If your eyes are cast to other motor racing around the world you will notice that the vast majority are held either on winding racetracks and road courses. Formula 1, Le Mans, MotoGP Touring car and more all have countless corners and turns. So why are the majority of NASCAR Cup Series races are held on oval-shaped circuits? We explore the reasons and background to why NASCAR races on oval tracks below.
NASCAR racetracks are predominantly oval, or oval in nature though they vary in size and features. While some races use road track, oval racetracks offer improved viewing angles for fans, are less costly, they encourage faster speeds, more overtaking, pack racing and drafting and therefore provide more racing action.
Despite NASCAR races being held mostly on Oval Race tracks in various locations around the USA, there are road races included. For example, the 2017 Cup Series featured races on 21 oval tracks and just two on non-oval road courses.
Why Do NASCAR Race On Oval Race Tracks?
There are numerous reasons why NASCAR races on Ocal race racks more than road tracks. We highlight a few below.
- NASCAR races on these circuits is to enhance the spectator experience. At ovals, the audience immersion is far higher compared to road courses as fans at an oval circuit can often see over half of the action during a race.
- This made it easier to sell tickets in the early days of NASCAR, as the fans were able to see their heroes drive past them again and again. This is compared to the average European-style road course, where fans can only see a couple of corners from their seat and are forced to watch the rest of the races on large digital screens.
- The oval tracks are also cheaper to build, and so the fan experience and cheap cost led to the building of many of these circuits in the USA during the early days of stock car racing.
- Fans in seats that are high up in modern stands may be able to see the cars circulate the entire track, which is very good value for money when compared with the extortionate cost of Formula One tickets.
- Ovals are also popular as they allow for fast speeds and close racing in a phenomenon known as ‘pack racing’. This allows drivers to race around the track constantly at ‘full throttle’. This means that the drivers travel at very fast speeds and form ‘packs’ where slipstreaming is common.
What Benefits Do Oval Race Tracks Have?
In NASCAR, slipstreaming is known as drafting. Drafting means that the cars travel together faster as a pack than they would alone. The packing may lead to many overtakes as the drivers are forced to race in very tight spaces as they go two or three abreast. It also means that the drivers must have fast reactions and strong discipline to navigate to the front. It makes for more exciting viewing.
The oval tracks in NASCAR are raced counterclockwise. This is as stock car racing, which NASCAR uses, is based on production cars. In the USA, drivers in these cars sit on the left-hand side. This is the same in NASCAR, and so racing counterclockwise gives the drivers a better field of view.
It also means that the drivers are further away from the wall. Both of these factors increase safety. It also means that on ovals there are only ever left turns.
What Drawbacks Do Oval Race Tracks Have?
However, the packing can lead to large accidents when cars hit each other at the front and block the track for those at the back. These types of accidents have been given a name, “The Big One”. An example of this was seen on the 191st lap of the 2019 Daytona 500 and involved 21 cars. Only 19 of the 40 cars were running by the end of the race, and only 14 had completed every lap.
Road Races by their nature of having longer tracks, spread the cars out. this reduces the chances of accidents and crashes and makes it safer. Ovals tend to bunch up the cars into packs, and though the overtaking is more frequent so are the crashes.
The number of cars in close proximity means that those more frequent crashes also add up to expensive race days for teams. For large well sponsored teams this may be less of an issue but for new teams the totaling of a car can make the difference between racing one week and the next.
With all these factors in play it also means that oval racetracks are less suited to wet weather racing than road races. We have a full article on why this is so below and linked here.
Are NASCAR Tracks Really Oval?
Only some of the tracks on the calendar are ‘true ovals’. This includes the Bristol Motor Speedway which is a stadium oval. It features two parallel straights connected by two 180-degree turns. However, this is not the most popular oval shape in the Cup Series.
Over half of the Cup Series circuits are tri-ovals. These shapes were popular in the oval construction booms of the 1960s and 1990s. The track shape prevents fans from having to lean to view oncoming cars, as they offer more sightlines. A famous example of a tri-oval is the Daytona International Speedway.
Some of the Cup Series’ ovals also have some unique shapes. An uneven egg-shape is used by Darlington Raceway, (rumoured to be made that way to protect a minnow pond at one end!) whilst the Pocono Raceway is triangular. The famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also rectangular.
The tracks also vary in the level of banking in the corners. The steepest banking is found at Talladega Superspeedway where it is 33 degrees, whilst New Hampshire Motor Speedway only has seven degrees of banking, and it is the flattest on the Cup Series.
Despite the dominance of the ovals in the Cup Series, they also race on road circuits. The Cup Series first raced on a road course at Linden Airport in 1954 and has raced on a road course at least once a season since 1963.
This includes the Circuit of The Americas, which is also used by Formula One, the Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen. This gives opportunities to road course ringers, who are non-NASCAR drivers who are hired by NASCAR Cup Series teams to race on the road courses. Dan Gurney, a former Formula One driver with four F1 wins, won five NASCAR road races as a ringer.
NASCAR Oval Race Track Information.
There are several different types and features of oval race tracks, but they are all characterised by their high speeds. They also tend to be relatively short in length, with the longest tracks on the calendar often road courses such as Road America.
However, the Cup Series’ array of ovals greatly varies, with Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway being just 0.847 kilometres long, the shortest track in the Cup Series, compared to Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway at 4.28 kilometres.
Talladega Superspeedway also is the fastest track on the calendar and was the site of the fastest qualifying lap in NASCAR history, which was a 212.809 miles per hour lap set by Bill Elliott in 1987.
We have a table of Statistics below detailing the longest, shortest, fastest, oldest NASCAR Oval tracks.
|Oval Racetrack Records||Racetrack||Details|
|Shortest NASCAR Oval||Martinsville Speedway, Virginia.||At Just over half a mile long ( it is .526 miles to be exact) Martinsville Speedway is the shortest oval racetrack, and any track in the NASCAR cup series.|
|Longest NASCAR Oval||Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama||Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway is 4.28 kilometres long.|
|Oldest NASCAR Oval||Martinsville Speedway, Virginia, and Darlington Speedway.||Martinsville is the oldest track in NASCAR, but Darlington is the oldest Superspeedway.|
|Newest NASCAR Oval||Worldwide Technology Speedway, Illinois||Although used in the Xfinity and truck NASCAR championships, World Wide Technology Raceway will host the cup series for the first time in 2022|
|Fastest Nascar Oval||Michigan International Speedway, Michigan.||Michigan, (and sometimes Talladega) is considered the fastest track in NASCAR. Qualifying is often above 200mph, and it had no restrictor plate requirement.|
|Most Crashes at a NASCAR Oval||Talladega, Superspeedway, Alabama||Although there are plenty of crashes at all NASCAR racetrack’s, Talladega seems to have the most spectacular due to the close racing.|
|Most Popular NASCAR Oval||Daytona International Speedway, Florida||The Super bowl of NASCAR, the Daytona recorded over 7 million viewers in 2020.|
Is Oval Racing or Road Racing More Difficult?
When discussing if road racing is more difficult than road racing or not very much depends on the individual driver. There are challenges with both styles of racing that need to be overcome.
Traffic: Traffic and packed tracks are not generally a feature of a road race liek MotoGP or Formula 1, after the initial start cars space out along the track and only get close during lapping or overtaking maneuvers. Ovals require drivers to deal with heavy traffic and packs of cars both in front and behind them.
Size of track: Ovals come in all shorts of shapes and sizes. From the martinsville half mile to the huge Talladega Superspeedway. These require different tactics when racing, especially when it comes to handling cars at speed. Road races, although of course different layouts and turns, do not often have the same average speed that an oval will have. There will be more to remember but with less traffic it more about hitting cornering marks, than avoiding cars.
Mental Demands: Both Oval racing and Road racing are hard on the mind and body. Oval racing requires drivers to be operating a car flat out in top speed in traffic for hours on end. Road racing requires memorization of racing lines, courners, track position, overtaking sections, and gear shifts.
Physical Demands: Racing for the length of time NASCAR, Indy and F1 drivers race is a drain on the body. Although there is similar g forces from cornering on Oval tracks it is on one direction, and there can be a level of acclimatization. However on road races with multiple directional turning these forces can be in quick succession from different directions.
Racing Lines: One road tracks there tends to be only one optimal racing line, On ovals this is not the case, not only can it change during the course of a race, it can be varied from the start. It can depend on traffic, weather, track conditions, car set up, race events and more.
Safety and Consequences: Road courses are not often surrounded by unforgiving concrete walls. They have gravel traps, collapsible barriers, and large run off sections to allow cars to loose speed gradually. Oval tracks however often have hard barriers and catch fences. Although tracks have introduced the SAFER barrier.
Gear Shifts: There Is more reliance on gear shifts on road tracks, however the consequences of mistakes are less. As Oval tracks require the cars to be operating at close to the maximums possible speed even small missed gear changes can cause slow downs and place changes.
What Other Motor Racing Uses Oval Race Tracks?
The NASCAR Cup Series is not the only American-based series to use ovals, as both the NASCAR affiliated Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series often use ovals.
The NTT IndyCar Series also uses ovals, and its famous Indy 500 race is contested on an oval. However, there were just four oval races at three different venues on the 17-race 2021 IndyCar calendar, the lowest total in the series’ history.
The IndyCar calendar lost 13 oval tracks between 2010 and 2020. IndyCar is different to NASCAR, as it is single-seater and open-wheel.
IndyCar cars and NASCAR Cup Series cars both race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is an oval. The IndyCar cars tend to lap 40 miles per hour faster than the NASCAR cars at the circuit during qualifying.
Oval race tracks are part and parcel of both NASCAR and Indy racing. This will not be changing for the foreseeable future. Since the very beginning of NASCAR there has been Oval Racing, Martinsville and Darlington being the first. Oval tracks also host the most prestigious race in the NASCAR season at the Daytona International Speedway.
There is often a question abotu wheich is more difficult, or whoch is the better racing, road racing or oval racing. Although the debate is not yet over, there are valid points to both sides I always give a very simple answer.
NASCAR has races on both Oval race tracks and road race tracks, does Formula 1 do that?