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10 Different Types of Race Cars Explained

Indycar racecar
Indycar Series Firestone 550

Car racing is the old as the car industry itself. There is even a saying that the racing originated at the exact moment when the second car was made. From the beginning of the automotive age, racing was a big part of the car culture. It helped improve the technology and testing of various parts, systems, and components and play a pivotal role in marketing and promotional purposes. For decades, car companies relied on the “Win on Sunday – Sell on Monday” mantra, and cars successful on the tracks almost certainly were bestsellers.

So, it is pretty understandable how racing grew to be one of the world’s most popular sports. But since there are so many types of vehicles, car classes, and segments, there are equally as many types of racing cars. As cars have evolved through the years, became safer, faster, and more efficient, so did race cars, and the racing community came a long way from open, single-seaters that were a death trap. Today’s race cars are well-developed, safe, and insanely fast, making modern racing an extremely interesting and exciting sport to follow. But, if you think that all race cars are alike, you are very much mistaken. There is an enormous difference in construction, technology, engines, and drive trains between the classes, types of racing, championships, and so on. For all of those who want to learn more about the most common types of racecars, read on.

1. Open Seaters

The open seaters originated from the early days of the automotive industry and, over the years, evolved into one of the fastest and most extreme forms of racing machines. With pointy noses, lots of aerodynamic aids, and giant wings at the back, open or single-seaters as they are sometimes called resemble low-flying fighting jets, not cars. The engine is positioned just behind the driver, with exposed suspension components, low weight, and big wheels in the back providing power and traction.

Due to the extreme engineering approach, unique materials, and enormous power, open seaters are always fast and have sublime handling. The most popular open-seater races are, of course, Formula One and Indy Cars. Still, there are many similar championships like Formula 2 or Formula E (electric cars), which use the same concept, but have less power and performance. True fans of car racing believe that open seaters are the best races to watch.

2. Touring Cars

Not all cars are extreme looking and custom-built from scratch, like the open or single-seaters. Some racing cars start their competition life as ordinary vehicles straight from assembly lines. Racing cars that originated from standard sedans or two-doors are called touring cars. Even though the touring cars are similar in concept to stock car racing which is popular in the US, there are significant differences in rules and construction which will be explained further in the article.

However, touring cars are popular since they are the closest representation of standard vehicles in the racing world. The touring car championships are especially popular in Europe and Australia, and people love watching more or less stock examples of their own vehicles on the track. Different racing series have additional rules that dictate the technology used in construction, power, and performance, but the basic idea is the same. Sometimes the touring cars resemble the production models on the outside but feature high-end technology. Sometimes, they are the same as regular models but with lower suspension and racing tires. Championships like European Touring Car Championship, Australian V8 Supercars, or famous German DTM are the best representation of this concept.

3. Top Fuel Dragsters

A very popular form of car racing is drag racing. For those who don’t know, drag races are an acceleration-type competition between two vehicles. The cars are lined next to each other and whoever covers the quarter-mile (402 meters) is the winner. Drag races are more straightforward to organize than, for example, the Indy Car race due to the fact that the drag strip is smaller, easier to construct, and the rules are much simpler. That simplicity is one of the critical points in the popularity of drag racing and illegal drag racing (street racing), as well.

The top fuel dragsters are specially built drag cars designed to achieve insane acceleration figures and cover the quarter-mile distance less than some sports cars need to go to 60 mph. With very narrow bodies, a long front end, the engine behind the driver, and enormous rear tires, top fuel dragsters are built for speed and acceleration. Such a specific machine, powered by nitro-burning V8 engines, which provide a thundering soundtrack, is one of the most exciting and popular car racing classes. The biggest crowd-pleaser is the parachute that is deployed at the end of the run and helps the car slowdown from three-digit speeds.

4. Drag Cars

The top fuel dragsters and funny cars are the types of vehicles that you cannot miss due to their extravagant design, technology, and construction. However, there are drag cars that are harder to spot but still are made for the strip. Based on regular production models, drag cars are modified to provide their drivers the best acceleration figures. This meant that all necessary weight had been removed, engines got superchargers or twin-turbo setups, a short-ratio gearbox was installed, and the suspension was modified to cope with extra power and endure repeated hard launches off the line.

Those drag cars are recognizable by the big rear tires in the back and small tires in the front, Plexiglas windows, and racing roll-cage. Most of those cars are not street legal, but dedicated drag racing enthusiasts have ways of having their race cars registered and used daily.

Ford rally car
Ford Fiesta Rally Car at 2020 Monte Carlo WRC

5. Rally Cars

Very popular in Europe and the rest of the world, rally cars have been an integral part of the global racing scene since the ’50s. A rally car’s basic idea is to use a regular production vehicle (most commonly a compact hatchback) and turn it into the blisteringly fast machine for driving on gravel, mud, tarmac, or snow. Please note that rally cars are not full-blown off-road racers; they are designed to be used on the roads but in challenging conditions and far less ideal than the race cars driven on the circuits.

Rally cars are almost always equipped with all-wheel-drive trains, sequential gearboxes, custom-made suspension, and the most advanced safety equipment to cope with such challenging conditions. Contrary to other racing cars, where there is space for only one person (driver) in rally cars, there are two seats for the driver and co-driver. Co-driver’s job is to navigate the driver reading the road map (the itinerary) since the rally racing is held on the public roads (closed, of course), unknown to the driver. The winner is the crew who covers the distance from point A to point B in the shortest time. The settings, tires, and vehicle setup varies greatly depending on the type of surface the event is held on. When the rally car is driven on tarmac, teams use slick tires and rigid suspension; when the race is held on snow, they use tires with spikes, and when it is driven on dirt, rally cars have raised suspension and all-terrain rubber.

6. Off-Road Race Cars

The popularity of SUVs brought off-road races into the spotlight of the racing community. Although the off-road races existed long ago, recently they became popular with a wide range of views and were promoted by big sponsors and drivers. If you think that off-road racing cars are similar to rally cars, you are mistaken since the only common denominator between those two types of race cars is all-wheel-drive.

The Off-Road Race Cars are designed to go over the harshest terrain, big rocks, and bumps at high speeds and are equipped with unique suspension, allowing them to jump 10 feet high and absorb all the bumps to keep their direction, and maintain speed and control over the desert-like surfaces. Races like Baja 1000 or the top-rated Stadium Truck series are a perfect representation of this type of race vehicle.

7. Drift Cars

One of the newest and most popular forms of motorsport is drifting, and in the last decade or so, it has swept the car community. For those who don’t know, drifting is the art of driving sideways, very attractive to watch and very difficult to master. From Japan, drifting is very popular with the younger car enthusiast and recently became part of the mainstream racing scene. The object is to perform the most extended drifts, with the vehicle being sideways almost at 90 degrees, and do it at the highest speed. This is how you win at a drift event.

However, drift cars demand special preparation in order to do just that. Besides the powerful engines, several unique technological features drift cars have, and no other racing car has. Stuff like negative suspension camber, special handbrake, or closed differentials is all necessary for big, smokey drifts. In most cases, drift cars are so extreme that they are not road legal and can only be used on the track.

24 Hours of Le Mans 2019
Race of the 24 hours of Le Mans in France, 2019

8. Prototype Race Cars

According to FIA specification, the prototype class is called LMP (Le Mans Prototype). It represents a specially-built vehicle, which isn’t based on any production model, with unique technology and engine design. Such cars are raced in the top class of 24 Hours of Le Mans, Sebring, or in the American Le Mans Series. The Prototype Race Cars represent the best in racecar technology, design, and materials. Currently, almost all LMP racers are hybrids.

This type of racing car originated long ago and represented the models designed to push car technology boundaries. The stock/touring car racing might be more interesting for spectators, but LMP models are the cutting edge of the industry and test the limits of new concepts as well as the limits of racing drivers. Many features we now take for granted in regular cars have been introduced, tested, and perfected in prototype race cars.

NASCAR Daytona 500
2019 Daytona 500

9. NASCAR

NASCAR is one of the biggest and most significant racing championships in the world. Established in the late ’40s, NASCAR stands for National Stock Car Racing, and back in the day, the cars which were racing were really stock and based on the models you could buy at the dealers. However, fast forward several decades later, and today’s NASCAR racers only resemble the production cars. They have complete custom-built chassis, motors, and the rest of the vehicles, which don’t have anything to do with the model it represents.

In order to standardize the technology and allow the teams with less funding to participate equally, NASCAR introduced a “silhouette” race car design. The body looks like a production car, but underneath it, everything is custom-built. The NASCAR cars have several unique features like carburetor-fed V8 engines and specially designed suspension, making the vehicles tilt to the left. NASCAR races are held on superspeedways on which drivers always drive to the left. That is why the suspension and tires are specially designed for such driving.

Porsche cup race
2020 Porsche Carrera Cup Championship in Rome

10. Cup Racing Cars

Since racing is a big business that attracts many high-end sponsors, some teams developed unfair advantage based on their funding. To combat that, car manufacturers often introduce a cup-type championship. The basic idea behind a cup type racecar is to provide the racers with identical race cars, same model and make, which are built by the manufacturer and set up for racing.

The only changes that the racing teams can make are choosing their tires and doing small suspension setups. This means that the grid is full of identical cars with the same performance and handling characteristics. The winning factor is the driver, not the amount of money invested in the particular technology. Cup cars are always almost completely stock and the same as the regular production examples.

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