Back in 1951, the Southern 500 race included a massive 82 cars. Over the years, the number of cars put onto each NASCAR track was slimmed down to a standard of 43 vehicles. In 2016, this was trimmed again to 40 cars, along with the slew of other rules and an entirely new system of running NASCAR track spots, known as the “Charter System.”
NASCAR races have ranged from an incredible 82 race cars to the current 40 races cars in a NASCAR race. there have been reductions and variances throughout the 70 plus years of NASCAR racing. The most recent change was from 43 to 40 cars in a race which was implemented in 2016.
At the time of writing, you will see a maximum of 40 cars in any NASCAR race, which essentially answers the core question of today’s blog. However, there is definitely more territory to explore here. Why is it 40? Why not 25? Why not go back up to the 80s? The story behind NASCAR vehicle numbers in each race is actually quite an interesting one.
Let’s start with the drop from 43 to 40. It all happened in 2016, with NASCAR announcing its plans on how they were going to make the sport more financially viable and stable and also increase the fairness of how the overall prize purse is distributed, and how teams were to take part in races.
It was determined that 40 was the “magic number”, with 36 of those 40 spots going to so-called “Charters” and the 4 remaining spots being open to qualifying non-charter team drivers. The number of drivers who competed in the qualifying rounds would remain at 43, but on race day the number of qualified entrants would be 40.
Also in 2016, NASCAR issued a total of 36 individual charters that could be purchased by individual teams. The price was originally $6 million for a charter, but that has since risen to $12 million. Each charter would guarantee at least one of their cars a spot in the 36 reserved charter spots.
The deal was that to qualify for a charter, a team had to compete consistently across 3 consecutive seasons, and not finish in the bottom 3 for any of those years. This was designed to ensure that while charters could be sold between teams, that all teams using them were of the same basic standard and commitment to the sport.
The thinking behind introducing a charter system — besides bringing in steady annual revenue for the sport — was to reward those teams who had demonstrated their real commitment to participating consistently regardless of good or bad results on race day. It was also designed to combat the problem of “Start and Park.”
The term “Start and Park” actually is used across the wider field of motorsports, but has become most closely associated with NASCAR and its affiliated events. It refers to the practice of starting in a race, but then pulling the car out of the race after just a few laps. In other words, you “Start” the race before quickly pulling up to “Park” your NASCAR car and finishing.
But why would anyone want to do this? Isn’t there more to be gained from winning? The answer to that question is yes, of course there’s more to be gained from winning, but unfortunately winning the big lion’s share of the pot involves too much work and financial commitment for some teams. They discovered that they could still profit handsomely even if they just raced a few laps, parked the cars, pulled out of the race and just collected whatever prize money was coming to them.
The problem was that everyone gets a piece of the action, aka the “purse,” even those who lose. Before 2016, it was possible for losers to do quite well, in fact. Before implementing their charter system in 2016, NASCAR did a detailed, years-long study of all the teams and cars taking part, and determined that 36 charters would be enough to reward those who were committed, and deter those who were just in it for what they could get out of it.
On top of that, the proportion of the purse that could be awarded to losing drivers was reduced, thus further deterring the “Start and Park” brigade, even making it impossible for them to seriously compete.
So, does the new system work? Is 40 a good-enough number to have on the track?
Besides the financial benefits that we touched upon further above, there is a question of safety when it comes to how many cars are on the track. Part of the decision to allow a maximum of 40 cars in any race was guided by the need for greater on-track safety. Having 40 cars there keeps everything exciting, but doesn’t overcrowd the space.
Another key consideration is fairness. Allowing 40 cars to compete, but with 36 charter spots creates a more equitable division of the spaces. Those teams that have invested millions of dollars and countless hours in labor and training are rewarded with at least one guaranteed spot in every race — a good basic return on their investment, bolstered by further more generous returns when they are successful.
At the same time, there are always 4 remaining spots for non-charter teams to grab. This allows emerging teams who are not yet in a position to afford or even qualify for a charter to get on the grid regularly and compete across the season.
They might not qualify every time, but they get ample opportunity, with the 2022 Cup Series delivering a 36-race schedule. Not everyone agrees that the 36-4 split is entirely fair, but people should be aware that the decision was not made arbitrarily.
As we mentioned earlier, NASCAR invested considerable resources into investigating how many charters should be created based on the number of existing teams that had proven the level of required commitment. For now, it would seem, we’re set on 40 cars and the 36-4 qualifying split.
So although the number of NASCAR race cars in a race has varied throughout the long history of NASCAR , it has become more settled at 40 – or 36 + 4 format we see at our tracks and on our television screens today.
and although there may have been much more cars in the race in the past it could be argued after watching a race at Martinsville or Bristol, or watching the F1 with half the numbers that even 40 cars might be to many to run races safely.