The title of today’s blog may seem like a reasonable question of interest from someone who is simply curious about the mechanics of NASCAR vehicles. If you were to ask it to a NASCAR official, however, you might be greeted with stern looks of consternation and frustration. Why is that? NASCAR and traction control go down to the Stock Car, in the NASCAR name and the answer is not as simple as the question. We take a look below.
Traction Control is a feature on production cars that can cut power or apply braking to wheels that lose traction. NASCAR Race Cars do not feature Traction Control and there are no plans to do so. NASCAR Stock racers are designed to test driver ability the addition of Driver assistance features is strictly prohibited.
Traction control is a bit of a touchy subject in the world of NASCAR. It became quite a hotly discussed and debated topic back in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the supposed use of traction control was almost the source of a major scandal, possibly even career-ending scandals, had they played out differently.
Let’s dive in and take a closer look.
A traction control system — sometimes abbreviated to TCS — is a device installed on many modern passenger cars to help detect if there’s any loss of traction on any of the car’s wheels. If a wheel is discovered to be losing traction, the system helps to apply the brake on that wheel. At the very least, it cuts engine power to reduce its spin and help it regain proper traction.
These systems are incredibly useful on modern passenger cars, and a key safety feature along with an anti-lock brake system (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC), and airbags. You might think that their use in motorsports such as NASCAR would be a no-brainer as an added safety feature to the cars, but this is actually not the case.
The short answer is that no, they do not.
The longer answer is that they do not use them for the very good and simple reason that traction control is considered to be a driver assistance feature, and that is something that cannot exist in NASCAR. Let’s not forget that the “S” and the “C” in NASCAR stand for “Stock Car.” That term “Stock” is particularly important as it emphasizes the fact that NASCAR vehicles are built more simply with no driver aids of any kind.
One of the most important ideas behind the competition of NASCAR is to determine who are the genuinely best drivers. The more driver-assisting technology you put in, the more you make each victory about the successful use of that technology rather than the driver’s skill. This especially applies to passive driving technologies like traction control, over which the driver has no direct input or control.
Therefore, NASCAR doesn’t just frown on the use of traction control, but outright forbids it. In the contest of who is the best driver, it’s important to maximize the need for real driving skill in every race.
Some might be thinking at this point that the reason traction control is a touchy subject for NASCAR fans, drivers, and officials is that it’s insulting to suggest they would ever stoop so low as to use these kinds of driver assistance tools in their gladiatorial racing bouts.
In reality, the source of the touchy subject is the huge amount of scrutiny the sport has been subjected to on this subject, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and especially in 2002-2003.
In the early 2000s, rumors started to surface and circulate about top drivers apparently using traction control in their races. NASCAR officials have always maintained that it would be impossible to get a traction control system into a car unnoticed, but many others have disagreed with that point of view.
One theory for creating undetected traction control was the drivers could insert computer chips into the ignition box before a race began, and then discreetly remove it again once the race was over. Another proposed method was to wire a traction control system directly into the ignition system, but then cover up the wires with decals, or even paint them to look like all the other wires in there already.
These ideas have been equally dismissed by skeptics who say that even if the system hardware were easy to hide, the fingerprints of traction control would not be able to be concealed. There would be indicators like the hesitation of someone’s tachometer, or a spinning wheel suddenly slowing and stopping in motion before getting back to work.
In 2002, NASCAR reached a point where its leadership decided to address the issues more formally. Speaking before the 2002 Virginia 500 at Martinsville, then NASCAR president Mike Hilton addressed drivers holding examples of traction devices, warning them of the potential consequences if any were discovered. NASCAR also took steps to seal the ignition wiring up in order to prevent any tampering.
Before the Pepsi 400 in 2002, a press conference held by NASCAR also sought to reassure a speculative media that NASCAR was doing everything it could to prevent any such foul play from taking place.
The slightly unfortunate thing at the head of all of this is that NASCAR has never once discovered or proven the existence of any driver using traction control devices in their stock car. This is in spite of many, many accusations made over the years by disgruntled teams who were convinced based on video footage and other signs that such devices were being employed during major cup races.
If NASCAR stays true to its principle of running stock cars that rely entirely on the skill and ability of the driver to make it around the circuits and win races, then we should assume that NASCAR’s attitude to traction control won’t change.
Interestingly, you do find traction control in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, and in MotoGP Grand Prix motorcycle racing. These are not sports in which the same stock is placed in the term “stock,” however. That would help to explain the difference between them and NASCAR in their outlook on these technologies.
Traction control is not a feature of NASCAR Racing, and it looks unlikely to change. However a couple of years ago the same could have been said about hybrid engines and electric NASCAR series, and one is here (although not implemented yet) and the other is at least in a discussion phase.
Traction control is certainly a driver aid, and a move towards other form of racing, however if these cars are based on their stock models from today, not from 1966!, then there are a few features that would need to be added that are designed to aid drivers, traction control is just one.