Do NASCAR Cars Have Clutches and Brakes? (Explained)

This is a seemingly obvious question with a less than obvious answer, especially when watching NASCAR for the first time. It really looks like they go pedal to the floor the whole time, especially on large tracks. So, do the 1000 horsepower NASCAR cars have clutch pedals and brakes? 

NASCAR cars run on a 4-speed manual transmission. They have clutch pedals (no paddle shifting in NASCAR) but they rarely use them. NASCAR drivers learn to shift the car by matching the speed of the car to the revs and shifting accordingly, known as rev matching. NASCAR cars do have brakes, but they do not have brake lights, instead they use decals as the brake lights.

Yes, you read that right. NASCAR drivers can (and do) shift without touching their clutch. They also have brakes in their cars but using them can be a little more difficult than just hammering on the brakes in a pit stop. Read on for some cool facts about NASCAR transmissions and brakes.

Do NASCAR Cars Have Clutches and Brakes?

Yes, they do. That’s the easy answer. They have 3 pedals, just like a regular manual transmission (gas, brake, clutch to the far left). However, they don’t have a gauge that measures revs on their dash. They also don’t have brake lights, instead they have decals due to the increased weight of the lights and wiring components. 

So, how is it that NASCAR drivers shift? They have the clutch pedal, but they don’t use them. Instead, they go by the revs of the car and the speed they are driving to shift between gears, otherwise known as rev matching.

Since their transmissions are straight cut, they don’t actually need to clutch between the gears. And they don’t cause transmission damage when they do this. NASCAR drivers have to hear their car in order to shift because they don’t have a rev gauge inside the car.

They do it all by feel. If they shift at the wrong time, they could do real damage to their car.  Upshift is easy, and you may see a driver just let up on the gas pedal in order to shift.

Downshifting can be harder, and they need to “tap” the throttle for a split second to up the revs during a downshift. Semi-drivers and truck drivers use the same technique when they drive, often “floating” between the different gears without touching their clutch.

Braking isn’t as easy in NASCAR as just slamming on the brakes when they need to pit stop. Some tracks don’t require any braking going into the corner because of the pitches and how long the corner is. So, a pit stop is coming up and the brakes haven’t been used.

Cold brakes won’t stop a vehicle. Period. So, NASCAR drivers will warm up their brakes a lap or two before the pit stop. Most tracks, however, need the driver to brake at the corners, which keeps the brakes warmer for pit stops. Brakes are instrumental in the aerodynamics of the car as well and wouldn’t be removed even if drivers didn’t need to stop. They also need to be able to stop in the event of a crash on the track.

It may seem confusing as, as a spectator, you don’t see their brake lights. That’s because NASCAR cars use decals for their headlights, brake lights, and grills. This is due to weight issues, as a decal is much lighter than an actual brake light with all its components. So, even if you can’t see it, they are braking during the race.

NASCAR Shifting Technique – Rev Matching

Why don’t NASCAR Drivers Have to Clutch when they Shift Gears?

NASCAR cars use a 4-speed manual transmission with straight cut gears. Straight cut gears are only found on these types of racing vehicles, and not something an average person would encounter in their day to day lives.

Straight cut gears are named so because the teeth of the gear is straight out from the center, versus the usual helical gear shape of normal cars. This causes a very shrill sound in the transmission, something that you can hear when watching a NASCAR race. The straight cut gears lessen the axial load on the gear, making it easier to switch between the gears without using the clutch.

That being said, a normal car can “float” through gears as well, even though they don’t have straight cut gears. Semi-trucks and tandems use this. It requires a knowledge of your vehicle and to be at the proper revs and speed.

When upshifting, it’s easy, and you can switch gears without grinding them (avoiding the old adage ‘If you can’t find ‘em, grind ‘em’). When downshifting, it’s harder and requires the driver to slow to the speed of the lower gear, then bump up the revs by throttling up for a second, and switch gears when the revs are high.

This is a lot harder, and you’re going to grind gears until you get the hang of it. Lots of farmers exclusively do this and would tell you that it’s easy. If you’re new to a manual or have only driven while clutching (or only have experience floating when shifting up) this can be really tricky to get the hang of.

NASCAR cars use a regular H gear box and use their right hand to navigate the gears (no slapshifts in NASCAR). Rumor has is that they are moving to a 6-speed manual transmission in 2021.

How Often do NASCAR Drivers Brake?

This depends on the track. Any long track with a steep bank can be run using only the throttle. There’s only a few of these tracks on the circuit, however.

In a road race (those are the races with left and right turns), a NASCAR driver will brake a lot, just like a Formula 1 driver. When the track is oval but shorter, they will have to brake going into the turns. They always have to brake when coming in for a pit stop (could you imagine a pit stop where they didn’t brake?).

Just like everything else in NASCAR, how much they brake is really up to the team and the driver. However, if they’re on a track that doesn’t require a lot of brake use, drivers will warm up the brakes before a pit stop to ensure that they stop when they want to.

A cold brake will not stop a vehicle, and drivers won’t take the chance of the car not responding exactly how they want it to, especially since their pit crew’s safety is on the line. 

Why do NASCAR Cars Have Decals Instead of Real Brake Lights?

Decals are lighter than a brake light and all the required lighting. Brands pay a lot of money for NASCAR cars to look stock, so they have the decal of the brake light match the brand of car they are representing.

Brand recognition is very important to sales, and thus to sponsorship in NASCAR. Without sponsorship, teams would be struggling to maintain their running cost throughout the season.

Also, NASCAR drivers don’t really need to know when someone else brakes. They match speeds, go into corners with their own game plan, and use spotters to keep track on what else is going on during the race.

There’s no need for a working brake light in a NASCAR car, and the weight of the light needs to be somewhere more important than just letting your competitors know that you’re slowing down.