Have you ever looked at a NASCAR vehicle’s steering wheel and wondered about its size? They do seem to vary between different drivers, but you’ve undoubtedly seen many of them and wondered why the wheel had to be quite so large.
This is the core question of today’s article, but we’ll also try to offer some extra insight into these special steering wheels’ design and function within each NASCAR race.
The main reason for the relatively larger size of a NASCAR wheel is control. The larger wheel in the car means that NASCAR drivers can maintain precise control over where their vehicle goes on the track.
A smaller wheel is useful for those who need to make sharp turns quickly, like in Formula 1 racing, for instance, but in NASCAR most races are on oval tracks where the cars are following an optimum route around the track. A bigger wheel is ideal for the kind of steady and minor adjustments needed in the sport.
In fact, not all NASCAR vehicle steering wheels are very large. They do vary, with the most common wheels in use being around 13-15 inches in diameter. Their design tends to leave many thinking that the wheels are large, certainly much larger than the ones in most passenger cars nowadays.
Larger wheels offer more precise control and greater steering capability with less effort. It is for this main reason that NASCAR wheels tend to be larger than most.
When the vehicle you are driving is a large one, it follows that the steering wheel needs to be correspondingly large. This is why the steering wheels on buses and trucks are so much larger than those of regular passenger cars.
A bigger wheel won’t create such dramatic shifts in the vehicle’s body when moved, whereas smaller wheels do. A NASCAR vehicle is a large stock car that is mostly used on oval tracks.
While adjustments to steering are necessary, nobody wants the slightest turn of the wheel to produce a dramatic shift in position. A NASCAR driver could lose their place on the so-called “racing groove.”
The subject of steering wheels in NASCAR may cause some to wonder why it’s really a big problem at all. Some of NASCAR’s races are on road circuits, of course, for which more dramatic steering patterns are required, but steering on an oval circuit is far from the simple matter that many believe.
The idea of “constantly turning left” is how many perceive steering in NASCAR, but the fact is that there’s more to it.
Drivers follow what is known as a “racing groove” on an oval track. This refers to the optimum route around the track that offers the greatest speed, thus the best lap times. Remaining in this groove requires a great deal of control and skill on the part of drivers, and making steering adjustments is an essential part of that.
Using the larger NASCAR steering wheel, drivers can make minor adjustments to their course and avoid collisions with others, all without having to expend too much steering effort, and without making any moves that are too sudden or too sharp.
A sudden lurch to the left or right in NASCAR would mean lost time in the lap, but even more likely would be a collision with one of the other 39 cars on the track. Therefore, steering remains critically important, and challenging.
Drivers not only have to stay in the groove and on track for the ideal race time, but also have to be making constant small adjustments to avoid collisions, and all while traveling at speeds of up to 200-mph. For all these reasons and more, steering really does matter.
The steering wheels used in NASCAR have a number of special features to make them more suited to their function in a race. We’ve talked above about how their size helps drivers better maintain control during a race.
Another common feature is their suede covering, which offers greater levels of both comfort and grip during a race. Balancing these two elements is important when a driver has both to control a 200-mph flying brick of a vehicle, and has to do so for several hours at a time.
One more integral feature of the steering wheel is that it’s removable. This firstly allows for drivers to switch to different wheels to suit each course (though not many drivers do make such a switch), and also helps in the event of a collision to make it easier for the drivers to get out of the car.
NASCAR drivers tend to sit quite close to the wheel when driving — another action done for both comfort and safety — and so being able to remove the wheel after an accident can be critical.
Some drivers do switch out their steering wheel depending on the type of course that they are on. Most use a larger wheel such as a 15” unit on oval tracks, but go down to a 14-inch or 13-inch on road courses.
Others, such as Kyle Larson, are known to use the same 14-inch steering wheel on all tracks, perhaps finding the size a good universal medium. The antics of certain drivers such as Kyle Busch have led some to ponder whether he is using a smaller steering wheel that produces more dramatic outcomes.
Physical Challenges and Training for NASCAR Drivers
Driving a NASCAR vehicle isn’t just about speed; it requires significant physical endurance as well. The large steering wheel, while providing control, can cause physical strain over the course of a long race. Drivers have to combat the wheel’s resistance with high levels of upper body strength to maneuver the car accurately.
To prepare for this, NASCAR drivers often undergo intensive strength and conditioning training, with a specific focus on arm and shoulder exercises. Cardiovascular fitness is also crucial, given the intense environment and sustained effort required. Finally, neck and core stability exercises are key, helping drivers to maintain their position despite the substantial G-forces experienced on the track.
Technology and Innovations in NASCAR Steering Wheels
Over the years, NASCAR steering wheels have witnessed several technological advancements to enhance driver performance and safety. Modern-day wheels are not just steering devices; they are integrated control units.
Buttons and switches for communication with the pit crew, altering car settings, or requesting assistance are commonly found on these wheels. Moreover, the advent of LED displays has enabled real-time monitoring of vital vehicle stats, giving drivers a wealth of information at their fingertips.
These technological enhancements have drastically improved the overall racing experience, making it safer and more efficient.
Safety Measures in NASCAR Steering Wheels
Safety is paramount in NASCAR, and the steering wheel design incorporates multiple features to protect drivers. The quick-release mechanism, which allows the wheel to be detached from the steering column in an instant, is a crucial safety feature.
This helps drivers exit the vehicle quickly in case of an emergency or a crash. Additionally, the wheels are often padded and covered in high-grip materials to prevent slipping, ensuring that drivers maintain control even in high-intensity situations.
In some cases, the wheel spokes are also designed to absorb impacts, reducing the risk of injury during collisions. This fusion of safety, control, and comfort makes NASCAR steering wheels a feat of engineering.