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Motorsport 101: Everything you need to know, from F1 to NASCAR

motorsports complete guide imsa weathertech
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Carmakers love to talk about it, corporations love to sponsor it, and most men with driver’s licenses think they can do it. Racing has been a part of car culture almost since the car was invented; it’s part spectacle, part sport, and part technological showcase. Racing is also more than fast cars driving around in circles, so we put together this guide to the wide world of motorsport.

From quarter-mile drag races that last a few seconds to endurance races that last up to 24 hours, there’s plenty of variety. This is by no means an exhaustive list of racing series. In fact, there are plenty of others out there on both the professional and amateur levels. But consider this a primer on the main types of racing and of series that are high profile enough to be accessible, even if you don’t live near or track, or have never heard the term “pole position.”

FIA World Endurance Championship

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What it is: Endurance racing is as much about the journey as the destination. Speed is important, but drivers and cars have to survive hours of punishment in all sorts of weather and, sometimes, darkness. The FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) features what is arguably the toughest race of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s also a technological crucible, with high-tech hybrids battling for victory and proving that efficiency and performance don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The cars: At the top are multiple classes of “prototypes,” purpose-built racers that share nothing with production cars. The headliners are the LMP1H hybrids, which are among the most technically sophisticated racecars on the planet. Their hybrid powertrains recover waste energy to provide a temporary boost of power. The cars from Audi, Porsche, and Toyota are also very different in design, each pushing the boundaries of technology in their own way.

WEC also features production-based GT cars. This is where cars like the Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche 911, and Aston Martin Vantage prove that their brands’ performance reputations are more than just marketing hype. This year also marks the return of the Ford GT to racing, 50 years after the original GT40’s legendary first Le Mans wins.

Where to watch it: The 2016 WEC kicks off with the 6 Hours of Silverstone in the United Kingdom on April 17. Broadcasts typically air on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, or you can livestream via the series’ website.

FIA Formula One World Championship

Form 1
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What it is: Formula One bills itself as the world’s most prestigious form of motorsport, and it’s hard to argue with that claim. Open-wheeled formula cars are built purely for performance, and regularly hit speeds of more than 200 mph on the track. Top teams are backed by ungodly amounts of cash, and the series visits havens of the wealth, such as Monaco and Abu Dhabi. Add in a storied past full of legendary drivers like Jackie Stewart and Ayrton Senna, and it’s clear that F1 has a lot going for it.

The cars: The “formula” in Formula One refers to the rules that govern car design. The formula in place since 2014 is based around a hybrid “power unit” consisting of a 1.4-liter turbocharged V6 with electric assist using power generated from kinetic energy or excess heat. There are currently four engine manufacturers — Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, and Renault — that provide powertrains to the 11 teams.

Even if a team doesn’t build its own engines, it still has to design its own chassis, which is often half the battle in F1. Aerodynamics are just as important as power, too, hence all of the spoilers and other weird-looking bits stuck onto the cars. F1 cars also feature “drag reduction systems,” which allow drivers to adjust aerodynamic elements to ease overtaking in designated zones.

Where to watch it: The 2016 F1 season begins March 18 with the Australian Grand Prix. F1 hasn’t detailed U.S. television coverage for 2016 yet, but last year it was split between Univision and either CNBC or NBCSN. There are also a few online streaming options. Because they take place all around the world, F1 races often air at odd times of the day or night in the United States, so be prepared for a few late nights if you plan on catching them all.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

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What it is: IMSA stands for International Motor Sports Association, but its sports car championship is all American. This is the top endurance racing series based in the United States, with long-form events like the Rolex 24 at Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring, plus shorter races at several iconic U.S. tracks. Like the prestigious WEC, it features a mix of prototypes and GT cars based on production models.

The cars: The prototype ranks include brutish Corvette and Ford EcoBoost Daytona Prototypes, as well as more technically sophisticated P2 cars. The two contrasting styles make for some interesting racing. The top class for production-based cars is GTLM, and is populated with Corvettes, Porsche 911s, Ford GTs, and Ferraris, among others.

Rounding out the field are two lower-level classes: Prototype Challenge, which features identical Chevy V8-powered prototypes, and GTD, which is comprised of GT cars with more performance restrictions than GTLM.

Where to watch it: The IMSA season kicks off with the Rolex 24 at Daytona on January 28, and includes 12 races. Coverage airs on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. You can also tune in to IMSA Radio (Sirius channel 117), or check the series’ YouTube channel for recent race videos.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Chevy's Earnhardt, Jr. Wins At Phoenix - Harvick, Truex, Jr., Go
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What it is: It started with bootleggers souping up sedans to outrun the cops, was nurtured on beaches and primitive dirt tracks, and now it’s one of the biggest spectator sports in the United States. NASCAR is loud and lacking in subtlety, which might be why it’s considered the most stereotypically American of motorsports.

The cars: NASCAR may be the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, but there’s nothing stock about today’s NASCAR racers. All cars use tube-frame chassis and big-bore V8s that send more than 700 hp to the rear wheels. They wear Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion, and Toyota Camry badging, but have nothing in common with versions you can actually buy.

While they may not have much in common with truly “stock” cars, NASCAR racers are also very different from other purpose-built competition machinery. A NASCAR Sprint Cup car is fairly heavy for a racer, with relatively unsophisticated brakes and aerodynamics. That makes them fairly hard to handle and encourages running in tight formations that, in turn, often results in some spectacular crashes when things go wrong.

Where to watch it: The top NASCAR series is the Sprint Cup, and its top event is the season opener, the Daytona 500. It takes place February 21 after a week or so of qualifying events. NASCAR coverage rotates between the Fox Sports networks and NBCSN, and full race replays are available on the series’ website.

Verizon IndyCar Series

Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal finished second and third Sunday
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What it is: You may have heard of the Indianapolis 500, but what you may not know is that there’s an entire race series behind the legendary event. As the name might imply, IndyCar is a series for the open-wheel racers that compete at Indy every Memorial Day weekend. When they’re not at the track known as “The Brickyard,” IndyCar racers battle it out on a mix of NASCAR-style ovals and more traditional road courses, and even temporary street courses laid out in cities.

The cars: With their open-wheeled design, IndyCars superficially resemble Formula One cars, although they’re not quite as complicated. They’re not exactly slouches though, given they can reach speeds of up to 235 mph on the oval at Indy. Series rules mandate twin-turbocharged, direct-injected V6 engines. They also make 550 to 700 hp depending on the track, and come from either Chevrolet or Honda.

All teams use the same chassis from Italy’s Dallara, but utilize body kits supplied by the engine manufacturers called “aero kits.” This scheme was meant to help better differentiate Chevy and Honda-powered cars, but proved troublesome last year when Honda’s complex kit failed to perform, and several cars equipped with a low-drag version of Chevy’s kit were involved in some hair-raising accidents.

Where to watch it: The first race of the season is in St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 13. Race broadcasts alternate between ABC and NBCSN, so check the schedule to see what’s what.

Next Page: NHRA drag racing, FIA Formula E Championship, and more.

NHRA drag racing

Drag 4
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What it is: Forget Dominic Toretto, National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racers really live life a quarter mile at a time. As the main organizer for drag racing in the United States, the NHRA is all about straight-line speed and brutal power.

The cars: There are actually more than 200 classes of professional and amateur racers in NHRA competition, grouped into 15 categories called “eliminators.” For brevity’s sake, we’ll stick with the top three: Pro Stock, Funny Car, and Top Fuel.

Top Fuel cars are the fastest drag racers around, running the quarter mile in less than 3.8 seconds, and reaching speeds of up to 330 mph. They do that with supercharged, 500-cubic-inch Hemi V8 engines, which produce an upwards of 10,000 hp and run on volatile nitromethane fuel.

Funny Cars are a step down from Top Fuel. They use similar engines, but have full bodies that sort of resemble production cars. The name “Funny Car” dates back to the ’60s, when racers began altering production cars to perform better on the track. The awkwardly proportioned cars looked kind of funny. Today’s funny cars will run the quarter mile in around 4.0 seconds, and reach top speeds of around 320 mph.

The closest thing to a showroom model in professional drag racing is the Pro Stock car. While they still don’t look like anything in showrooms, they at least have doors and run on gasoline. The average Pro Stock car will complete the quarter mile in around 6.4 seconds, and top out at 215 mph.

Where to watch it: The first NHRA event of 2016 is the Winternationals, which starts Februray 11. Television coverage is on Fox or Fox Sports 1; check the schedule for times and specifics.

FIA Formula E Championship

Form E
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What it is: Currently in its second season, Formula E is the only race series for electric cars run by a major sanctioning body. Each race, or “ePrix,” is run on a temporary street course in a major city. Because of limited battery capacity, pit stops involve changing cars, rather than just tires. Formula E cars may be a bit quieter than their internal-combustion counterparts, but they show there is a future for racing even in a world of zero-emission vehicles.

The cars: All Formula E teams use the same Spark-Renault SRT_01e chassis built by Dallara, which is the same company that makes IndyCar’s mandatory chassis. For the sophomore season, organizers gave teams greater leeway in powertrain design, adding some unpredictability to the racing. Cars produce 270 hp in qualifying trim, but are restricted to 227 hp in “race mode.” Fans can also vote to give their favorite driver a “FanBoost” that temporarily increases output to 241 hp for five seconds at a time.

Where to watch it: Formula E races air on Fox Sports, and you can also watch live on the series’ website.

Red Bull Global Rallycross

Red Cross
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What it is: Traditional stage rallying gave birth to cars like the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Evo, but rallycross is a bit more entertaining, and doesn’t require trudging into the woods to see the action. Rallycross events are held on short tracks that usually combine dirt and tarmac, with a 70-foot jump tossed in for good measure. Cars spend almost as much time sideways and airborne as they do going straight, and drivers are always on maximum attack.

The cars: Rallycross cars are based on production models such as the Subaru WRX STI, Ford Fiesta ST, and even the Volkswagen Beetle. Yet, underneath the everyday sheetmetal, these cars are beasts. They produce an average of 600 horsepower, can do 0 to 60 mph in just 1.9 seconds, and are still tough enough to absorb plenty of punishment. Watching what looks like an ordinary compact car launch off jumps, powerslide through dirt, and bash other cars Ben Hur-style is pretty amusing.

Where to watch it: Red Bull Global Rallycross events are broadcast live on NBC and later rebroadcast on NBCSN. Each event consists of multiple qualifying heats and a 10-lap main event.

Formula Drift

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What it is: Whether it’s lap times or distance covered, most forms of racing are about some objective measure of performance. Formula Drift is just about showing off. Popularized by a certain Fast & Furious sequel, drifting is an automotive escapade that involves intentionally sliding a car around corners. It’s not the fastest way to get around a track, but it’s definitely one of the coolest.

Instead of timing drivers, Formula Drift judges them on their car-handling skills with three criteria: line, angle, and style. Crashing or spinning out is frowned upon, obviously, and cars compete in solo and tandem runs. A panel of judges determines the winner. Think of it as figure skating, but with tire smoke.

The cars: Drifting originated in Japan, and to this day, Japanese cars are still the sport’s most popular. Cheap and nimble rear-wheel drive cars such as the Nissan 240SX and Toyota Corolla AE86 were the original darlings of drifting, but now it’s not uncommon to find newer and more powerful machines on the track, not to mention plenty of American muscle cars like the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro.

Drift cars are modified production models, but undergo extensive modifications. Sometimes teams will start out with a front- or all-wheel drive car and convert it to rear-wheel drive (mandatory for drifting). Swapping in big American V8s is a common practice, too.

Where to watch it: The 2016 Formula Drift season kicks off with drifting on the streets of Long Beach, California, on April 8 and 9. Coverage airs on the CBS Sports Network, and there’s also a livestream available on the series’ website.

Pirelli World Challenge

Cadillac's O'Connell Wins 4th Straight Pirelli Championship
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What it is: The Pirelli World Challenge is bite-sized road racing. All of the races are short sprints, and all of the cars look like ones you might actually see on the road. If you just want to see fast cars going wheel to wheel, this is a great way to start.

The cars: World Challenge cars are all modified production models, with most of the cars in the top class built to a European standard called GT3. This restricts the changes that can be made, keeping the cars more recognizably stock. The most interesting thing about this series, though, is the variety. Everything from supercars like the Ferrari 458 Italia and McLaren 650S, to luxury cars like the Bentley Continental GT and Cadillac ATS-V, and even a pair of Acura TLX sedans, will be in the thick of the action on race day.

Where to watch it: The first race of the season is the weekend of March 5 at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Races are broadcast on CBS Sports Network and live streamed on the World Challenge website. Videos are also posted to the series’ YouTube channel.

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Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
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