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Understanding NASCAR: A Guide to Common Terms and Phrases

Updated on December 30, 2016

Joined: 3 years agoFollowers: 26Articles: 183
Brian Vickers celebrates with the fans after winning in New Hampshire
Brian Vickers celebrates with the fans after winning in New Hampshire

Like many sports, NASCAR can be extremely difficult to follow if you don't speak the language. There's more to NASCAR than just “43 rednecks in flying billboards turning left,” as Jim Rome once so colorfully put it. So I've put together a list of some of the most commonly heard phrases and terms so that you can better understand what the announcers and racers themselves are talking about when you see a race on TV.

Car Condition Terms:

The following terms describe how a car is handling on a track. They can be used as an overall description (e.g. “The car is loose everywhere,”) or in conjunction with one another (e.g. “The car is loose in and tight off). 'In' represents how the car is handling going into a turn and 'Out' represents how the car handles coming out of a turn.

Flat Out – Adjective. Describes a car that is driving well and going the maximum possible speed given track conditions. Often is also used to describe a driver being able to drive the entire way around the track with the accelerator fully pushed down (and being 'flat' with the floorboard of the car).

Loose – Adjective. Also known as free or oversteer. The opposite of tight, a loose car is highly responsive to inputs on the steering wheel. A small movement on the wheel will result in an exaggerated turn by the car itself. This can create additional stress to the rear tires, particularly the right rear, and raises the possibility of tire failure in that area. A loose car can run lower on the track but is often difficult to control coming out of the turn. A loose car will want to continue turning left when the driver gets back on the accelerator exiting a turn, possibly resulting in a spin.

Tight – Adjective. Also known as pushing or understeer. A condition where the car is not responding fast enough to inputs on the steering wheel. A driver with a tight race car will have to turn the wheel further and harder to get the car to turn left. This results in additional stress to the right front tire and often contributes to tire failure in that area. A tight car is also difficult to run lower on the racetrack; since the driver has trouble turning he or she needs the larger turning radius provided by going higher on the track through the turns.

A graphic demonstration of loose vs. tight

Aerodynamic Terms

When a car travels at the speeds NASCAR racers run at, the resistance of the air itself becomes a factor in how the car works. How and when a car cuts through the air can determine just how well a car handles and how fast it can go.

Bump Drafting – Verb. Similar to drafting, bump drafting occurs when one driver actually bumps the car in front to allow both cars to move faster. Bump drafting can enable two cars to separate themselves from the rest of the field but also entails significant risks as a bump in the wrong location (wrong location on track or wrong location on lead car) can wreck the tandem.

An example of bump drafting, where the car in back literally pushes the car in front forward
An example of bump drafting, where the car in back literally pushes the car in front forward

Clean Air – Noun. When a car is running in first place it is said to be running in 'clean air' because there is no one in front of them to alter the direction of the air. The cars are tested extensively in wind tunnels by the teams and as a result are designed to run best under these circumstances. A car in clean air is usually more difficult to pass. The faster a track's average speed, the more important clean air is to success.

Dirty Air – Noun. The opposite of clean air, dirty air occurs when several cars are running within a limited area on the track. The different cars each have their own effect on the air and the various currents result in a racecar that is more difficult to handle.

Graphic demonstration of how air flows over a car
Graphic demonstration of how air flows over a car

Downforce – Noun. Downforce is the result of high-speed air pushing the back of the car down into the track. It is accentuated by a vertical spoiler at the back of a car that re-directs air that originally ran horizontally over the trunk of the car. Downforce makes a car easier to handle for the driver because it makes the car more responsive to steering without encouraging the car to spin.

Drafting – Verb. Drafting occurs when one car drives within a few feet of the car in front of it. Primarily done at the Daytona and Talladega racetracks, when cars run close enough the second car in line can go faster than normal because the car in front is eliminating wind resistance for both cars.

An example of regular (not bump) drafting. The car in back pulls up close to the bumper of the car in front
An example of regular (not bump) drafting. The car in back pulls up close to the bumper of the car in front

Draft, The – Noun. Also known as the pack. Used to describe a large group of cars running together, enabling the entire group of cars to go faster than they might otherwise be able to go. Cars that lose contact of the draft at Daytona or Talladega often fall far behind and have difficulty contending for the win.

Restrictor Plate – Noun. A metal part used to limit the amount of air able to enter the engine that results in lower total horsepower and a reduced engine response at higher speeds. Used at Daytona and Talladega to prevent cars from achieving speeds over 200mph, restrictor plates result in the need for cars to draft off of one another to achieve higher speeds.

The Science of Drafting and Aero

Pit Road Terms

Over the course of a race, a team will have several opportunities to make adjustments to their car. Those adjustments, obviously, cannot be done on the track itself. So each track has a side road with an individual space for each team. The following terms refer to things the teams can do when they come down pit road.

Martin Truex Jr.'s team makes a four tire stop on pit road
Martin Truex Jr.'s team makes a four tire stop on pit road

Four-tire Stop – Noun. A stop on pit road where the team replaces all four tires on the car with new tires. A four tire stop maximizes the advantages a car will receive with new rubber. It also enables the teams to better predict how the car will respond to changes since all four tires will have the same amount of wear.

Fuel-only Stop – Noun. A stop on pit road where the team leaves all four tires unchanged but adds fuel into the gas tank. This is most-often done at the end of a race where a team wants to minimize the time they spend on pit road (and the resulting positions lost on the track).

Pounds – Noun. Refers to the pressure of the air inside a car's tires when installed on the car. By increasing or reducing tire pressure, teams can greatly affect how a car handles and how long a tire will last. Even a small adjustment of a half pound can result in major changes in a car's handling.

Sticker Tires – Noun. Brand-new tires that have not previously been used in any way.

Two-tire Stop – Noun. A stop on pit road where the team replaces two of the car's four tires with new tires. A two tire stop balances the advantages of having new tires with the speed of not wasting time changing the other two tires.

Rounds – Noun. Refers to the number of times a socket wrench is turned to change a car's suspension (e.g. four rounds of wedge would be four turns of the wrench). During a pit stop a long wrench is inserted into one of two holes in the rear windshield depending on the type of adjustment being made.

Rubber – Noun. Refers to a piece of rubber that can be inserted into a car's spring to impact the vehicle's handling. While this adjustment takes a few seconds (as it is done with the wheel off of the car), it can result in a significant change in handling.

Scuffs – Noun. Slang term for tires that have previously been used on the racetrack but that retain most of their structural integrity. Using scuffs reduces the costs for a team and also ensures that the tire itself will not fail when first exposed to heat (created by the friction of the car accelerating on a track).

Stall – Noun. Also known as space. The space a team's car must stop in to receive service. Teams select their spot prior to the race based on qualifying order (i.e. the fastest team picks their spot first, second fastest picked second, etc.).

Example of a Pit Stall

The #17 Best Buy car receives service in its pit stall. Notice the painted lines in front and behind the car, representing the edge of the stall
The #17 Best Buy car receives service in its pit stall. Notice the painted lines in front and behind the car, representing the edge of the stall

ESPN's Sports Science Looks at Pit Stops

The Effects of Pressure on Race Tires

Track Terms

A track is broken up into numerous sections both for the spectators and for the competitors themselves. The teams park their tractor-trailers in the middle of the track at the beginning of the race weekend and these trailers contain the cars and virtually any part needed to repair the car over the weekend.

Apron – Noun. The small paved area around the bottom of the track. This area usually is not banked and is not intended to be used for racing.

Banking – Adjective. The angle of the pavement on the track. A corner with a high amount of banking will be slanted towards the apron, allowing cars to go faster through the turn. A corner with a small amount of banking will require the cars to slow down in order to turn effectively.

An example of the banking on a racetrack, the steep banks at Talladega
An example of the banking on a racetrack, the steep banks at Talladega

Black Flagged – Verb. An action taken by race officials against a single car requiring them to leave the racetrack immediately. Usually used when a car is unable to maintain race speed due to a prior accident or equipment failure. It can also be used if a driver is deemed to have committed a rules infraction while on the track.

Checkered Flag – Noun. The flag waved at the end of a race to indicate the race is over. In NASCAR, the flag waves when the race reaches its pre-scheduled distance (e.g. 500 laps) or is declared over; in some other forms of racing it is waved when the race reaches its pre-scheduled time (e.g. 24 hours of LeMans).

Green Flag – Noun, Adjective. Describes normal racing conditions where a car may go as fast as possible and pass other cars in an attempt to lead. A green flag is waved at the start of the race and again to end a caution period.

The green flag waves at Auto Club Speedway, starting the race earlier this year
The green flag waves at Auto Club Speedway, starting the race earlier this year

Green Track – Adjective. Describes a track that, due to a recent rainstorm, is free of any rubber buildup on the racing surface. A green track will cause increased tire wear and grip for the cars.

Groove, The – Noun. An invisible line that represents the fastest way to travel around a racetrack. Some tracks have multiple grooves that are equally fast depending on a car's setup.

High-Line, The – Noun. An invisible line near the top of the racetrack that represents the closest a car can drive to the outside wall and remain competitive. Often used by drivers who prefer a tighter racecar or who have their cars setup to build momentum through the corner.

Infield – Noun. The area of the track complex inside the racing surface. At smaller tracks the infield contains a garage area for the teams, a medical center, and facilities for the track and race officials. At larger tracks, the infield also contains room for spectators, particularly those with campers who wish to spend the entire weekend at the racetrack.

Inside Line, The – Noun. Also known as the low line. An invisible line near the bottom of the racetrack and furthest from the outside wall where a car can remain competitive. The inside line represents the shortest way around a track but requires the car to turn in a shorter distance which can reduce speed.

Different Lines and the Yellow Flag

Different cars choose to run different lines on the track. Here, #93 runs the outside line while #11 runs the inside line
Different cars choose to run different lines on the track. Here, #93 runs the outside line while #11 runs the inside line

Marbles – Noun. Loose pieces of rubber that accumulate near the wall on a racetrack as the race goes on. Often described as 'The Marbles', a car will slide and become uncontrollable if it enters this area (think of a car driving on ice).

Red Flag – Noun, Adjective. Used during periods where driving on track is unsafe (due to an accident or inclement weather), cars must stop until the track is driveable again. Teams may not make any repairs or changes to their cars during a red flag condition.

Variable Banking – Adjective. Describes a racetrack where the amount of banking in a turn increases as you go closer to the wall. This is done to create multiple grooves on a racetrack and to encourage passing.

Yellow Flag – Noun, Adjective. Used during periods where driving on track is unsafe, cars must go a steady slow speed behind the car in front of them. Passing is not permitted. Teams may come onto pit road to change tires, refuel, or make other adjustments. Usually brought on by debris on the track or an accident.

Flag man waves the yellow flag due to Dale Earnhardt Jr's car spinning across the racetrack
Flag man waves the yellow flag due to Dale Earnhardt Jr's car spinning across the racetrack

Now It's Your Turn

Did this article answer any questions you may have had about NASCAR terms? If no, feel free to comment below for additional terms

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