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Are NASCAR Cars Automatic? The answer surprised me!

To paint a picture of what it’s like to race in NASCAR, you first have to imagine the rush of adrenaline drivers experience, sat low in the “greenhouse” of the stock car (in reference to the sweltering temp’s drivers must endure), peering out above a brutish V8 motor, spewing out over 750 horsepower; from the moment the race starts, it’s a frantic dash lasting 3-4 hours as race drivers try everything they can to fend-off a field of more than 60 opponents – the closest rivals never more than a few inches away, bobbing and weaving at speeds close to 200mph.

NASCAR race cars use manual transmissions. Traditionally NASCAR ran four-speed manual transmissions with a reverse gear, but since 2021 they run six-speed manual transmissions and do have one reverse.

You’d think with all that information to process, and the fact that ‘stock cars’ should be reminiscent in some way of their cousins in the dealership, you’d expect an automatic tranny, right? – No, Sir.

NASCAR racing cars

NASCAR vs Roadgoing Cars

The stock cars racing in the NASCAR Series, driven by the likes of stars like Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch, are loosely based on the stock roadgoing cars, but to be frank – they’re a whole different beast. Features like the transmission and chassis are wildly different from what you’d see in the road car.

As the development of American automobiles progressed through the 1970s, 1980’s and 1990’s, automatic transmissions saw an immense rise in popularity, with many Americans never realizing a need to learn how to drive stick – so why didn’t NASCAR follow suit and start using auto transmissions in their racecars?

While all 6 previous generations of NASCAR series stock cars used manual transmissions, Generation 6 (2013-2021) featured a Richmond four-speed manual transmission across the board. Drivers still had a clutch pedal and gear lever for their right hand, but the use of the clutch to shift up through the gears was optional, and how is that possible with such a transmission?

Rev matching is a technique NASCAR drivers use in order to shift gears rapidly, without the need for depressing the clutch. In the higher engine RPMs, there is a sweet spot, a kind of equilibrium where the car is neither losing speed nor trying to gain it. In this zone, when done correctly, the next gear can be selected without losing any speed or time.

NASCAR race drivers are nailing “perfect shifts” consistently throughout the race, a feat that takes exceptional skill and endurance. One missed shift could result in many lost track positions.

the gas to shift gears, however, the process of shifting could be executed in the blink of an eye, to the point where for some, the car could sound as if it’s shifting gears automatically.

How do NASCAR Drivers “Start their Engines?”

It’s the moment we all get excited for, the call for drivers to “start your engines!”, indicating the race will soon get underway. So how exactly does that process look from the driver’s perspective?

Generation 6 NASCAR starting procedure

In NASCAR, to start the engine, the driver must

  • Turn on the power by flicking a switch
  • Ensure the car is in Neutral (N)

Next, the NASCAR driver must turn on and hold the “starter” switch, (the sound of which is similar to the starting of a regular car).

Let the starter spin for 2-3 seconds, now the driver can now switch the “ignition” on, summoning a growling, raspy V8 to kick-start straight to life.

The Evolution of NASCAR Stock Cars

Early Generation 2 cars like the iconic “big-winged” Dodge Daytona used the same gearboxes found in the roadgoing cars at the time, a 4-speed, H-pattern manual transmission. Drivers would spend nearly the entirety of the race in top gear, only shifting down in the event of lost momentum, perhaps from a collision up ahead or an opponent closing the door on a gap.

As NASCAR moved forward with its generational designs, there was a constant need for improved safety for the drivers and spectators alike. Engines eventually saw restrictor plates being made mandatory after too many hideous accidents saw many of the greatest stars lost forever.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons NASCAR has always remained manual, less opportunity for mechanical failures and other things to go wrong. The manual transmission also helps keep costs low as running a NASCAR race team is not an affordable endeavor in any way, to begin with.

The use of automatic transmissions would most likely see sealed gearboxes being allocated to teams, with no ability to adjust gearing ratios. In the event of a damaged automatic gearbox, it would be safe to assume it wouldn’t be repaired and simply slung in the scrapyard with the other heaps of steel racecar scrap.

Will NASCAR Cars Ever be Automatic?

NASCAR tire

2022 is a ground-breaking time for fans of NASCAR, because a change is on its way, and it’s quite a big deal. As you already know, up until now, we’ve only seen manual transmissions in NASCAR cars, yet with the arrival of the newest iteration of NASCAR, the “NextGen”, cars will receive a floor-mounted six-speed Xtrac Limited sequential manual transmission, giving drivers 5 forward gears to play with, and a reverse gear, should they need it.

With the arrival of a sequential transmission, drivers will have to do considerably less to shift gears during a race, meaning we could see even closer racing than ever before. Gone will be the use of a stick as we welcome a “flappy-paddle” style gearbox operated from the steering column.

Another new feature is the combination of the differential, rear axle, and transmission being combined in one unit, known as the transaxle. There are a lot of changes and exciting things to look forward to this season, but it’s safe to say that for now, NASCAR doesn’t seem to be copying its roadgoing relatives anytime soon and making the move automatic.

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