What NASCAR’s Longest Race Teaches Us

Martin Truex Jr. won the 59th running of the Coca-Cola 600, the longest NASCAR race of the year. It looks nothing like when it started. Back in 1960, a group of men in the South who loved stock cars began work on a race track outside of Charlotte, NC. Back then, the cars really were close to stock with only major engine improvements.

Since then, technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Many of the developments have come down to passenger cars you can buy at your local dealership. More surprisingly, how we drive has had to adapt to the quality of our vehicles as well. Here’s just a few of the parallels between NASCAR in 1960 compared to the present and your own car versus that of your grandparents.

Then and Now: Coca-Cola 600 and Mechanical Components

Cars have improved in reliability seemingly exponentially. In the 1960s, car engines would regularly blow up on the mile-and-a-half track or suspension pieces would simply fail. At the time, it was possible for drivers to win by nearly 20 miles, in rare cases.

When you’re racing in the hot North Carolina sun, you’re stressing out every part of your vehicle in the most extreme conditions. The temperature at track level is often 20-30° F higher than the air temperature. Think about stepping onto a hot driveway versus standing on grass. Cars generally don’t do well in extremes, especially when that’s traveling over 150 mph in a basically stock car when the track temperature is 120° F.

Today horsepower is higher and the metal alloys used in suspension parts along with the chassis offer the latest in both strength and lightness. Hall of Famers like Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon have noted that drivers can go all out all 400 laps and 600 miles. Drivers of road cars have seen the same improvements in large part. You’ll often go thousands of miles between needing to do a single thing other than plug in a hybrid or EV or take your vehicle with a conventional engine to a gas station.

From oil changes to 30,000-mile scheduled maintenance intervals and beyond, the fact of the matter is that vehicles have become far more reliable. That can create a sense of complacency in many drivers: checking fluids, tires and making appointments for any close-to-due services is critical to ensure that you don’t suffer a breakdown in the middle of a days-long road trip.

Then and now: Driving style & tire wear

Everyone wants to win the race. You want to make good time on any long-distance trip. They’re both marathons, not sprints. in the 1960s and 1970s, it was common for NASCAR drivers to take it easy for perhaps hundreds of miles. That continued through the 1980s.

Further, old tires were bias-ply. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, they didn’t respond well to the 2,400 left-hand turns a NASCAR car would make over the course of a race. In addition, the tires had to be narrower because of physical limitations in the design. They ran hotter and as a result, the tread life was shorter. In effect, the design and the temperatures made tire blowouts a common affair.

Even now, tires rarely last more than 80 miles in NASCAR, which means there are 11 sets of four tires to cover a trip the distance of New York City to Charlotte, NC. That’s obviously different than the 50,000 miles your car, truck or SUV can handle.

Still, drivers in passenger vehicles and NASCAR drivers face the same predicament: with reliability comes the need for constant focus. You don’t have the advantage of slowing down or taking it easy based on what the car requires. You have to choose to pace yourself and consider stops for your own wellbeing instead.

Coca-Cola 600 Takeaways

The first racers in Charlotte didn’t even have seatbelts (they weren’t invented until 1964) or anti-lock brakes. With the advent of safety features, the cars became tools rather than potential liabilities. Drivers on public streets benefit from the same, along with improvements in tire quality, fuel efficiency and even power. With those improvements come changes in how we approach trips of all lengths.

Continuing to remain alert, forcing yourself to take breaks even if your car doesn’t need it and checking on wear items and fluid levels are all key parts of the experience then and now. Yet it can be really easy, without a whole team behind you like in NASCAR, to forget that given how comfortable and smooth our cars are. When we’re distracted that’s when we risk time-traveling back to the 1960s, when cars could break down at will.

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