Nascar. It’s the sport we all love to hate. On the surface, it’s arguably the most boring form of popularized motorsports, which you can see by its rapidly declining viewership. Of course, Nascar, just like any sport, is a business and a form of entertainment. With that in mind, it’s obviously Nascar’s job to make their product as entertaining as possible in an attempt to fix the declining viewership.
With that being said, you’d think that faster, louder, nastier cars would be the ideal move. At the end day, whatever makes the sport competitive will also help keep it entertaining. But, Nascar has actually done kind of the opposite and over the last few years they’ve made their cars significantly slower, the question is why and is the move toward slower cars going to save the sport from going extinct.
I’d to clarify before we get into this, that we’re primarily looking at the National Cup Series and Xfinity Series for this article. Obviously, throughout the years, the Cup car itself has evolved massively. What was once literally stock cars with no modifications quickly evolved fiberglass body tube chassis cars that barely represent the cars you and I can buy at the dealership.
Poll Speed Data
With the cars changing drastically from 1948 up until now, speeds also changed drastically. To demonstrate just how much the speeds of Nascar have changed, we can look at the average poll speed for Intermediate, Speedway, and Superspeedway courses throughout the years. More specifically, let’s look at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway first.
This set of data comes from MRN.com. I plopped all this data into Google sheets and some of these years include multiple races per track, which is why there is some funkiness going on, but as you can from this, the poll speeds started out pretty slow at close to 130mph.
As time went on though, the poll speeds got faster and faster and faster. From 2000 to 2014, speeds increased a little bit, but not that drastically, and 2014 to 2017 are definitely the peak years in terms of poll speed for these intermediate tracks, but from 2017 till now, something interesting happens, which is that the speeds drop drastically all the way down to similar levels as 1990s Nascar.
And for the sake of demonstration, let’s look at a similar chart for larger tracks like Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway. This chart is a little bit more all over the place, with speeds on these two big tracks actually peaking out in the mid-to-late 80s. Regardless though, you can see that poll speeds have dropped since around 2015.
Again, both of these charts include multiple races per year and this is technically two charts for three tracks and two tracks respectively, but it’s not averaged out, which is why you have all this jaggedness on the charts, but the point here is now clearly demonstrated in the data. So now the question is, why is Nascar slowing down? Why did the cars use to be faster?
1988 Restrictor Plate
Really, we need to rewind the clock to around 1988, when Nascar introduced restrictor plates on all competitor’s cars for Talladega and Daytona races, because those tracks are massive and speeds were getting really fast. Remember, 1987 was the fastest year in terms of poll speeds and basically they decided that poll speeds upwards of 212mph were just getting too dangerous.
And this was following a bad accident in 1987 involving Bobby Allison, where he got a flat on Talladega, hit the catch fence, tore a massive hole in, and then injured a handful of spectators. Luckily no one died, but it’s this event in particular that prompted Nascar to limit their cars, especially on the big tracks, which is exactly what they did the following year in 1988 as I mentioned.
Fast-forwarding up to 2013, Nascar introduced the Generation 6 car, which was designed to look more like the cars that they’re “based” on, and the hope was also that these new cars would be faster and grippier than ever before, but the new package was met with a ton of criticism from fans and drivers alike.
New Aero Packages
Jumping up to 2014, 2015, and 2016, Nascar began implementing different types of aero packages with different levels of downforce, with the aim of promoting passing during the race to give the fans something more interesting, because again, you have to remember that this is a business and the more entertaining the racing is, the more money Nascar makes.
For someone who’s not into Nascar, this is where things get really confusing because, throughout these years, the level of downforce and the aero package were changed for different races, which means each race you’re really not even watching the same car as the last race. They were quite literally changing the rules for the cars based on the track.
For some tracks, they had downforce aero packages, some of them had some aero packages, and again, it was done in an attempt to promote more passing, but it actually did the opposite, with many of these races having very little action, which ultimately annoyed fans and drivers.
New 550HP Engine
That takes us up to 2019 when we saw some changes to the powertrain, which is horsepower decrease for tracks greater than one mile in length. For the small tracks and road courses, they allowed 750hp, but for the bigger tracks they choked them down to 550hp, which is where some of the speed decreases become even more noticeable.
That really begs the question as to why they would choke up the engines, continually change aero packages, and make all these changes that are ultimately annoying fans and drivers alike, and again, it’s in an attempt to make the sport more entertaining by tightening up the pack, but it’s also for safety and financial reasons.
At the end of the day, many of the changes they’ve made have flat out not worked. For many years Nascar was less competitive than ever, and while that’s changed in recent years, there’s still a long way to go. Luckily, they are introducing a new car platform this year or next which will hopefully bring things back to a more entertaining more and the new platform should hopefully be 670hp instead of 550hp.
Will They Fix It?
In terms of financial reasoning, decreasing power levels on the big tracks can theoretically decrease the chance of engine failure, which ultimately means less cost for the teams, which is a big benefit for anyone who wants to get into the sport. Ultimately, you’re not getting into this sport unless you have tons of money, so any steps towards lowering the bar to entry is a good thing.
Really though, fans and drivers want less downforce and more power. That would help to make the sport more entertaining, so there’s hope that the next generation car can help turn things around and make it more entertaining. Something I would like to note though is that the poll speed itself isn’t exactly an indicator of how entertaining the racing is.
The difference between, let’s say 190mph and 200mph poll speed isn’t all that noticeable from the spectator’s perspective. So, really, the decreased speeds aren’t really the bad guy here, it’s more or less the aero packages that really make the cars glued to the ground and make it harder to pass because once you hop out of draft into the fresh air, all that aero is going to massively slow you down, making it very difficult to pass the guy in front of you, which is the exact opposite of what Nascar is trying to do.