Auto racing has been popular since the creation of the automobile. Humans have always had a fascination with speed, from the ancient Olympic Games and foot and chariot races, to the advent of horse racing, to the creation of the first auto races.
There are several different kinds of auto racing, and the major formats include:
Below we outline each format of racing, including the kind of car in each race, how long each race is, distinguishing characteristics of each kind of racing, and where you can find coverage and races of each format. Let's take a closer look!
Open-Wheel Racing is a type of auto racing where the wheels are located outside of the car's body, uncovered. Open-Wheel cars are also characterized by having their engines in the back of the car. The two most recognizable open-wheel racing circuits are Formula One and IndyCar, which also happen to be two of the world's most popular racing circuits.
Open-Wheel races take place across the world, and tracks are not uniform (unlike NASCAR, where almost every race track is an exact oval). F1 cars clock in with an average racing speed of 120 mph, though they can reach over 200 mph.
Open-wheel racing is a particularly intense form of racing. Budgets for teams surpass hundreds of millions of dollars, racers are national heroes (like the late Ayrton Senna), and rivalries run deep. Formula One is popular in Europe and South America, while IndyCar has a massive U.S. following.
Stock Car Racing is a highly popular form of auto racing in North America, with NASCAR being the iconic and dominant force in the Stock Car Racing industry. Races are almost exclusively held on oval race tracks, like the Daytona or Talladega superspeedways. Auto racing in the United States may as well be synonymous with NASCAR and stock racing.
Cars are characterized by their normal (or "stock") appearances, but make no mistake, they can go very, very fast. Modifications made to the engine and the interior enable stock cars to travel at averages of 200 mph, in tight quarters and on banked turns.
While NASCAR is the most obvious example of stock racing, smaller amateur races happen all over the United States.
Sports car racing differs from both open-wheel and stock racing in that the cars are always derived from production-level cars. There are two kinds of sports cars, called "Grand Tourers" (GT for short), two-seated vehicles built by companies like Porsche, Ford, or Ferrari, and Prototype Cars, which can be one-seated and look sleeker than the average GT.
Famous races include the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 hr. Daytona, and the most famous series is the FIA World Endurance Championships. Sports Car races are often very long (like Le Mans), and feature teams of multiple drivers per car who switch off over the course of the race.
Everyone has seen the videos of crazy-looking cars blasting off of the starting line and driving for less than half a mile at super-fast speeds. Everyone's seen the parachutes eject from the back of the car as it crosses the finish line, in an effort to slow down. That's drag racing.
Cars can vary widely in their design, with hundreds of classifications existing in the sport. Drag racing has so many different formats that basically any car can find its way to a drag race.
Driven in 1 v. 1 races, cars start off next to each other and proceed along parallel and straight tracks that are about a quarter mile in length. In big tournaments, races are run elimination-style. Drag races are all about acceleration, seeing who can reach top speed in the least amount of time.
Kart racing is often the entry point for many of the world's best racers, from NASCAR stars like Jeff Gordon to Formula One legends like Ayrton Senna. Racers drive in small, 100-pound open-wheel karts made with only a small tube chassis and an engine. Despite their slim appearance, they perform exceptionally well and are therefore a great and exciting vehicle for races.
Kart Racing is perhaps the cheapest way to get into auto racing, making it a vital part of auto racing's growth worldwide. The WKA (World Karting Association) organizes races across the globe, and is the sports' biggest organizing body.
Rally racing is basically a timed relay, performed with teams taking staggered starts. Drivers take off at different intervals along the track, and teams "rally" back and forth along the course and across multiple stages, in an attempt to get the shortest elapsed time. It's a time trial against the clock and other teams.
Cars are typically production-model cars, but built or redesigned with modifications to improve racing performance. Races are driven either on closed road courses or on off-road courses. Rally racing is most popular in Europe, but has been growing in the United States and the rest of the Americas as well.
While NASCAR dominates the American racing scene, Formula One and Sports Car driving tend to take the cake. Races like Le Mans and the many F1 Grand Prix routinely draw hundreds of thousands of spectators, averaging almost 200,000 spectators each weekend. F1 racing in Europe (and South America) is a highly popular sport, bigger than football or baseball in the United States and rivaled internationally by only a handful of sports.
Both IndyCar and Formula are massive open-wheel racing circuits, with big followings and ravenous fans. However, there are some key differences. For instance, while innovation and brand competition has always been a big part of Formula One racing (with teams like MacLaren fighting tooth and nail to make an ever-faster car), IndyCar definitely focuses more on driver skill, with every car using the same chassis. This also means that teams spend much more in Formula One racing compared to IndyCar, where budgets can seem miniscule in comparison.
In addition, IndyCar caters to an almost exclusively American market, while Formula One is big in Europe, South America, and parts of the Mediterranean.
In short, because kart racing is cheap! Basically every Formula One racer starts with karting. Ayrton Senna famously got his start racing along the kart circuits in Brazil as a little kid. Not to mention that NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon often get started racing Quarter-Midgets, kart-like automobiles run on short ovals.
Karts are the most accessible automobiles to race in, being small, cheap, and relatively safe to drive. All of those factors make it appealing for young children and amateurs, and even experienced racers like to go back to the kart track every once in a while.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is maybe the most recognizable Sports Car Race in the world. Taking place in Paris, France, teams drive non-stop for 24 hours, testing not just a car's speed, but its ability to hold up to extended periods of driving.
In endurance races like Le Mans, multiple drivers switch off over the course of the day, and attempt to advance as much distance as they can. In Le Mans, that means almost 5,000 kilometers!