In a motor sport where teams are paying per-race for single-use engines, and paying upwards of $500,000 a week just to keep everything afloat, you’d think that they’d want to prevent any possible thing that could damage these cars from happening. Why, then, is it common practice — even allowed by the NASCAR officials — for NASCAR Race cars to bump each other during the race? Is rubbing racing!
Don’t get us wrong, we’re not talking about some kind of destruction derby kind of move here, but bumping, known more commonly as “bump drafting” and even “bump and run” is a very real maneuver in the world of NASCAR, and it is not new. It is, however, pretty controversial, as we’ll learn more about in today’s blog.
Bump drafting is a technique that has been largely used only in stock car and touring car racing. It involves one driver slipstreaming another in front, but rather than subsequently pulling out of that slipstream, they gently bump the rear bumper of the car in front.
This causes the leading car to momentarily lose traction, forcing them off the gas pedal and thus losing momentum. It only typically has a short-lasting effect, but it’s enough for the following car to gain a speed advantage, overtake the car in front and gain the lead.
Bumping in this way is not technically an illegal move in the sport, which is something that comes as a surprise to many. After all, if the front driver weren’t just to lose traction, but in fact were to lose control of their vehicle more entirely, then it could have disastrous results for them and possible for other cars and drivers on the track, no? So, why hasn’t NASCAR banned this practice?
To be clear, while bump drafting has been shown to be a highly effective technique, and while NASCAR has not outright banned the practice, it is not generally looked upon with favor. One of the reasons NASCAR hesitates to ban the practice is because of the way drivers have become rather dependent on it to gain speed advantages during a race.
One of the biggest factors behind the continuation of bump drafting as a common practice. The use of horsepower-reducing restrictor plates puts all cars on the track on a more even keel, and while it may have been done originally with good intentions to improve safety while not impeding on the overall excitement of the race, it creates problems when people want to pass.
An alternative technique to bump drafting is slipstreaming in which cars take advantage of the “thinner air” behind a car in front that is contending with drag and air resistance, and then using a boost of speed — typically while transitioning from a corner into a straight — to overtake the car in front. That was typically an advantage one would have when being behind another car, and a big challenge for leaders to keep their lead.
With restrictor plates in place, however, the cars are too equalized for this technique to work like it did, forcing drivers to resort to this kind of contact, which only causes a momentary loss of traction and throttle. In doing so, they create the window they need to overtake.
While many drivers have been known to use the technique, two quite famous examples both involved Joey Logano, the first time back in 2012, and the second in 2018. In 2012, he used the technique on rival Mark Martin at the Pocono 400 with just 3 laps remaining. Martin was reportedly furious, even saying that if he’d had enough speed, he would have “given him one back” out of sheer revenge.
In 2018, Logano used the technique at the First Data 500 on Martin Truex Jr. Prior to using it, the two drivers had been side by side for 9 laps. After applying the bump and run, however, both Truex and Logano were left almost locked side by side, with Logano just ahead.
The impacts to the side of his car caused Truex Jr. to lose just a little more traction, allowing Logano to stay half a car ahead, but both were struggling to stop from going 90-degrees to one side.
As Logano’s and others’ examples show, while the move can be explained away as a mere technique that drivers are forced to use in a sport still dominated by restrictor plates, it is still potentially dangerous, which continues to beg the question of why NASCAR doesn’t take steps against it. In fact, NASCAR has taken steps against it.
As early as 2006, NASCAR instituted what it called “limits” on the use of bump drafting, but the rules remain somewhat unclear. What they said at the time was that they were going to start ruling against “excessive” bump drafting, but without really being clear on what excessive means.
That lack of clarity has its advantages too, of course. If they were to put a specific limit of, say, 3 bump-drafts per race, then it means drivers would continue to use them strategically, whereas with no clarity, drivers are more likely to use them sparingly for fear of drawing the ire of a NASCAR official watching at the corners, whose ruling could change everything.
Planned penalties included enforced pit stops so that drivers would lose anywhere from half a lap to a full lap.
So, bumping is not automatically penalized in NASCAR, but what about other motorsports? Formula 1 has a strict no-contact rule in the sport, and the only kind of bumping or collision that won’t be penalized in F1 is that of accidental contact.
Drivers who are believed to have caused contact deliberately are subject to time penalties, forced driving through the pit lane (similar to NASCAR rules for “excessive” bumping), 10-second stops in the pit, and even financial penalties. Max Verstappen was famously fined €50,000 for touching the rear wing of Lewis Hamilton’s car during the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix.
IndyCar has a similar approach to its no contact rules, the explanation being that IndyCars, like F1 cars, are not built for bumping. A NASCAR vehicle is far more heavily built, some might even say “brick-like” in its construction when compared to either F1 or IndyCar. Contact between NASCAR vehicles is far less likely to result in an accident, especially when they happen on straight sections of tracks (as most do).
So the aerodynamics help trailing drivers use the momentum of the car in front to pull them faster around the track, and a little bump slows the car in front down. Often enough for that trailing car to swing around the outside and go for the over take.
You will not see it in many other motorsports, not that many go as fast as NASCASR and have cars than can take a little nudge without wrecking!.
So controversial as it may be it is here to stay, for the moment at least, and may go somewhat to explaining the 200 or so crashes NASCAR has over the course of a year!