Automobile racing is one of the world's most popular forms of sport. The popularity of the many components of automobile racing is not through actual participation in competition; in relative terms, there are far fewer racing car drivers, mechanics, pit crew, and support personnel than there are soccer, basketball, or cricket players around the world. The popularity of automobile racing is manifested in its global fan base. Additionally, the NASCAR racing series in the United States regularly attracts television audiences second only to American football. Automobile races such as the international Formula 1 series or the Indianapolis 500 have popular recognition and a devoted following on every continent.
The first true automobile race was contested in France from Paris to Bordeaux in 1895; a race in Chicago was held later the same year. These earlier races were not tests of tactics or the aerodynamic capabilities of high-technology vehicles. The internal combustion engine was in its infancy, and a primary objective of the first automobile racers (who were often the manufacturers and developers of the engines and transmissions used in these early vehicles) was to test the engine and other mechanical designs.
The growth in automobile popularity after 1900 was a stimulus to more determined forms of automobile racing. The automobile races, like the 100-m sprint in track and field or any other sport founded upon speed, provided a simple objective: the first vehicle across the finish line was the champion. The Federation Internationale de L'Automobile (FIA) was created in France in 1904; for many years, it was a supreme authority in international automobile racing. The modern world of automobile racing is fragmented into distinct racing disciplines, each governed by a body that does not necessarily give allegiance to the FIA.
The first races were held on open road courses, where public streets and highways were used. As the motor vehicle evolved, becoming capable of achieving greater speeds and enduring significantly greater mechanical stresses, different types of automobile racing became available. There are now a myriad of automobile competitions, as automobile racing is organized according to car type, engine size, the nature of the race course, speed, or endurance objectives.
Formula One racing, or F1, is the most popular of the automobile racing series sponsored by FIA. F1 racing represents the progression from the open wheeled road races in the early years of racing. F1 races are held in two different kinds of venues, road courses and closed circuits. Road courses are race venues created from actual street layouts within a particular city; the roads are closed to other vehicular traffic for the race, but are not otherwise especially modified from their daily urban usage. Closed circuits are race courses created to F1 specifications; these courses mimic a street layout in the sense that there are differing types of curves, straight sections, and bends that require the driver to change gears, vary speeds, and execute turns and cornering maneuvers on a constant basis throughout a race. Albert Park, constructed for F1 racing near Melbourne, Australia, is an example of a closed circuit race course, with a 3.2 mi (5.3 km) irregular circuit; a race is 58 laps, totaling 191 mi (307 km).
As with most types of automobile racing, F1 conducts the competitions in accordance with strict rules as to vehicle weight, horsepower, engine displacement, the ability to turbo charge the engine (a device by which greater quantities of air are introduced into the engine to permit greater combustion with the fuel and greater resultant power), aerodynamic features in relation to the ground effects achieved by the vehicle on the race course, and a host of other technical specifications. An F1 race car can possess a top speed of in excess of 200 mph (325 km/h).
F1 racing has long held a reputation as the most glamorous of the automobile racing competitions, for a number of reasons. The first is the international scope of the annual F1 circuit, with races, often referred to as a Gran Prix, held on every continent. Each race is organized with a festival-like atmosphere, with a buildup to the F1 competition that consists of a number of slower racing classes and the qualification racing for starting position in the race itself, culminating in the F1 race.
The preliminary qualification of drivers for an F1 race is also a feature of other forms of automobile racing, particularly NASCAR and Indy-style racing. The drivers and their teams run qualifying laps one or two days in advance of the race; the drivers with the fastest qualifying times start at the head of the field, with the slower qualifiers arranged in a grid in descending order.
F1 glamor has also been founded on the nature of the competition itself. F1 has two championships in its series, the top driver and the constructor's championship. F1 drivers receive points determined by their place in a particular race; the point total winner at the end of the season is the F1 World Driving Champion. The constructor's championship is the contest between the developers and manufacturers of the F1 vehicles. A constructor might have two or three different vehicles being raced as a team. A prominent example of a long-time F1 constructor is the Italian luxury automotive manufacturer, Ferrari. Each team, and its individual drivers, tends to attract a worldwide and passionate following. F1 vehicles are extremely sophisticated, with technical advances that may be five to 10 years ahead of what a consumer could expect on a domestic production vehicle.
Another aspect of the interest in F1 racing, also applicable to all other forms of high speed racing, is the constant risk of misadventure and death to the racers. The excitement lies in the speed of the vehicles and the close proximity of the machines to one another for the entire competition. The cars might be as close as 2 in to 3 in (5-8 cm) while maneuvering at almost 200 mph. The death of an F1 racer is mourned throughout that community. The deaths of Canadian racer Gilles Villeneuve in 1982, and Brazilian world champion Ayrton Senna in 1994, did not reduce the appeal of the sport by any means.
Open-wheeled automobile racing took a different direction in the United States. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in the early 1900s to attract enthusiasts of the burgeoning sport of auto racing; the first Indianapolis 500, the most famous of the American auto races, was held in 1909. Known as the Brickyard, due to the covering of the rough and pitted racing surface with bricks after the first few years of racing, Indianapolis became the mecca of American open-wheeled racing. The Indianapolis racecourse is a 2.5-mi (4-km) oval circuit, with each corner banked.
The Indy cars, as the vehicles that raced at Indianapolis became known, are similar in appearance to the F1 racers, but each weighs as much as 30% more, with different regulations concerning aerodynamics, turbo charging, suspensions, and other technical specifications. The Indy cars use methanol as fuel (F1 vehicles are powered by gasoline), and the Indy cars use a racing "slick" tire while the F1 tires have treads. The vehicles are constructed differently due to the nature of the Speedway oval. The driver at Indianapolis or any other oval race course is not required to maneuver the race car to the same degree as does an F1 driver. The heavier Indy car aids the driver in remaining low to the race track at high speeds.
Champ Car is an American-based racing series that is very similar in its technical respects to the races held at Indianapolis. The distinctions between the Champ Car series, which has operated in the United States and selected international venues since 2003, and Indy car racing are born of politics, not technical specification. Champ Car series races are held throughout the United States on oval race tracks.
The FIA also sponsors an international racing series known as the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC). These racing vehicles are specially modified production sedans, in that the vehicles appear identical from their outward appearance to the usual products offered for commercial sale by manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Saab, Honda, or BMW. The WTCC races take place at a series of venues, with a European emphasis. Famous races in the WTCC series include the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Sebring race in the United States.
The widely popular NASCAR series in the United States is similar in its orientation to that of the WTCC competitions, as the NASCAR race vehicles bear the outward appearance and body silhouette of a typical North American production sedan. The outer shell of the vehicle is the only similarity between the race cars and vehicles available for public purchase, as the entire engine, suspension, and internal mechanisms of these vehicles have been custom built for racing. NASCAR, an acronym for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, had its beginnings in southeastern United States; vehicles that had been specially modified to outrun law enforcement agencies were raced against one another. NASCAR was founded in 1948, with the Daytona 500 one of its signature events. The modern NASCAR races are now international in scope, with events that attract huge television audiences and corporate sponsorships. The television ratings for NASCAR are generally second only to those of the National Football League in North America.
Drag racing is another motor sport with particularly American origins. The natural desire of motor vehicle developers and race enthusiasts in the early 1900s evolved into a distinct sport, where the vehicles had no connection to either the race track or the production models. Known after World War II as "hot rods," these machines were built with differing engine sizes and a long, low aerodynamic frame, the driver positioned in a cockpit. The fastest of these dragsters are capable of speeds in excess of 300 mph (500 km/h) over a quarter-mile (0.4-km) track. The dragsters race in pairs, accelerating at a signal provided by the activation of a light positioned at the starting line. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), founded in 1959, is the governing body for this sport.
Rally car racing is another distinct form of auto racing, bearing a similar relationship to WTCC competition as mountain biking races bear to cycling on road courses. Rally cars are specially adapted production cars, with reinforced frames, specialty
There are a multitude of science and technical issues involved in the function of all types of vehicles used in auto racing. The methods by which power is maximized in a racing engine, and the various techniques used in automobile design to achieve maximum aerodynamic effect, are two of the most technologically intense areas of motor sports. Two areas that are crucial to racing and represent applications of well-known principles of physics are tire technology and the use of banked turns on racing speedways.
Tires are manufactured from a combination of polymers and rubber compounds. As a general rule, the larger the tread pattern, the greater the contact between the tire and the road, which creates greater traction and the faster the vehicle will roll; the softer the tire, the greater the ability to maneuver and to corner the vehicle. Racing slicks are the tires used by NASCAR races cars and dragsters for this reason. In wet weather, racing slicks are a more dangerous option, as water will come between the tire surface and the road, creating the potential for a condition known as hydroplaning, where the tire loses contact with the road surface as it glides along the layer of water. A vehicle that is hydroplaning cannot be readily controlled through braking or steering.
The treaded tires are not as fast on dry track conditions as racing slicks; the treads in the tire function to funnel water from the road away from the tire surface to permit stability to be maintained.
The tires are particularly important when the physics of the automobile racer's ability to corner at high speed is considered. As a vehicle enters a curve, the driver must initiate the force required to change the vehicle in a direction toward the center of the curve, or the vehicle would continue in a straight line and crash. It becomes subject to a force known as centripetal force, which operates in a direction perpendicular to the direction of travel of the vehicle. Centripetal force is created by the friction between the road and the tire surface, and it is subject to two different physical relationships: it is proportionate to the square of the velocity of the vehicle (expressed as v2), and centripetal force is inversely proportionate to the size of the radius of the curve. When the curve has a large radius, a smaller centripetal force will be necessary to pass around the curve; a tight, hair pin turn will require a correspondingly greater degree of centripetal force to maintain control of the vehicle. The banking on some turns is a device through which the tires will have greater contact with a friction developed as the turn is made.
Race-car drivers have been disparaged over many years as not meeting the definition of an "athlete," as theirs is a machine-centered, technology-driven sport. It is considered that the classic definition of an athlete, one who possesses physical strengths and prowess, did not apply to automobile racing. Modern race car drivers have a number of imperatives that tend to direct their physical fitness. The first is the combination of hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and general motor control, all of which are essential to the successful piloting of a high-speed racing machine. The second group of athletic skills useful to the automobile racer is a collection of mental skills like emotional control and stress management.