Auto racing has been around as long as the automobile. The competitive nature of humans is ingrained in our DNA, but auto racing is more than just proving who is faster. Racing has been a method for improving performance and efficiency, for developing and innovating, and to boost sales.
Auto racing comes in as many different flavors as there are tastes. There’s drag racing, off-road racing, sports car racing, open-wheel racing (like Indy Car and Formula One), rally racing, endurance and stock cars to name some popular types. Some of these have even more specific classes and rules. Venues range from dirt tracks to high ovals, road courses to unimproved back country, and quarter-mile drag strips to city streets.
Sanctioned drag racing takes place on a quarter-mile paved track and pits two vehicles side by side to determine the winner. The victor from each event challenges one another to find the fastest straight line car and driver. Handling isn’t the goal, just acceleration.
Stock car racing is big in the U.S. It gets its roots from the days of Prohibition and moonshine running. Cars would need to appear stock or unmodified so as not to arouse the suspicion of the law.
Today’s NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) makes a veiled attempt to resemble stock car makes and models, but these are full-out racing cars with no possibility of street use.
There was a time when many big and small towns had a race track. Some small towns pressed the local airport into use as a Saturday night drag strip or oval track when you could “run what you brung.” Back then, the expression “Race it on Sunday, drive it on Monday” was the mantra of the weekend speedster. Car manufacturers had a similar expression, “Race it on Sunday, sell it on Monday,” meaning a strong performance at the racetrack brought customers into the showroom.
Performance was big during the mid-20th century in the days of muscle cars and cheap gas. All the big automakers had engineers working on getting the most horsepower from their motors. Some even downplayed their stats so as not to draw too much attention from regulators and insurers.
Many had world-class racing drivers and tuners on their payrolls with sponsored teams to take advantage of the publicity. Even rental car giant Hertz offered a special edition Shelby Cobra known as the GT350H (H for Hertz). If you didn’t have a capable car for the track, just rent one of these high-performance Mustangs. Be sure to get the extra insurance. Rumor has it, more than one of these rent-a-racers were turned in without their original engine, which may have found its way into the customer’s personal car.
Rally racing requires a driver and navigator, and unlike a track event, a rally relies on precise directions and a window of time in which to complete a section of the course. These competitions can be punishing, and incorporate paved and unpaved stretches of road as well as obstacles and challenging terrain.
Endurance events are frequently 24-hour races that test the limits of both driver and machine. You can imagine the winning team of such a race garnishes more than a trophy but also bragging rights and the manufacturer of a factory-sponsored team can ride that victory into winning sales numbers.
Sports cars abide by the rules of the SCCA or Sports Car Club of America. Many of these events showcased handling and driving skills in tight twists and turns. A large parking lot and well-placed traffic cones could play host to competitions that awarded drivers who knew how to use skids and slides to speed a small car around a tight course while larger road courses employed the full performance envelope.
Open-wheeled Indy Cars derived from their signature Indianapolis 500 event and Formula One or F1 cars, while similar in appearance, also have several differences; however, both are blindingly fast and have extremely high-revving, high-output engines. Drivers in these vehicles are at the top of their game, and the cars are engineered like an airplane — though with a plane, the wing is meant to generate lift, while the cars wings are meant to create a down force.
Auto racing, by its very nature, requires the driver to coax the very last bit of performance from a vehicle and to drive in the margins. In the words of legendary race car driver Mario Andretti, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough."
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.