A Breakdown of All the Major Types of Car Racing

Americans get downright religious about their sports Traditions are passed down from generation to generation, obscure superstitions are upheld, and there’s a willingness to brawl with anyone that insults their favorite team. Abroad, the same is true, but passions flare for different sports. Instead of football, basketball, and hockey, the rest of the world bleeds for soccer and motorsport.

types of car racing drag nhra header
NHRA/Facebook

It’s not that Americans don’t love racing, they just connect with it in a different way. We need more action to stay engaged, which has elevated series like NASCAR and Global Rallycross (GRC). Those of us craving more excitement strap into our own race cars and compete in grassroots events.

With the goal of broadening our horizons or at least refreshing our memories about the world of motorsport, here’s a breakdown of the major types of professional and amateur car racing.

Open-Wheel

Open-wheel racing encompasses some of the most high profile motorsport series in the world, including Formula One (F1) and IndyCar. As the name suggests, open-wheel racing features vehicles with exposed wheels (no faring covers). Though the vehicles competing in F1 and IndyCar look similar at a glance, they are governed by very different rules and compete on different tracks (F1 only runs on road courses while IndyCar uses both oval and road courses).

Some of the major difference between F1 and Indy include fuel (F1 uses high octane and Indy uses ethanol), budget (annual F1 team budgets are upwards of $500 million while IndyCar tops out around $20 million), braking (F1 cars have vastly superior brakes), aerodynamics (F1 cars have more sophisticated techniques and produce more downforce), top speed (IndyCars run on longer straights and therefore see higher speeds), and location (F1 is a global series while IndyCar is primarily based in the U.S.).

opne wheel racing F1
F1

It is commonly held that F1 and IndyCar drivers are the cream of the crop, having transcended all feeder series to secure spots on manufacturer teams. While this is true, wealth is also a factor, with many F1 and IndyCar drivers having financed their very expensive racing careers with family funds. Currently, Lewis Hamilton is the top F1 driver, with five world championship wins. In IndyCar, Scott Dixon is the hero, with four championship victories.

Out of the professional realm, Formula 1000 is the biggest amateur series, where 1,000cc motorcycle engines are used in ultra-lightweight open cockpit vehicles. New models can be purchased for as little as $40,000 and race in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA)’s FB series. SCCA also oversees Formula 3 and Formula 4’s U.S. programs – both feeder classes to professional open-wheel racing. Karting is another popular form of amateur open-wheel racing.

While nowhere near the performance of Formula 1 cars, shifter karts are ultra-light, providing power-to-weight ratios similar to production supercars. Let’s be clear: these aren’t “go-karts” or anywhere close to what you might experience at a K1 Speed center. Shifter karts can do 0-60 mph in 4.0 seconds, hit speeds of 120 mph, and corner at 2.5g. Today, karting is where most professional drivers get their start, and where many return to maintain their skills.

Sports Car

After open-wheel, sports car racing is the second most globally popular form of professional motorsport. Races run between 2.5 and 24 hours, in both fair weather and dreadful conditions. Long-standing competitions like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Nurburgring, and 24 Hours at Daytona test the durability of the cars, the skill of the drivers, the ingenuity of the engineers, and the speed of the pit crews. Just being fast doesn’t guarantee wins and, in many cases, can compromise a good strategy.

Most performance vehicle manufacturers compete at the GT (Grand Touring) level, fielding models that look very similar to range-topping production cars. Chevrolet has a Corvette race car, Porsche has a 911, Ferrari has a 488, and so on. There’s also a prototype class that features non-production race cars that are highly regulated, extensively honed, and wildly fast.

sports car racing
Lemans

Sports car racing is run through a couple sanctioned organizations, Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO) and the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). We’ll use ACO’s class breakdowns to understand how GT and Prototype cars share the track.

GT racing is split into GTE Pro and GTE Am. As the names suggest, GTE Pro cars feature professional drivers while GTE Am is run with amateur racers. Both classes feature road-legal cars with regulated modifications. The prototype class is also split into two segments: LMP1 and LMP2. LMP1 includes cars with energy recovery systems (hybrids) and those without, with certain allowances given to keep competition close. LMP2 cars have higher weight limits and are exclusively powered by Gibson 4.2-liter V8 engines. Both Prototype and GT racing is an opportunity for companies to test the next generation of automotive design and technology en route to road-going models.

The SCCA features two prototype and one GT class for amateur racers. GT cars are highly modified “silhouette” replicas of series-produced sports cars while P1 and P2 prototype classes allow a broad range of vehicle designs. The most popular prototype racer is the Spec Racer Ford.

Touring Car

Touring car racing is based on heavily modified road cars and is particularly popular in the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Unlike F1 and IndyCar, contact between vehicles is common and minimal aerodynamics mean there are numerous position battles. These characteristics add an element of excitement that’s similar to U.S. stock car racing.

Fans also appreciate the similarities between their own road-legal cars and the race cars (in form, at least — touring cars make upwards of 600 horsepower).

FIA
Fia/Facebook

Touring car series consist of both sprint (short distance) and endurance (three-hour or more) races, which test completely different skills. Sprint races rely more on driver skill, while endurance races are dependent on engineer and pit crew talent. The most common Touring car series include World Touring Car Cup (WTCC), British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), and Supercars Championship (SC). Some manufacturers compete in multiple series but the rules are different between each series.

There are some amateur touring car series but initial and annual running costs are prohibitively high for most drivers.

Production Car

Production car racing (otherwise known as showroom stock racing) is where grassroots motorsport takes off. Major automakers and professional drivers are represented in this style of racing, but it’s the amateur level that saturates American lives. As the name implies, production car racing features strictly production-based road cars with restricted modifications to their suspensions, aerodynamics, brakes, wheels, tires, and powertrains.

types of car racing mazda miata race side v2
Miles Branman/The Manual

At the pro level, production car racing usually takes the form of “one make” series, which feature a single model or a range of models from one manufacturer. Some well-known examples include Porsche Supercup, Lamborghini Super Trofeo, and Ferrari Challenge.

SCCA and the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) have developed several production car classes for amateur drivers to compete. These classes are divided by engine displacement, modification level, vehicle weight, and vehicle age. This is far and away the most popular style of amateur racing for its cost-effectiveness and few barriers of entry. Most production race cars are required to have FIA safety features like a roll cage, fire suppression system, and harness. Drivers must wear racing suits, helmets, gloves, and shoes. Here’s what you can expect from your first race.

Stock Car

We only need one word to describe stock car racing: NASCAR. America’s preferred form of motor racing has been around since 1948, but its origins date back to the 1920s. During the prohibition era, moonshine runners (those illegally moving alcohol) needed a way to outrun the cops. To do so, they made modifications to their cars while maintaining their “stock” looks. This type of engineering soon became a competition, with drivers entering their modified rides in national races.

NASCAR
NASCAR/Facebook

A mechanic named William France eventually united the drivers and formed the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) in 1948. Though the original point system devised in the ‘40s is no longer in effect, the cars remain regulated, all races are conducted on oval tracks, and each model bears exterior resemblance to a production/stock vehicle. Today’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup cars are built on steel tube frame chassis with 5.8-liter pushrod V8s, four-speed manual transmissions, and 725 hp on tap.

By comparison to road racing, the NASCAR’s oval layout may not appear as exciting, but consider that a cluster of cars is doing 200 mph within inches of one another for up to 500 miles. These factors lead to spectacular crashes, but due to the advanced safety systems within each car, deaths are extremely rare. In fact, since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, no other Cup Series driver has perished while racing.

At the amateur level, stock car racing is mainly a regional affair, with race tracks and small organizations hosting short track races for local fans.

Rallying

Rallying, or “stage” rallying as it’s known in the professional realm, takes place year-round on snow, ice, gravel, dirt, mud, sand, and any combination of these terrains. Rallying isn’t purely conducted off-road, but paved sections of each race are typically just connectors between off-road portions.

Each “stage” of a rally is a timed section where a driver and his co-driver must navigate a section of the course. Once the stage is complete, the car must move on to the next stage (this part isn’t timed). In preparation for each race, the co-driver makes “pace notes” about the obstacles at each section of the stage. The notes are then assembled in a code that’s read out loud to the driver in real time to prepare him or her for what lies ahead.

types of car racing wrc rallying
WRC

The premiere professional rally series is the World Rally Championship (WRC), which consists of 13 three-day events over the course of a year. Competing vehicles are based on production cars and powered by extensively modified 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines making upwards of 600 hp. WRC cars also feature all-wheel drive, sequential manual gearboxes, and aerodynamics.

Grassroots rally racing takes a few different forms, but the most common is Rallycross. What amounts to autocross (timed courses) on the dirt, Rallycross allows drivers of all skill levels to lap their daily driver in a safe environment. SCCA and NASA host Rallycross events across the country, entrance fees are cheap, and all you need is a helmet. Rallysprint is the next step up. A scaled down version of stage rally, Rallysprint is a single-day event covering a few stages. At this level, cars must have roll cages and other safety equipment. Amateurs can also try their hand at stage rally through Rally America. This is the most expensive and regulated version of grassroots rallying, but it’s also the closest to pro-level fun.

Drag

Drag racing is the simplest form of motorsport to explain. Two or more cars grid next to one another on an eighth-mile or quarter-mile stretch of tarmac. A stoplight, or “tree,” cues the start of the race, descending from a red light, through a series of yellow lights, and ending at a green light. The moment the light turns green, the cars accelerate towards the finish line. The first car to cross the threshold wins the race. If a vehicle leaves before the light turns green, it is issued a penalty. That’s all there is to it.

Drag racing, sanctioned and otherwise, is the oldest form of motor racing. As long as there have been cars, there have been people itching to race them against one another. Though the sport itself is simple, racing can be very difficult. Timing is everything – leaving the starting line a fraction of a second too late or missing a single shift can cost you a victory.

NHRA
NHRA/Facebook

In America, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) governs the vast majority of these races. There are numerous professional vehicle classes, covering machines that are lightly modified versions of production cars to dedicated dragsters. The fastest of these classes is the top fuel dragster, which is 25 feet long, has a single seat, tiny front tires, fat rear tires, and can achieve trap speeds of 330 mph. Predictably, dragsters and other high-horsepower drag racers are seriously dangerous. Crashes in these vehicles are brutal to behold and can be fatal.

Amateur drag racing covers everything from weeknight sessions at the local drag strip in your daily driver to weekend-long competitions in fully prepped 8-second race cars. Much like Rallycross, you don’t need much to start drag racing. If you have a helmet, a car, and a few bucks, you can participate in a night of racing. This is a great opportunity for owners of high-horsepower production cars to see what their vehicles can do in a straight line — in a safe environment.

There’s a darker side of the sport called “street racing.” Street racers coordinate a showdown on public roads, either at speed on a freeway or from a standstill on a side road. This type of racing is illegal and very dangerous for both the participants and unaware traffic.

Simulation

Every type of racing we’ve covered this far requires two things: a physical car and a driver’s license. Simulation racing (sim racing for short), meanwhile, is open to anyone with a computer and (ideally) a gaming wheel. On the surface, sim racing appears like a crude interpretation of real racing, but the sport’s sophistication has grown dramatically in recent years.

simulation racing
Jeff Zurschmeide/The Manual

Modern sim racing mimics real racing variables like fuel usage, damage, tire wear, grip, suspension, and weather conditions. Some companies have even devised hardware to recreate the motion and feel of a race car. Simulations have become so real that the skills drivers learn while racing in a simulator directly apply to the real competition. Mazda, Nissan, and other automakers now recruit some of the world’s best sim racers to drive genuine race cars in global series.

Not only is sim racing the most cost-effective and easiest way to race, but it’s also a great resource for pro and amateur drivers to fine-tune their skills. This form of racing is still in its nascence, but we expect it to continue surging in popularity over the next several years, feeding into physical racing segments and expanding interest in motorsport.

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