By Brendan O’Meara
Listen to any NASCAR expert and you’ll realize that the sport has a language all its own. Tightness and looseness, yellow flags and white flags, restarts and pit stops. The list goes on and on, and it can be intimidating to a new fan learning the lingo.
This beginner’s guide puts you on the inside track to familiarizing yourself with the top 10 terms you’ll need to know to be in the know come race day.
1. Caution flag
A caution flag, or yellow flag, gets waved for any number of reasons. There can be debris, a wreck or debris caused by a wreck. A NASCAR official then alerts the field to slow down and follow the pace car for as long as it takes to clean up the track and ensure its safety.
The running order of the cars is frozen at the time of the caution, meaning the drivers can’t advance through the field during the yellow-flag stoppage.
There are typically a number of cautions, anywhere from six to a dozen during a race, sometimes more.
2. Pit stops
Pit stops give the driver’s team some time to shine. These athletic crewmen hurdle the wall, change four tires, adjust the chassis, wipe the grill, pull off the windshield’s tearsheet and fill up the gas tank in about 12 seconds.
Only six crewmen can jump the fence: the gas man, two front-tire carriers, two rear-tire carriers and a jackman. Most of the leaders pit during cautions and much of the race strategy is forged on pit road.
During the pit stops a crewman — wrench in hand — will find holes in the rear glass to adjust the chassis — the steel structure or frame of the car. Little tweaks to the chassis improve the car’s balance and make it easier for the driver to handle.
4. Tightness and looseness
Drivers lament one of these two from the opening lap to the final lap. This is a constant throughout the race.
A tight car happens when the front tires lose grip faster than the back. This pitches the front of the car toward the outside wall and makes for unsmooth steering. A loose car happens when the rear tires lose grip faster than the front tires, sending the back fishtailing toward the wall.
Once the driver relays the message to the crew chief, any number of things can be done to fix the car’s alignment so the driver can squeeze the most speed out of it. The crews may change tires, fix tire pressure, tighten or loosen springs or adjust the chassis. The temperature of the track also affects the wear of the tires, which cascades into how the car handles, tight or loose.
Now you’ll know what Jeff Gordon means when he says over his radio, “I’m a little loose heading into Turn 4.”
5. Track bar
The track bar keeps the rear tires centered within the body of the car. Drivers can adjust the track bar with a button within the car to make the car easier to handle.
For all the talk of speed in these cars, the drivers never know how fast they’re going in terms of miles per hour. Drivers look down at their “tach” for revolutions per minute and this tells them how fast they’re going. This is especially important on pit road since there is a strictly enforced speed limit when approaching stalls.
A slang term for new tires. Goodyear, the tire manufacturer for NASCAR, puts stickers on the contact surface, hence new tires are called stickers.
Restarts are where races are often won and lost. Once the pace car dips down pit road and the official waves the green flag, thus triggering the field back to full speed, powerful cars jockey for position.
You’ll often hear analysts say, “Cautions breed cautions.” What they mean is that once a caution is in effect and the field gets bunched up for the restart, aggressive drivers get into trouble, causing more cautions.
These are some of the more exciting moments in any race, and the closer they happen to the end of the race, the more interesting and pressure-packed it becomes.
Over the course of a broadcast, you may hear announcers talk about a car’s downforce: it’s a fine balance of aerodynamic and centrifugal forces. Increased downforce increases grip, but also increases drag, which can slow the car down.
10. Lucky Dog
When a caution comes out, the first car that is one lap down gets a free pass back onto the lead lap. There can be a race within a race to earn that “lucky dog” spot. Ryan Newman used this rule at Dover in 2003 to get onto the lead lap and eventually win the race.
Now that you’re in the know, don’t miss your chance to show off your new slang at the Monster Mile this fall, as NASCAR returns to Dover International Speedway from Oct. 2 to 4. Visit doverspeedway.com for many ticket packages.