting longer, up to 20 minutes.
We say that this caution period is more for the fans because it creates a natural break for TV broadcasters to set off a commercial break, generating valuable advertising revenue and giving fans a chance to go to the bathroom, make a drink or something else without missing a moment of the official race action. The end of the caution is denoted with the green flag again, at which point the next stage begins, once again racing to the green checkered flag.
The third stage begins after a second caution period, with the racers then making their final dash to the black and white checkered flag. During these caution periods, teams can make pit stops if needed, but the main object of the caution period is to bring the racing pack back together and essentially restart the proceedings.
The benefit of the stage structure, therefore, is that the race is kept more interesting in the early and middle stages, with people being able to celebrate early and mid-race winners, but also preventing a single driver from dominating the entire time, which can make the longer races very dull if they build up an unassailable lead. Restarting means more chances for drama on the track, and that pulls in more viewers!
A typical pit stop for tires and fuel will only last 12-16 seconds, which is hardly time for the drivers to get out and stretch their legs, or do anything else of note, in reality. Even during longer caution periods, drivers can only switch off their keenly attuned senses for a short period of time.
For one thing, they’re still in their car and still going around the track, albeit slower and while reforming into the pack in preparation for the next stage. The fact that they’re still operating a car means they have to keep their wits about them, but this period is admittedly a little less tense than the main race stages.
Of course, there are still non-mandated cautions in NASCAR races if there are hazardous conditions on the track. These are also times in which the intensity of the track time drops for drivers, but it’s not exactly what you’d call a proper break or a rest. The race could restart properly at any moment, meaning drivers have to remain alert and ready.
The picture is clear that race day is a pretty intense and constant period of activity and concentration without any respite. What about between the races, though? Do drivers go home at the end of race day to relax for a couple of days for their own “weekend”? Alas, once again it’s a pretty grueling schedule even when race day is seemingly far away.
Sunday is usually race day, so this is when drivers, pit crews and all team members are at their tensest, and at the end of which at their most exhausted and spent. From the moment the team meets 30 minutes before race time to the end of the race (several hours in total), it’s all go, go, go.
Monday is the closest any NASCAR driver gets to a proper day of rest, though most would claim that it’s closer to being a day of recovery more than simple rest. The team typically takes Monday off away from the track and focuses on resting up for the next race the following weekend.
From Tuesday to Thursday, teams begin the process of vehicle testing and preparation for the next race day. Their goal is to achieve the optimum setup in the engine, car, and driver for the next specific race venue, wherever that may be. Friday is qualification day, so it’s another day of tense track racing and testing.
Saturdays are the crucial last day where teams spend their time analyzing and acting on data from the qualifying stages, making final adjustments to ensure that everyone is ready for race day. With this weekly schedule in place, drivers really don’t get to go home during the main racing season, which spans 10 months. They’re part of a team and have to put in the work.
Off Season Break: November-December-January
The main winter months are the off-season, a 2-month period where all drivers and teams can take some much-needed down time, return home, pursue other interests, and more. The main season then runs from around Presidents’ Day in February to the first Sunday of November. This means that drivers at the very least get the holiday season, including Thanksgiving and Christmas in their main race time.
It’s not a great deal of an off-season, but other things can come up. For example, in 2021, NASCAR drivers received a 2-week hiatus when NBC was showing coverage of the Tokyo Olympics. Beyond this, however, there’s little that will get in the way of a NASCAR schedule, and even those things that do tend to provide more time for the team to continue working in other areas.
NASCAR Drivers more so than any other racing drivers in our opinion, have to keep laser focus during races. The cars are more even and competitive, there are more of them on the track, the risk for disaster is greater than most other motor sports and also with the races being so long the difficulty to keep concentration is severe. The season also has more races than most other motorsports.
And not just for the drivers, but also for the spectators. So the stages and cautions during the race all a lowering of the stresses and gives both the NASCAR drivers as well as the fans in the stands and in front of the TV a break.
Of course most sports have an off season and NASCARs is from November to February. Although its not entirely free time, it is certainly not as stressful as racing each week.