Over the past couple of weeks, people had the opportunity to watch motorsports races such as F1 Series in Monaco, the Indianapolis 500, and NASCAR’s Sonoma 350. Watching drivers like Conor Daly, who led the most laps in the Indy500, and Corey LaJoie, who was in the top 5 with 25 laps remaining at the Sonoma 350, had me thinking about the strategy that comes into every race. For most other team sports, the strategy comes before the game based on the opposing team’s players as well as a couple of adjustments throughout the game. However, there is a lot of strategy and in-race adjustments that go into the success of a NASCAR race. Tire pressure, pole position, mileage of the track, gas mileage, and in-season position are some factors that impact weekly strategy. Also, NASCAR strategy is important because the season is short and the position after every race can determine the success and value of a team and impact the different partners that a team can bring in. This blog post will talk all about strategies in motorsports specifically looking at different factors, types, and the impact a strategy can have on a driver’s season.
Two important factors in strategy that are mentioned throughout racing broadcasts are tire pressure and the amount of fuel remaining. These two factors will determine when a driver should pit so that way they can swap in new tires and increase the amount of fuel. Motorsports tires are not like your typical car tires, they are actually called “slicks.” They are called this because “they are smooth and are a softer” (HowStuffWorks) than regular tires. The high speeds and miles are driven which causes these tires to wear out, and when these tires wear out, they cause the car to lose grip which becomes unsafe for the driver. So, these drivers need to pit every so often so that way they do not lose grip on their car. When a team decides to replace their tires, they typically replace either two of the tires or all four tires at once. “Replacing two tires typically takes 6.5–8 seconds while replacing all 4 tires takes roughly 14 seconds.” (Rookie Road) The advantage of only changing two tires is to spend less time on the racetrack while also regaining some of the grip, but this means that the driver would have to come back in to get the other two tires changed out. The advantage to changing all 4 tires is that you regain all possible grip on the car while also being able to spend more time out on the track, but this means you are spending more time in the pit where you could get lapped by other cars. If a car is towards the top of the pack, they may want to only replace two tires at a time so that way they can keep up with the rest of the leaders, while a car in the back may want to change all 4 so that way, they can make up ground by being able to stay out on the track longer.
The amount of fuel remaining is also a determining factor in strategy. This means that a driver must take into account how long each lap is and how fast they would like to go per lap. For example, the Indy500 is a 2.5 miles track where each driver must complete 200 laps (so 500 miles in total). At this past 500, the average speed was 190 mph, so each driver drove between 27–40 laps before needing to enter pit road. The average time it takes to fill the car halfway full of gas is roughly 7 seconds while it takes 14 seconds to fill the car all the way up with gas. A driver could decide to push his fuel closer to the 40-lap mark so that way other drivers pit and they can take a lead, but this means that they will have to pit eventually and move behind everyone else. This would be an advantageous move earlier on in the race when the driver knows that there will be more pit stops. Another strategy, similar to what “Ed Carpenter did in this year’s Indy 500” (NBC Sports), is pit before everyone else. If you are positioned in the middle of the pack, you can pit before everyone else which means you will have more fuel and move to the back of the pack, but everyone will eventually need to pit which will put you into the front of the race. This strategy can be beneficial towards the end of a race if the drive is confident that he can conserve enough fuel to get him to the finish. Strategies change based on other factors such as cautions and how other drivers are competing.
Another factor in determining a strategy for a race is based on the drivers qualifying pole position. Pole position is where each driver will start when the green flag is dropped for a race. A driver in Pole position 1 will have a different strategy than a driver who has pole position 25; however, the knowledge of where the driver will be starting can allow the team to plan their race and how they want to execute it. For example, a driver at the start of the pack can determine that they want to set the pace for the race by starting out fast or slow. A driver that is typically in the back of the pack can try and use the “caution strategy.” “This is when a driver, in position 15–30, takes his last pit before everyone else.” (Malzahn Strategic) They hope that the caution flag comes out after they pit so that way a lot of other driver’s pit, and they can move to the front of the pack without having to pass other cars. This then gives that driver a chance to win with only a few laps remaining. This strategy has worked from time to time, but I personally do not find it to be the most effective strategy because you are hoping that someone else in front of your screws up, and that might not always happen.
As you can see, a driver and his or her team need to think about a lot of different factors when determining a strategy for race day, and honestly most of these strategies change frequently while the race is going on. However, there is more than just winning that comes from having a productive strategy. Having a good strategy can also impact partnerships and the future of a driver. For example, if a driver uses the “caution strategy” and finishes towards the bottom of every race but happens to finish 5th in one race different brands are going to notice that this strategy is not effective and may decide not to partner or sponsor this driver. While another driver might determine that they cannot win every race, so they decide to position themselves within the top 15–20 instead of swinging for the fences. This shows different brands that they have found an effective strategy of placing high in races and are looking to improve every week. This makes the brand more inclined to partner with them. Also, if a driver can not find a good strategy, then their race team is more likely to release them as a driver the following year. Winning is important in motorsports, but I would argue that making money in partnerships is equally as important.
- Indy 500: How often do you pit? GTPlanet. (n.d.). https://www.gtplanet.net/forum/threads/indy-500-how-often-do-you-pit.160004/.
- Rookie Road. (2021, April 11). NASCAR Laps. Rookie Road. https://www.rookieroad.com/nascar/what-is-a-lap-in-a-nascar-race/.
Nice, K. (2001, March 21). How NASCAR Race Cars Work.
- HowStuffWorks. https://auto.howstuffworks.com/auto-racing/nascar/nascar-basics/nascar5.htm.
Gmueconsociety. (2019, March 15). The Game Theory of NASCAR Pit Stops, Part 1. George Mason Economics Society. https://gmueconsociety.wordpress.com/2019/03/08/the-game-theory-of-nascar-pit-stops-part-1/.
- Smith, D. (2021, June 7). Different pit strategies on tap for maximizing Sonoma race — NBC Sports. NASCAR Talk | NBC Sports. https://nascar.nbcsports.com/2021/06/06/martin-truex-james-small-what-matters-at-sonoma-different-pit-strategies-on-tap-for-maximizing-day/
- Malzahn, M. (2020, August 31). NASCAR Racing and Strategic Planning — What it Takes to Win the Race! Malzahn Strategic. https://malzahnstrategic.com/nascar-racing-and-strategic-planning-what-it-takes-to-win-the-race/.