Two motorsports that very often get compared are NASCAR and IndyCar, in particular there is often a lot of discussion and debate as to which of the two is harder to do. Both include driving cars at incredibly high speeds around a circuit against a multitude of opponents, but is that all there is to it?
Driving NASCAR and IndyCar cars represent significant challenges to drivers. Both require skill, fast reactions, and experience. The higher speeds and track variation of Indy Car are mitigated by the lower maneuverability and greater number of cars and races in NASCAR, but both are incredibly difficult challenges.
It’s unlikely we’ll settle the debate once and for all, but in today’s article we’re going to weigh in on which of the two is easier or harder, NASCAR or IndyCar. We’ll take a look at numerous factors to try and offer some fair judgment and objective perspective on these two racing formats.
Before we dive in, though, let’s make something clear: neither NASCAR or IndyCar are exactly “easy” to drive, objectively speaking. We’re of course speaking in relative terms, for those with the skill and ability to do both.
A good place to start when considering which of these two might be more challenging for drivers is their inherent differences. The differences between the two are quite revealing of their difficulty.
IndyCars and NASCARs are pretty different in their design, appearance and overall build style. First of all, a NASCAR is a completely closed cabin complete with front, side, and rear windows and even netting on the driver’s side windows. The drivers are braced and bolted in like they’re in a cocoon. IndyCars, on the other hand, feature a single, open cockpit more like that which you’d see on a Formula 1 car.
Next, NASCAR vehicles are cars that are more relatable to the spectator, not for their speeds or safety features, of course, but rather for their outward appearance. Sponsor advertising aside, they look like regular street-legal vehicles. The same cannot be said for IndyCars.
Finally, IndyCars are built to look more deliberately like racing cars. Besides the aforementioned open cockpit, they’re sleeker, more aerodynamic and when driven will have much more downforce, once again more like you’d expect to see from a Formula 1 car. NASCAR vehicles are meant to look like whatever model they really are, and it works almost like a fantastic advert for that car, be it a Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, or something else.
How does design affect difficulty? There are some who have likened the act of driving a NASCAR vehicle as to that of piloting a flying brick, so lacking in aerodynamism they say it apparently is. On an oval track, this isn’t necessarily a massive hindrance when one is primarily focused on turning left. On a road course, however, drivers of IndyCar’s are glad of their vehicle’s greater agility and more nimble handling, all of which is afforded to it thanks to the design.
NASCAR engines are a lot larger than those in IndyCars, but in real terms not exactly more powerful. A NASCAR vehicle features a 5.86L naturally aspirated (no turbocharger) V8 that outputs around 670-hp, but sometimes even more than 700-hp. The 2.2L twin-turbocharged V6 engines of IndyCars might therefore seem totally inferior, but actually they are still able to output from 550- to 750-hp. In fairness, it does require the driver to be using the “push-to-pass” system in order to get up that high.
Both NASCAR and IndyCar vehicles traverse oval and road courses, but the difference is in the proportion.
- The norm in the IndyCar season is to race on road courses, with a handful of oval courses thrown in for good measure like that of Indianapolis. Some IndyCar races even take place on public roads like you see in Long Beach, for instance.
- NASCAR, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. The 2021 season saw 7 road courses placed in the schedule for the NASCAR Cup Series, which at the time was seen as a dramatic and controversial increase. Previously there had only been 2-3.
You might think that makes IndyCar much more challenging, since road courses are generally understood to be more difficult to handle safely than the oval courses. However, one also must consider the sheer number of races. An IndyCar season only features some 17 races, while the NASCAR Cup Series features 40.
Differences in Speed between NASCAR and Indy Car
On the surface, when you point out that IndyCar is faster than NASCAR by about 30-mph on average, it might seem like a fairly cut-and-dry case that IndyCar is therefore more dangerous. More speed equals more danger, no? Well, that might be technically true, but when you know the real numbers on both sides, you start to think twice about your assumption.
- Indycar: 230 miles an hour plus
- Nascar: 200 Miles an hour plus
With NASCAR vehicles topping out at 200-mph, and IndyCars at 230-mph or more, does that really make IndyCar significantly more dangerous than NASCAR? As we mentioned in our first point, the design and construction of the cars is also totally different, which massively changes the overall dynamics of how they operate on their respective tracks, which as we said in the third point are also largely very different.
So, NASCAR is technically slower, but when you’re doing speeds of more than 200-mph, it’s hard to really say that it makes a difference. If NASCAR vehicles were traveling at 90-mph and IndyCars were their usual 230-mph+ speeds, then we might have a case.
Differences in Danger between Indycar and NASCAR
The fact that people claim IndyCar is wildly more dangerous than NASCAR is another plank on which to base their view that IndyCar is the more challenging. While it’s true that statistically speaking, the numbers and historical facts reveal that IndyCar seems more dangerous.
In particular, the NASCAR series hasn’t had any on-track fatalities since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, while IndyCar has experienced a total of 4 deaths since 2003: Tony Renna in 2003, Paul Dana in 2006, Dan Wheldon in 2011, and Justin Wilson in 2015.
On top of that, and as we mentioned in the previous point, the fact that IndyCar’s top out at faster speeds and don’t use restrictor plates also is evidence for some of the inherent danger in IndyCar rather than NASCAR.
Having said all that, however, many point to the fact that an IndyCar race features fewer cars and drivers than a typical NASCAR race, which greatly reduces the risk of accidents from happening. The sport also discourages contact, and encourages keeping safe distances, which is once again unlike the reality of the NASCAR track. Where Rubbing in Racing!
The Double Duty Challenge
There is a way for drivers of both series to check if they think Indycar or NASCAR is easier to drive. Each year ther eis the opportunity, on memorial day weekend, to enter what is a huge test of endurance.
The Double duty, or Memorial Day Challenge takes in two of the most iconic races in the whole year. The Indianapolis 500 and the home of NASCAR – Charlotte Coca Cola 600. We have a full page on this set of racing here,
but in brief it is the attempt to race both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 600 on the same day. it requires a driver first racing the 500 then getting on a plane and flying down to Charlotte and attempting the longest race in NASCAR! The challenge is not the attempt but the completion of the two. We have the successful attempts in the article below.
Conclusion: Is NASCAR or IndyCar “Easier”?
Some racing pros and legends have weighed in on this and have made declarations that one is harder than the other. One great example is Danica Patrick, a star of both NASCAR and IndyCar, who in a 2018 article for NBC Sports was quoted as saying that NASCAR cars are “way easier than an IndyCar to drive.”
Patrick’s view to one side, it has to be accepted that ultimately it’s a subjective point, as is anything when it comes to the idea of difficulty. One person’s difficult task is another person’s piece of cake, after all. How easy or difficult, safe or dangerous a sport really is comes down to the participants’ level of skill. NASCAR and IndyCar are no different.