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 suspensions, and safety features such as roll cages built around the driving compartment. Rally races are often held on closed road courses, where the surfaces are gravel or dirt trails. The race is often conducted in stages, where the winner is the driver (and navigator) who achieve the best overall time. The most famous of the rally races is the annual Paris to Dakar rally. Vehicle durability and driver fatigue are the two of the most important considerations in that event.
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.
AUTOMOBILE RACING. On 28 November 1895, the Chicago Times Herald sponsored the first automobile race held in the United States. Its purposes were to test American cars and promote the nascent automobile industry. The winning speed, in a Duryea car, was 7.5 miles per hour (mph). The first series of races on American soil was organized in 1900 by Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, with national automobile clubs of entrant nations choosing teams of three cars to compete on open roads. With a variety of mechanical and design improvements, race speeds had increased significantly and fatal accidents were not uncommon, involving both drivers and spectators.
The years from 1904 to 1910 saw the first Vanderbilt Cup street races on Long Island, organized by William K. Vanderbilt and held despite both legal threats and public misgivings. The first race, held on 8 October 1904 and sanctioned by the new American Automobile Association, had eighteen entrants on a 30.24-mile course mostly through Nassau County in New York. In 1906 the race attracted 250,000 spectators, but because of safety concerns it was canceled in 1907, resuming the following year after the Long Island Motor Parkway was built.
In 1908, the Savannah Automobile Club hosted the first American Grand Prize race. The original seventeen-mile course, built in 1904, was expanded to 25.13 miles. Present were sixteen thousand crowd-control marshals and thirty doctors. There were fourteen European and six American entries. The Gold Cup prize for the race was $5,000, twice that of the Vanderbilt Cup. Production cars were introduced to the American Grand Prize in 1909. Governed by the Automobile Club de France rules, the American Grand Prize was now the main American race entered by European drivers.
Also in 1909, the first closed-circuit dirt track was opened in Indianapolis, Indiana, by a group of automobile manufacturers to test the endurance of American-made automobiles, but this "stock car" testing course was later transformed into a racing speedway. The inaugural race was called the Indianapolis 500 and was run on Memorial Day in 1911. The Indy 500 continues to be run on Memorial Day every year.
In 1914, the Santa Monica speedway was established to host both the Vanderbilt Cup and the American Grand Prize. The 8.4 mile course along the Pacific shoreline included a ninety-degree left turn known as Death Curve. After a year in San Francisco, the races were again held in Santa Monica in 1916, the last time an American Grand Prize was held on a road course until the Vanderbilt Cup was held in New York in 1936.
The first major race after World War I was the Indianapolis 500 on 30 May 1919, in which Arthur Thurman was killed and Louis LeCocq and his mechanic were burned to death when their car overturned and caught fire. The Americans Howdy Wilcox and Eddie Hearne took first and second place, respectively. In 1921, American driver Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans with a time of 4 hours, 7 minutes, and 11.2 seconds. The total distance was 322 miles at a speed of 79.04 mph.
The first world championship race was held in 1925 at the Indianapolis 500, a contest between manufacturers rather than drivers, but escalating costs subsequently forced manufacturers to abandon racing car production for nearly a decade. In 1928, racing rules changed from a strict formula based on engine size and weight to Formula Libre rules, with drivers in partnership with such racing car specialists as Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Bugatti, and in 1930, Scuderia Ferrari.
In 1935, at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the British racer Sir Malcolm Campbell became the first driver to go faster than three hundred miles per hour. On 12 October 1936, the first three-hundred-mile Vanderbilt Cup race at the new Roosevelt Raceway was held. For the first time, the European Auto Union and Mercedes entered drivers. The race was won by the German racer Bernd Rosemeyer driving for Auto Union. The Roosevelt Raceway was a post-depression attempt to resurrect international motor racing in the United States by Eddie Rickenbacker and a group of Wall Street financiers, who established the Motor Development Corporation to create a racing circuit for the best European and American drivers and automobiles. Designer Mark Linenthal, however, failed to deliver a suitable venue. Afterward, international road racing took place primarily in Europe until 1959.
Broad public interest in stock car racing lead to the formation of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) at Daytona Beach in 1947. Stock car racing enjoys wide popularity and is the fastest growing spectator sport in the world. The 1990s in particular saw major growth in the sport's popularity primarily due to NASCAR's proactive marketing efforts and television's hunger for ratings. With inventions such as in-car and bumper-mounted cameras, fans watching the races on television were able to feel as if they were in the middle of the action. Additionally, in a society enamored of superstars, race drivers, more so than other sports figures, are accessible to their fans, typically having come from small towns in the South and racing in venues that are far removed from Hollywood or New York City. In 2001, NASCAR had a broader television viewership than Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and the Women's National
Basketball Association. In 2001, Fox, NBC, and TNT (Turner Television) signed a six-year, $2.4 billion deal for NASCAR's television rights. (In comparison, NASCAR received only $3 million for its television rights in 1985.) Fox's television viewership in 2001 averaged 5.2 million fans per broadcast race (a 41 percent increase over the previous year), and NBC and TNT television viewership in the same year averaged 3.9 million viewers per race (a 35 percent increase over the previous year). NASCAR conducts stock car races under the auspices of its Grand National Division. The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), established in Westport, Connecticut, in 1945, oversees sports car racing in the United States. Additionally, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), founded in Los Angeles in 1951, sponsors drag racing at the Winternationals in Los Angeles, the Springnationals in Bristol, Tennessee, a national meet in Indianapolis, and a World Championship race in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The NHRA, the SCCA, NASCAR, and the United States Auto Club belong to the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS), which is the U.S. representative to the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the controlling body of automobile racing worldwide since World War II.
In 1950, the first World Championship for drivers was held based on the results of the British, Swiss, Monaco, Belgium, French, and Italian Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. The Indy 500 was included to promote Grand Prix racing in America.
The U.S. Grand Prix, the first American Formula One (F1) race since the American Grand Prize series from 1908 to 1916, was held at the Sebring, Florida, air base in 1959. There were nineteen entrants, including six Americans. The American Bruce McLaren was the youngest driver to win an F1 race. In 1961, the U.S. Grand Prix was relocated to Watkin's Glen, New York, one of the best U.S. tracks, comparable to Monza and Silverstone. Watkin's Glen hosted Grand Prix races through 1980. The first U.S. Grand Prix West was held at Long Beach, California, in 1975. Other Grand Prix circuits included Long Island (1904–1910, birthplace of the Vanderbilt Cup); San Francisco (1915, on a 3.84-mile circuit constructed on landfill in the San Francisco Bay); Riverside, California (1960); Long Beach, California (1976–1983, considered the third best street course in the world after Monaco and Adelaide); Las Vegas (1981–1982, a "parking lot" course, that is, not a street course or circuit course built purposefully for racing, but literally a parking lot used as a race track); Detroit (three races in 1982); Dallas (1984–1985); and Phoenix (1989–1991, the last year a Grand Prix was held in the United States).
Brown, Allan E. The History of the American Speedway: Past and Present. Marne, Mich.: Slideways Publications, 1984.
Macgowan, Robin, and Graham Watson. Kings of the Road: A Portrait of Racers and Racing. Champaign, Ill.: Leisure Press, 1987.
New courses sprang up in Britain: Donnington Park near Derby (1933), Silverstone in Northamptonshire (1948), Brands Hatch in Kent (1949), and Oulton Park in Cheshire (1953). The British Grand Prix was first held in 1948. Britain made little impact on the sport, apart from the famous Bentley victories between the wars. It was not until the introduction of the World Drivers' Championship in 1950, which provided a focus for the sport, that Britain made her mark. That year saw the launch of British Racing Motors (BRM) in an attempt to match the European competition. In 1958 Stirling Moss, driving a Cooper, won the Argentine GP. Cooper-Bristols pioneered the lightweight mid-engined car and the victory was seen as a triumph for the small, entrepreneurial British engineering companies. British racing engines, first the Coventry Climax and then the Cosworth, powered cars designed by John Surtees, Ken Tyrrell, Colin Chapman, and Frank Williams. Chapman, the innovative Lotus designer, developed and refined the rear-engined car.
In the 1950s Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn became household names. Graham Hill won the Drivers' Championship in 1962 and 1968, Jim Clark in 1963 and 1965, and Jackie Stewart in 1969, 1971, and 1973. James Hunt and Nigel Mansell followed suit in 1976 and 1992, and Damon Hill in 1996.
Richard A. Smith