What’s the Difference Between Formula 1 and NASCAR?

If you like seeing cars go fast, you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with both Formula 1 and NASCAR. With passing familiarity, you’re probably aware that one is vaguely American and the other is vaguely global. Progress. But beyond making cars go real fast to see which car can go faster, what about the differences? What’s the difference between Formula 1 and NASCAR?

Further Reading: 15 NASCAR Trivia Facts to Race Home With

Origin Stories

You might think Formula 1 and NASCAR are of similar ages, given that the inaugural world championship for F1 was in 1950, and NASCAR was founded in 1948. While you could just go and stop the discussion there, that’s nor very interesting. If you go back far enough, you’ll find that they have their origins in totally different things. 

Formula 1 gets its origins from European motorsports dating back to the 1920s and 30s. At the time, there wasn’t a unifying set of rules, so different championships just kind of did their thing. By the time 1946 rolled around, the CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale, not the show) took it upon itself to give motorsports a do-over after WWII. This also gave birth to the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), which is the organization that you probably associate with Formula 1 more than you do the CSI. This is where the name “Formula 1” comes from, where the “formula” is literally just the unifying set of rules. Other names on the table included Formula Internationale or Formula A, but they ended up deciding that “Formula 1” would make it seem more like… well the number one. 

NASCAR’s origins involve a lot more alcohol, specifically Americans not wanting the government to take their alcohol away. At the end of the day, is there a more American origin stories for making cars go fast? NASCAR still goes back to the 1920s and 30s, but not from smaller, less centralized, racing championships. No, NASCAR dates back to the American Prohibition, which you might remember as that time America decided alcohol was the devil and tried to take it all away, and is also one of the reasons America’s drinking age is so high. Stock car racing began with drivers evading the police in (normally) modified cars. People liked going fast after Prohibition was repealed, so they kept racing. 

Which is faster?

If you didn’t know that the cars used by Formula 1 and NASCAR drivers were different, well here’s your newsflash. In NASCAR, drivers race using stock cars. These look a lot like the ones you’d see just on the street. They’re currently on their 7th generation of car, but have named it the “Next Gen” car, which will surely be confusing with the 8th generation rolls around and they either call it the Generation 8 to fit with old convention, or have to call it the Next-Next-Gen car. 

Anyway, Formula 1 cars are open wheel and open cockpit, and you’re not going to be seeing anything that looks like them on the street. As the name of NASCAR’s “stock” cars implies, NASCAR vehicles are made from a modified stock chassis. These are commonly supplied by Chevy, Ford, or Toyota. In Formula 1, teams actually have supply and build their own vehicle chassis. Engines can be purchased by a manufacturer though; typically these are Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes, or Renault. Since NASCAR vehicles are modified and stock built, they’re also a lot cheaper than their F1 counterparts. A NASCAR vehicle will run between $200,000 and $500,000, but an F1 car will push $12 million. 

With all this in mind, you’d probably be unsurprised that an F1 is on average a little faster than a stock vehicle. Average top speeds in F1 are between 200 and 220 miles per hour, while average top speeds in NASCAR don’t push past 200. The NASCAR speed record sits at 212 miles per hour, and rule changes since 1987 mean we’re unlikely to see that record broken. On the other hand the Honda F1 team hit 256 miles per hour in 2006. That’s just pushing an F1 car to its limits, though; the fastest an F1 car has gone in a race was 231 miles per hour. 

Also, Random Rules

NASCAR’s tracks are primarily ovals, which makes for a better spectator sport. It also means the cars really only have to turn left. The shape encourages passing, as well as a tighter pack. This keeps things happening as the races go on. A part of the strategy in NASCAR is actually for cars to grind up against each other—something strictly prohibited in F1 because the consequences are disastrous. On the other hand, Formula 1 tracks can be any shape, so long as they eventually make a loop. 

While both competitions see pit stops, but for different reasons. NASCAR races go for an average of three hours, while Formula 1 averages less than two hours (between an hour and 20 minutes and an hour and 40). The former generally requires refueling and retiring, while the latter generally doesn’t (refueling is actually prohibited in F1).  

See if you know which F1 drivers are from where here.