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Here’s a Breakdown of All the Major Types of Car Racing

Racing has always played a large role in the automotive industry. Automakers love to boast about racing wins, competing in specific series, and all of their sponsorships. Beyond being a sport where the best drivers and teams are pitted against one another, modern racing is equally as competitive on the tech front. Car racing has evolved to be so much more than just watching fast cars drive around a track, so we have put together this list of all the major types of auto racing that you can watch on TV and even take part in.

Car racing is a global phenomenon with races being held around the world at a series of historic race tracks. On this list, you’ll find everything from iconic 24-hour races to quarter-mile drag races. Unfortunately, a lot of series aren’t readily available to watch in the U.S. For car enthusiasts in America, though, you will be able to find NASCAR, drag racing, and Global Rallycross (GRC) readily available on television. If you’re really looking into racing, there are a few series that you can even compete in.

Formula 1 driver exiting turn.

Whether you’re looking for a new car series to keep up with or something to take up some time while you’re working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are 8 major types of amateur and professional car racing.

Open-Wheel

Open-wheel racing, also known as formula racing, is widely considered the pinnacle of four-wheeled motorsport. Only the most skilled drivers in the world are able to compete at this level, which is important considering the cars on the track are worth untold millions of dollars (Ferrari alone spent over $400 million on their F1 team in 2019).

The category is broken down into two main types: Formula 1 (or F1) and its derivatives, and IndyCar, the “American Version” of F1. The vehicles in these classes share many similarities including an open, single-driver cockpit, exposed wheels (hence the term “open-wheel”), and a mid-engine layout. They aren’t identical though, so let’s dig into the details below.

Formula 1 Racing

Formula 1 is the most storied and prestigious automotive racing series in the world. It’s come a long way since its first race way back in 1950, and a modern F1 car is one of the most technologically advanced automobiles on the planet.

All vehicles are equipped with a hybrid powertrain consisting of a 1.6-liter turbocharged V6 engine and a battery-powered electric motor. When used in tandem, these systems allow a modern F1 to crank out around 1,000 horsepower. The chassis of F1 cars may appear similar, but unlike their IndyCar cousins, each manufacturer engineers their own aerodynamics within the framework of the series’ rules and requirements to generate the maximum possible downforce.

Two formula 1 race cars passing each other.

This emphasis on aerodynamics and downforce is one of the major differences between F1 and Indy, as the outrageous downforce of an F1 car allows it to whip through the corners of a racetrack at unimaginable speeds.

Speaking of corners, Formula 1 takes place exclusively on the road and street circuits, which emphasize shorter straightaways and more challenging and frequent turns. As a result, F1 cars generally accelerate and corner faster than IndyCars, although IndyCars reach much higher speeds. F1 races are staged on relatively short circuits all across the world and bounce between a long list of infamous locations from Monte Carlo to Shanghai.

Variations of F1 racing include Formula 2, Formula 3, and Formula E. F2 and F3 are often considered the proving grounds in which F1 drivers show what they’re made of before moving to the big leagues. Both F2 and F3 drivers share identical vehicles to level the playing field and reduce the overall cost of entry. These cars are currently equipped with turbocharged internal combustion engines, which produce 620-hp and 380-hp respectively. Formula E, on the other hand…

Formula E

Formula E is a relatively new form of open-top racing. Unlike the majority of other racing series in the world, Formula E is where all-electric race cars go head-to-head. The racing series has come a long way since it first came out and is unlike anything else in the realm of open-top racing. While Formula E has a similar overall layout to Formula One with practice sessions, qualifying, and the actual race, there are a few nuances that separate the two.

First, there are the cars. They all look similar because they share the same bodywork. Additionally, Formula E race cars also share the same battery packs and chassis. Teams are responsible for their own powertrain components. This is done to keep racing as tight as possible. Unlike other racing series, Formula E happens on one jam-packed day. The shakedown, practice sessions, qualifying, Super Pole shoot-out, and E-Prix (race) all occur on the same day. There are a few double-headers where some events are stretched over two days.

Two formula e race cars on the track.

Then, you get into the actual racing. Practice sessions are pretty normal stuff, but qualifying is where things get interesting. Drivers are divided into four groups based on reverse championship standings. In group qualifying, each driver has one make-it-or-break-it lap to set their quickest time. The six fastest drivers from the qualifying group advance to the Super Pole shoot-out where they have one chance to set a quick lap time to see how the top six on the grid lineup for the race. Each race lasts for 45 minutes plus an additional lap once the timer runs out.

There are a few interesting things that happen during the race. There’s Attack Mode, which drivers can unlock by driving through an Attack Mode Activation Zone. It costs some time initially but results in a gain of power for a short period. Another boost in power can come from Fanboost. It allows fans to vote for their favorite driver. The drivers with the most votes get an additional short power boost. Drivers can decide when they want to use the extra power they receive from Fanboost, adding to the strategic aspect of Formula E. Reports indicate that teams spent around $12 million to run a two-car team in Formula E in 2018-2019.

IndyCar

As stated above, IndyCar is often considered the “American version” of Formula 1, but the cars, rules, and racetracks are actually much different.

For instance, IndyCar races take place on both F1-style road courses and on speedways (aka oval-tracks) throughout the season. IndyCar races are also much longer than F1 courses, regularly covering approximately 500 miles per race where F1 races only last about 190 miles.

Indycar racing down straighaway.

The cost of IndyCar racing is also much lower, with the average team spending $20 million or less per season compared to F1’s current cap at $140 million. This “low-cost” alternative is made possible thanks to the differences in the two series.

For instance, every IndyCar on the track shares the same chassis and aerodynamics package, which are all designed and sold by a third-party supplier rather than being developed in-house at an outrageous expense. The same goes for the engines of IndyCar vehicles, which are all 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6s engineered and sold by either Honda or Chevrolet (each team gets to choose its own engine supplier).

These engines don’t put down quite the power of the current F1 hybrid powerplant, although at 700+ horsepower, they’re still more than any mere mortal can handle competently.  Interestingly enough, although the engines are rated at lower outputs, IndyCar races reach much higher speeds than their F1 counterparts. In fact, the winner’s average speed for the 2021 Indy 500 in Indianapolis was a record-breaking 190 mph!

Other Types Of Open Wheeled Racing

There are a few amateur open-wheel series that people can watch, like Formula 1000. These vehicles race in Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) FB series and are powered by 1,000cc motorcycle engines. The SCCA also handles Formula 3 and Formula 4 races in the U.S. Lastly, there’s Karting, where racers go around small courses in ultra-light, incredibly powerful, and specialized karts.

If you’re looking to get into open-wheel racing, you might want to look elsewhere. Karting is the only affordable type of open-wheel racing and it’s the jumping-off point for the majority of professional drivers. F1 and IndyCar drivers are some of the best drivers on the planet and, for the most part, they all started with karting as young children. Additionally, getting into F1 and IndyCar takes hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorships. Drivers that may be the best in the world can lose their seats if they don’t bring enough money to the table.

Professional kart racing on track.

Sports Car

Sports car racing is a close second to open-wheel racing in a popularity contest. This series is probably the one racing series with the most easily recognizable vehicles as most manufacturers compete at the GT (Grand Touring) level with vehicles that look a lot like their high-performance supercars. The Lamborghini Huracan, Ferrari 488, Chevrolet Corvette, Nissan GT-R, and Porsche 911 are all used as race cars in this series. This series is also home to the prototype class, which are non-production race cars that have unique bodywork, high-performance engines, and wild designs.

In this series, races can last anywhere between 2.5 and 24 hours. Some of the 24-hour races are some of the more iconic ones in the world, including the 24 Hours at Daytona, 24 Hours of Nurburgring, and 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yes, these races really do last 24 hours and are a grueling test for both man and machine.

Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO) and the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) are a few of the sanctioned organizations that regulate sports car racing. For the next section, we’re going to use the ACO’s class breakdowns to provide a better idea of how the ultra-fast prototype cars share the track with GT vehicles.

The GT class of race cars is split into two categories: LMGTE PRO and LMGTE AM. As their names would suggest, the LMGTE PRO series includes professional drivers, while the LMGTE AM race cars are driven by amateur racers. The prototype class is also broken into two categories: LMP1 and LMP2. LMP1 includes hybrids and non-electrified race cars, while LMP2 vehicles come with Gibson 4.2-liter V8 engines and weigh slightly more. Additionally, privateers can race in the LMP2 class, while the LMP1 category is strictly for professional drivers and manufacturers. Changes will be made in 2024, as the AOC will move to have GT3 race cars replace the current LMGTE race cars.

The SCCA’s classes are slightly different, as the organization has two prototypes and one GT class for amateur racers. The P1 and P2 prototype classes allow for a wide range of vehicle designs, while the GT class includes modified “silhouette” replicas of series-produced sports cars.

Touring Car

Unfortunately, Touring Car racing is most popular in Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Australia. The vehicles that are raced in this series are based on road-going production vehicles that have been heavily modified. Unlike other race cars on this list, there’s little that differentiates the vehicles, so there’s plenty of hard competition between drivers.

Races for the Touring Car series vary from sprints (short distances) all the way to endurances (three hours or more). There are a variety of Touring Car series for enthusiasts to watch, including Supercars Championship (SC), World Touring Car Cup (WTCC), British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), and Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM).

A lot of automakers compete in multiple Touring Car series with similar cars. Since each series has its own set of rules, the race cars may have different performance and aerodynamic requirements. For the most part, touring cars produce roughly 600 horsepower and share the same overall design as their road-going counterparts.

Production Car

This racing series is also known as showroom stock in the U.S. and is one of the more economical and easier ways for enthusiasts to get into racing. In this series, very lightly modified or unmodified vehicles race against similarly outfitted cars. The production-based road cars in this series have strict restrictions to what kind of suspension, tires, wheels, aerodynamics, brakes, and performance vehicles can be fitted with. This is done to ensure vehicles are as similarly equipped as possible for racing to remain competitive. This series is available to professional drivers and amateurs alike.

Professional and gentleman racers can take advantage of “one-make” series where automakers have a range of vehicles that meet the necessary requirements straight from the factory. Unfortunately, a lot of these automaker-backed series are reserved for exotic car brands. A few of the more well-known series include Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Ferrari Challenge, and Porsche Supercup.

For amateur drivers, the SCAA and the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) have a few production car racing series to compete in. These series are categorized by vehicle age, engine displacement, vehicle weight, and modification level. For enthusiasts looking to go racing, this is the most popular style of amateur racing because of its ease of entry and cost-effectiveness. The majority of production vehicles that race in a series are required to have a few safety items, like a harness, roll cage, and fire suppression system. Drivers are also required to wear racing shoes, gloves, a helmet, and a suit. If you’re looking to enter your first actual race, here’s what you can expect.

Stock Car

You might be scratching your head, wondering what stock car racing is. You’ve probably heard of it as NASCAR and it’s been America’s most popular racing series since it became a thing in 1948. The story of how NASCAR came to be is one that’s worth knowing. Moonshine runners during the prohibition era made modifications to their vehicles to outrun the police while maintaining their “stock” appearance. Once moonshiners started to enter national races with their vehicles, a new racing series was born.

Things became official when a mechanic named William France formed the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) in 1948, uniting the drivers in a single series. While modern NASCAR vehicles wear massive sponsorships, funky paint schemes, and enormous numbers, they still resemble the stock cars that they’re based on. All NASCAR racing takes place on oval tracks, while all vehicles are built on a steel tube chassis, utilize a 5.8-liter V8 engine, and come with a four-speed manual transmission.

NASCAR’s oval layout may not be that exciting compared to road racing courses, but there’s plenty of action. The races can last up to 500 miles, the cars can hit speeds of 200 mph, and the race cars are inches apart from one another. This is a recipe for disaster, which is why NASCAR has quite a few spectacular crashes.

Amateur stock car racing exists, but it’s mostly a regional thing with shorter races and smaller oval tracks.

Rallying

Unlike other forms of car racing, rallying, or “stage” rallying, predominantly takes place on rough terrain like mud, sand, and dirt. Rallying also takes place throughout the entire year, so drivers have to race in the snow and rain, which results in some exciting racing. There are a few paved sections, but those are predominantly ways to connect off-road portions.

Rallying also differs from other racing series because teams have to tackle timed sections where the passenger acts as a co-driver, giving the driver directions on a section. These directions are called “pace notes” and they’re a shortened code that the co-driver reads aloud to the driver so they know what’s coming up.

The most obvious series when talking about rallying is the World Rally Championship (WRC). Over the course of a year, WRX consists of 13 events that last three days each. Race cars that take part in WRC are based on production cars but have been modified for maximum attack with highly modified 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines, sequential manual transmissions, high-tech all-wheel-drive systems, and aggressive body kits. While rally cars may look small, they pack a massive punch with roughly 600 horsepower.

There are quite a few different types of grassroots rallying that enthusiasts can take part in, though you’ll want a car that you won’t mind getting dirty and beat up. The most common type of amateur rallying is Rallycross. Rallycross is essentially autocross on dirt terrain and can be done in practically any vehicle without any modification. This racing series is offered nationwide and all you really need is a helmet. The next step up is Rallysprint, which is a single-day event where racers cover a few small stages. To compete in Rallysprint, vehicles need to be fitted with some safety equipment like a roll cage.

Drag

Drag racing is one of the oldest forms of motor racing. While things may not have been official, drivers have always raced against one another in short drag races between the lights. Drag racing may seem easy; rev the engine, wait for the light to turn green, then floor it, but modern drag racing is far more technical than that. Timing, aerodynamic drag, and grip are everything. Brakes and stopping power also play a major role, as cars are hitting insane speeds over short distances and need to come to a stop quickly.

For enthusiasts that want something easy to jump into, few car racing series are as simple as drag racing. Two or more vehicles line up next to one another with an eight- or quarter-mile stretch of tarmac in front of the cars. A “tree,” which is similar to a stoplight, signals the start of the race when it goes from red to a series of yellow lights before turning green. The car that crosses the line first is the winner. Crossing the starting line before the tree turns green results in a penalty, while crossing one of the side lines results in a disqualification or a canceled run.

In the U.S., the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is the largest body that governs drag racing. There are multiple vehicle classes that range from lightly modified production vehicles up to dedicated dragsters with parachutes. If you’re looking for the most exciting drag vehicles, you’ll want to look at top fuel dragsters. These 25-feet-long vehicles are oddly shaped with tiny front tires and monstrous rear tires. The odd design helps them hit speeds of up to 330 mph in a matter of a few seconds.

Enthusiasts can take advantage of amateur drag racing events at a local drag strip. Events range from short weeknight sessions to competitions that last the entire weekend. Drag racing is one of the easier series for enthusiasts to take part in, as all that’s really needed is a helmet. For owners of high-horsepower vehicles, going to a local drag strip is the safest and best way to see how fast their car really is.

Simulation

This type of racing has become insanely popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, as enthusiasts and gamers alike can race virtual cars from the comfort of their homes. Simulation racing, or sim racing for short, is available to anyone – even young enthusiasts without a driver’s license – with access to a computer, video game console, and steering wheel (ideally). Some may scoff at the idea of racing virtual cars, but real race car drivers regularly use simulators to learn tracks.

Modern sim racers account for things you’ll have to interact with when behind the wheel of a real car, like damage, tire wear, fuel usage, suspension, grip, and weather. A few companies have gone above and beyond by making hardware that recreates motions and bumps that a driver would feel in a real car. High-end racing wheel manufacturers have also created direct replicas of real racing wheels that professional drivers use, too.

simulation racing

Out of all of the types of car racing we’ve covered, sim racing is the most cost-effective and the easiest one to get into, but that doesn’t mean it’s a joke. Racing, depending on which simulator you’re using, is fierce and you’re likely to run into both pros and amateurs that are serious competitors. Some simulators offer different types of series and the ability to race in multiple classes of vehicles, heightening its appeal.

For the ultimate racing simulation experience, you can even run your races through a VR headset like the Oculus Rift S or HP Reverb. Combined with a properly simulated cockpit, it’s easy to forget you’re still sitting still in the safety of your own home. The experience feels so authentic you’ll need some getting used to, as we’ve seen more than a few people get sick to their stomach after rolling a simulated race car off a steep mountain pass…

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