The baritone rumble of monster V-8s permeate the air and rattle your ribcage. The stink of gasoline and scorched rubber fill your nostrils, but you find their aroma sweet rather than offensive. Only slightly less tangible is the omnipresent thrill of danger from vehicles hurtling by at speeds nearing 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour) within an enclosed space.
If you've ever ventured near the big oval during a NASCAR race, you know the excitement produced by a speeding pack of 800-horsepower stock cars. Perhaps you've even imagined what it would be like to drive one of these mighty metal beasts for a living. We can't really blame you. After all, the potential rewards of being a professional race car driver exceed what most people could ever imagine at a normal desk job: Adoring fans, driving like a maniac -- and an annual salary that could reach into the millions of dollars.
You should know from the outset is that becoming a NASCAR driver is an intensely rigorous and competitive process. You have to be in top physical shape to be able to withstand the punishing conditions of racing hundreds of miles. You have to be smart, too: Major sponsors are increasingly favoring better-educated, well-spoken drivers who can represent their products in the most positive light possible.
Before NASCAR, stock car racing was a disorganized competitive outlet for illegal whiskey traffickers in the South -- guys who had honed their driving skills by evading law enforcement and tax collectors. Early tracks were made of dirt and chaos ruled, and that inconsistency caused problems. Fans never knew when and where their favorite drivers would appear to compete. There were very few rules to make sure the cars were equal in power and capability -- races often became snoozefests if one driver could trounce the field with a superior car [source: Hagstrom]. If those problems weren't enough, the league's lack of organization often allowed unscrupulous race promoters to disappear with the drivers' winnings.
This changed in 1948, after William H.G. "Big Bill" France called a meeting of southern track owners in Daytona Beach, Fla. They agreed to band together and form the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, now known as NASCAR.
Training for NASCAR
The younger you are when you start training for NASCAR or any other racing series, the better off you'll be. NASCAR drivers have incredibly quick reflexes that allow them to drive mere inches from other vehicles at speeds approaching 200 mph (322 kilometers per hour). Such precise driving skill takes years of practice to develop.
You can begin by racing go-karts competitively. If you think go-karts are mere toys to be found at amusement parks, think again. High-end go-karts can reach up to 100 mph (161 kilometers) per hour!
You can also consider midget racing, which features small, fast and lightweight open wheel cars. Midget cars come in progressively larger and more powerful sizes, from quarter midget to three-quarter midget to full midget. This is where current NASCAR star Jeff Gordon got his start [source: Martin, Tuschak].
You can also develop your reflexes and get a feel for the sights and sounds of NASCAR by driving in any of the numerous stock car racing schools or simulators available. If you don't feel like leaving home, you can find a number of NASCAR driving games for your PC or gaming platform. Coupled with a steering wheel and pedal set-up, you can achieve a sight and sound experience close to the real thing.
It may surprise you to learn that driving skill is only a small part of the equation. Your first visit to a track is guaranteed to trigger sensory overload: There's the smell of grease, gas, exhaust and burned rubber; pit crew personnel, drivers and track officials rush about in an organized bedlam; and keeping track of the actual race standings is tough if you're new to the sport.
The best way for you to get acclimated is to immerse yourself in all things racing. Go to the track often and watch NASCAR on television. Read books, magazines and websites devoted to the sport. Hang out at your local track and make friends there. Eventually, the specialized lingo, rituals and processes of the track will become second nature to you.
Think NASCAR is simply driving around in circles? Think that any Joe capable of making a left-hand turn can hack it? Nothing could be further from the truth. To find out how physically and mentally taxing being a NASCAR driver can be, go to the next page.
Life as a NASCAR Driver
NASCAR has evolved from a weekend pastime to a highly demanding business. That progression to professionalism includes the drivers. Driving hundreds of miles for hours at a time at speeds between 160 and 200 mph (257 and 322 kilometers per hour) would be hard enough. Now imagine doing it with 42 other drivers who would like nothing more than to leave you choking on their exhaust. The romanticism of stock car racing is easy to imagine. The reality, however, is that it imposes great physical and mental strain.
Obviously, you must like to go fast and have a high tolerance for risk. NASCAR has put numerous safety innovations in place over the past several decades. Placing the driver seat closer to the car's centerline and roof flaps that deploy to lessen the occurrence of cars flipping are two such improvements.
All that said, serious accidents do occur, injuring or killing drivers and much more rarely, fans. The sport lost one of its most beloved heroes, Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt Sr., when he crashed in the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. The incident, which closely followed several other fatal wrecks, put a spotlight on the dangers of NASCAR. These tragic events are few and far between, but anyone considering a career as a driver should be aware of this risk.
Are you disciplined? You'll need to be. NASCAR drivers work out regularly. You need great stamina and upper-body strength to wrestle with the steering wheel for hours on end. Since stock cars lack air-conditioning, you can expect to lose several pounds in sweat during each race. Even with a fresh-air ventilation tube that blows cool air onto the driver, temperatures inside the car can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) [source: Martin, Tuschak].
In addition, NASCAR drivers' schedules are crammed with media interviews, public appearances, travel and practices.
In an organization as competitive as NASCAR, there will be personality clashes. Due to the teamwork involved in NASCAR, there will be strong differences of opinion, too. A successful driver will also need to master people skills like communicating effectively with teammates, fans, the media, sponsors and team owners.
If you want to join the star drivers in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series, you'll have to pay your dues. To learn about breaking in, go to the next page.
Getting Hired as a NASCAR Driver
You've been honing your driving skills, you're in good shape and you're confident you can handle the stress of driving in NASCAR. How do you get in?
While there's no definitive way to win a coveted position as a NASCAR driver, there are several things you can do to improve your chances. Start by reading the biographies of the most successful drivers in recent years.
You must also possess a thorough knowledge of the ways in which a car's various systems work. In practice sessions, the crew chief and other technicians on the team rely on feedback from the driver to optimize a car. For instance, mechanics may adjust the suspension by a certain amount to improve the car's handling. While they have access to expensive and sophisticated computers that tell them how the car should react, the only truly reliable gauge is the information provided by the driver.
You can gain the type of knowledge and hands-on experience that crews find valuable by working on cars yourself. You might even consider enrolling in an automotive training school. Some auto training institutes even have NASCAR-dedicated course work. The best-known of these may be the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, N.C. The $12 million, 146,000 square-foot (13,564 square meters) school opened in 2002 with slots for 1,900 students.
As NASCAR becomes more competitive, the organization has seen an "arms race" develop among teams to hire the best and brightest technicians, many of whom have college engineering Ph.D.s and the potential to earn salaries well into the six figures.
Keep in mind that NASCAR is also a sponsor-supported sport. The myriad decals you see slapped all over a stock car aren't there as an artistic statement. Those sponsors pay the bills for the team on whose car the decals appear. It can take as much as $25 million a year to fund a top-level Sprint Cup Series campaign [source: Packman]. As a result, any team owner that considers bringing you on must like you. The owner must feel that you're capable of representing the team and its sponsors without embarrassing either.
Be prepared for a long, difficult road to the top. It's a big leap in skill and experience level from your local short track to a top-level NASCAR superspeedway. Your first test will be to win your local track's championship series -- a contest that determines the best driver over the course of several races rather than just one.
From there, you may be eligible to join NASCAR's Touring Series, a league of regional, short-track races that groom future talent. Further up the scale in pay and prestige are the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series (formerly the Busch Series).
So, what's it like to be a card-carrying member of NASCAR? Head over to the next page.
Racing in NASCAR: To the Winner Goes the Spoils
To drive in NASCAR's most basic racing circuits, you'll need a NASCAR driver's license. You can apply through NASCAR headquarters or through a local NASCAR-licensed track. Everyone associated with your team will also have to get a license [source: Martin, Tuschak].
Even if you're already a racing champion in another organization, NASCAR requires you to submit an application and resume. The application requires you to provide some personal information, references and an extensive listing of your racing experience [source: NASCAR Driving Information and Record].
Once you have a license, you'll need to field a team and a car. Given the costs of maintenance and pit crew salaries, travel costs, vehicle care and the $100,000 car itself, the easiest way to secure financing is to connect with a well-funded team owner [source: Martin, Tuschak]. These deep-pocketed individuals then find the sponsors whose cash keeps a team running.
If you become good enough, you can obtain licensing deals that allow your name and face to adorn everything from t-shirts to key chains, generating millions for you and your team. Several NASCAR celebrities have started their own teams after enjoying successful racing careers.
Speaking of teams, any aspiring driver should remember that it's all about the team. Fans root for their favorite driver, the media focuses on the drivers and drivers get the credit (or the blame) for the outcome of any given race. But drivers will be the first to tell you the importance of the team in delivering a great performance.
For this reason, owners look not just for driving skill, but also a less quantifiable quality -- chemistry. Will this driver work well with the current staff, win races and make us money? Or would this driver likely react poorly with our current folks, lose races and become a liability?
Drivers can also move laterally from another racing league. A few stars have switched their allegiances from Formula One racing or Indy Racing League competition to NASCAR.
At the top of the NASCAR chain of competition is the Sprint Cup series (formerly the Winston Cup, then later renamed the Nextel Cup; Sprint took over after a corporate merger with Nextel). At this elite level of competition, the pressure is intense, but so are the potential rewards.
Top drivers have the satisfaction of knowing they provide entertainment for legions of faithful fans. The pay isn't bad, either. Between race winnings, contingency prize earnings, regular salary, sponsor checks and merchandise royalties, a moderately successful driver can expect annual earnings of millions of dollars [source: Hagstrom].
For more information on NASCAR, head over to the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Aumann, Mark. "All accomplishments aside, drivers must be approved." NASCAR.com. May 24, 2008. (Accessed Nov. 11, 2008)http://www.nascar.com/2008/news/features/05/23/research.development.part.5/index.html
- Bell, Adam. "Alongside NASCAR's first black driver." CharlotteObserver.com. Aug. 22, 2008. (Accessed Nov. 17, 2008)http://www.charlotteobserver.com/168/story/140021.html
- Byrd, Alan. "Erving traded one job for many, diverse opportunities -- and freedom." Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. Feb. 14, 2000. (Accessed Nov. 13, 2008) http://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com/article/14974
- Elkins, Ken. "NASCAR training school ready to start its engines." Charlotte Business Journal. May 24, 2002. (Accessed Nov. 12, 2008) http://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/stories/2002/05/27/newscolumn5.html
- Hagstrom, Robert. "The NASCAR Way: The Business That Drives The Sport. " John Wiley and Sons. New York. 1998.
- Hemphill, Paul. "Wheels: A Season on NASCAR's Winston Cup Circuit." Simon & Schuster. New York. 1997.
- Martin, Mark and Tuschak, Beth. "NASCAR for Dummies." For Dummies. 2005.
- Menzer, Joe. "The Wildest Ride: A History of NASCAR (Or, How A Bunch of Good Ol' Boys Built a Billion Dollar Industry Out of Wrecking Cars)." Simon & Schuster. New York. 2002.
- NASCAR.com. "NASCAR 101." (Accessed Nov. 12, 2008)http://www.nascar.com/kyn/.
- NASCAR Members.com. "NASCAR Driving Information and Record." (Accessed Nov. 17, 2008)https://www.nascarmembers.com/driver08.pdf
- Packman, Tim. "Financing a Top-Tier NASCAR Team." Popular Mechanics. July 2005. (Accessed Nov. 11, 2008) http://www.popularmechanics.com/automotive/motorsports/1750692.html?page=1
- Walker, Teresa. "NASCAR teen uses video games to become racer." USA Today. June 14, 2006. (Accessed Nov. 12, 2008)http://www.usatoday.com/tech/gaming/2006-06-14-nascar-teen-racer_x.htm
- Yost, Mark. "The Changing Face of NASCAR." WSJ.com. Sept. 17, 2008. (Accessed Nov. 17, 2008)http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122161485635746071.html?mod=googlenews_wsj