NASCAR vs. IndyCar: What is the Difference? (Explained)

NASCAR and Indy Car are two of America’s most popular motorsports – both are high speed and action-packed, but what exactly is the difference between them?

The main difference between NASCAR and IndyCar is that an IndyCar has open wheels and an open cockpit. There are vast differences in rules and regulations, as well as the tracks and the weight of the cars. Both sports have the same end goal: go as fast as possible and cross the line before the other cars in the field. But how they go about doing this is vastly different. 

IndyCar and NASCAR have the same end goal in mind, but both sports have very different rules and regulations. The speeds reached on the tracks are different, the tracks themselves are different, the cars are vastly different, and the main strategies used during the race are different. Read on for the main differences between NASCAR and IndyCar.

What’s the Difference Between IndyCar and NASCAR?

The main difference between IndyCar and NASCAR is the vehicles themselves. NASCAR still relies on the “stock” aspect of its history for the cars.

NASCAR cars weigh almost twice as much as IndyCars with a NASCAR weighing 3250 lbs while IndyCars weigh about 1500 lbs. NASCAR cars have doors, whereas IndyCar cars are an open cockpit. IndyCars have open wheels, while NASCAR cars are closer to what we know and have enclosed wheels.

NASCAR cars have a driver sitting on the left side of the vehicle, whereas in an IndyCar the driver sits center of the car. This changes the physics of the car and the speeds at which the cars can corner.

IndyCars don’t require the use of restrictor plates on any track, giving them a higher max speed. 

IndyCars use a V-6 engine while a NASCAR car uses a more powerful (and heavier) V-8 engine. IndyCars have push-to-pass systems incorporated, much like F1, that they can use 10 times per race.

The chassis are different in IndyCars and NASCAR cars, with NASCAR’s using a sedan style chassis and IndyCars using a Dallara chassis (built in Italy).

The main difference between IndyCar and NASCAR is racing style.

IndyCar uses 33 cars per race, whereas NASCAR runs with 40 cars per race (NASCAR once had up to 60 participate in each race).

NASCAR allows bumping and contact between the cars, which makes for a very volatile and exciting race. A bump and run can happen during a last lap at NASCAR, making for a crazy finish.

In IndyCar, no contact is allowed between the race cars at any time. NASCAR’s seem to be built to take a beating, with their heavy builds and V-8 motors taking little damage in a normal race (other than paint damage).

It’s wildly debated between IndyCar and NASCAR fans on which is more dangerous. IndyCar seems that it would be, as their open concept vehicles have nothing between their heads and the road.

They are also faster and lighter, meaning that an IndyCar can get airborne more easily than a NASCAR.

As IndyCars are allowed to have more speed (NASCAR’s have restrictor plates limiting speed), the drivers have a shorter amount of time to react to a situation.

This increases the chance of a crash (higher speeds mixed with shorter reaction time). NASCAR has roll cages and a roof, leaving their heads more protected.

Quantifiably (as macabre as it is), IndyCar is more dangerous in the 21st century with three deaths, while NASCAR has had 1.

NASCAR has more crashes and deaths overall as a sport, but it’s been in existence since bootlegging, whereas IndyCar was founded in 1996.

The tracks that NASCAR races on are very different than IndyCar.

NASCAR races primarily on oval tracks, with only a couple of road races. IndyCar is pretty much the exact opposite, with most races being held on a road track with some oval tracks mixed in (such as the Indy 500). 

Even the race structure is different in NASCAR and IndyCar. NASCAR runs until the race is over. There’s a pre-determined number of laps, and the race doesn’t stop until the first car crosses on that last lap. IndyCar can follow that program, but depending on track conditions and the race, will have an end time. This means that they only race for 2 hours, and the front car wins. 


Are IndyCars Faster Than NASCARS?

Yes, but not for the reasons you might think. NASCAR has a race on Talladega and Daytona, superspeedways that has optimal banks and long straightaways – they have the potential to reach extremely high speeds. However, since 1987, restrictor plates have been a requirement on superspeedways, slowing NASCAR cars down.

What is a Restrictor Plate?

A restrictor plate is a square aluminum plate with four holes drilled into it. NASCAR determines how large the holes have to be for each track. This plate is placed between the air intake and the carburetor of the car. It slows the speed of the NASCAR car enough to make the sport safer for spectators, not for drivers.

Why Does NASCAR Use Restrictor Plates?

More crashes occur in NASCAR when the cars are bunched up, and cars at slower speeds stay in a pack. Restrictor plates are required to keep the spectators in the stands safe from a flying car.

In 1955, at a race known as the 24 Hours Le Mans, NASCAR driver Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators were killed when two cars collided and sent Levegh’s burning car up into the stands. This almost stopped NASCAR as a sport, as many sponsors and politicians deemed it too risky to continue as a sport.

In 1987, before the requirement of restrictor plates, Bobby Allison crashed at the Talladega Superspeedway going well over 200 mph. His car lifted up and was caught in the screen protecting the crowd. However, the speed of the crash and the amount of debris that flew into the crowd made NASCAR re-evaluate its safety procedures, and thus making restrictor plates mandatory.

Restrictor plates are not mandatory in IndyCar, making their average race speeds higher than that of NASCAR.

So, yes, IndyCars are faster than NASCAR’s. The top race speed in IndyCar is 235-245 mph, whereas the top speed in NASCAR is 200 mph.

The highest speed recorded in NASCAR was in 1987 pre restrictor plate, recorded by Bill Elliott of 212 mph. As restrictor plates have been used since, it’s tough to estimate the actual top speed currently able to be achieved by a NASCAR car, as there have been many advancements in speed and technology since 1987.

Some estimates put the heavier NASCAR car at 225 mph. This is still slower than IndyCar, but by only 10 mph. Considering NASCAR cars are twice as heavy as an IndyCar, that V-8 engine in NASCAR makes a considerable difference than the V-6 run by IndyCar.

Which is More Popular, NASCAR or IndyCar?

Again, this is a question without an easy answer. IndyCar has only been around since 1996, while NASCAR has been around since 1948. The Southern States are considered the heart of NASCAR country, with many families having NASCAR races as a core tradition. IndyCar has been said to be the millennial NASCAR, with the target audience being fans in their teens to mid-thirties.

NASCAR has roughly 61,000 spectators watching each race (on average) with the Daytona 500 bringing in 168,000 spectators with another 10 million watching on tv. IndyCar has roughly 40,000 spectators on average at each race, with the Indy 500 drawing 300,000 spectators and another 1.5 million people watching on tv. 

So, on average, NASCAR is still the more popular of the two. It has a strong group of core fans that keep it going. It also has 72 years behind it and has survived many close calls of being disbanded as an organization.

NASCAR also has more races a year, and the season is much longer than an IndyCar season. NASCAR has 40 races over a 9 month period. IndyCar has 17 races over 5 months. If you take the average race attendance of NASCAR with the amount of races that happen every year, NASCAR is still the more popular sport (much to the dismay of die-hard IndyCar fans).

Is NASCAR More Dangerous Than IndyCar?

Deaths and crashes can be compared between IndyCar and NASCAR, but it’s tough to say which of the two is “more dangerous”. The fans of each sport will defend that theirs is the more dangerous of the two, citing different stats and information to back their case.

Which vehicle is more dangerous, NASCAR or IndyCar?

IndyCar has the most dangerous vehicle to drive in. Since there’s an open wheel design, nothing protects the driver’s head other than a helmet.

This proved to be devastating in IndyCar’s last fatality, Justin Wilson. In 2015, Wilson was in the pack of the 2015 ABC Supply 500 on the 179th lap. Leader Sage Karem lost control over a bump in the asphalt and crashed into the wall. The nose of his car ripped off and started bouncing through the rest of the field.

Justin Wilson swerved to avoid the wrecked car, but unfortunately, the debris struck him in the helmet, knocking him out cold. Wilson then lost control of his car and crashed into the SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction) barrier on the interior of the infield. Wilson never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead the next day.

IndyCar cars are also faster, with no restrictor plate to reduce speed. IndyCars race at approximately 235 mph, whereas NASCAR races at 200 mph.

To give some perspective, an IndyCar will travel 344 feet per second (115 yards). A NASCAR car travels 293 feet per second (97 yards).

This is a significant difference when it comes to reaction time. IndyCar drivers have way less time to react than NASCAR drivers and travel 10% of a football field more per second than NASCAR.

More speed also means more force during a crash. More force is more wreckage during a crash. This is more dangerous to the driver and spectators during a wreck.

IndyCars are also far more likely to fly off the tarmac. They are lighter and faster, so any wrong turn can send the car air born. NASCAR cars are heavier and race slower due to the restrictor plate. This decreases the likelihood that a car will catch air on a corner and fly into the crowd.

NASCAR also has a roll cage in the cars, as well as a roof and doors. This protects the driver a lot more than the limited protection given to the open concept IndyCar.

It also decreases the visibility when turning right (resulting in the only left turn reputation of NASCAR). Because NASCAR drivers are on the left hand of the car (versus the center in IndyCar), they turn left to give the drivers a clear vision of the curve during the apex of the turn. 

Does NASCAR or IndyCar Have a More Dangerous Racing Strategy?

NASCAR wins this round. They have 40 cars per race, while IndyCar only has 32. This increases the danger, as more cars increase the danger during a race. IndyCar may have higher speeds, but the style of racing in NASCAR is significantly more dangerous.

Since NASCAR has restrictor plates on superspeedways, they are forced to be more bunched up during races. So, if a crash occurs, it’s way more likely that it will take out more than one car.

This increases the danger to the entire pack of cars, potentially causing a catastrophic accident between multiple cars. This doesn’t mean that no multi-car wrecks occur in IndyCar, it just means that there’s a higher chance of multi-car wrecks in NASCAR.

NASCAR allows contact between the cars. A lot of contact, actually. Bumping is allowed and there are race strategies that use bumping to win. A “bump and run” involves a car pushing a leading car out of the way, purposefully reducing the traction of the tires.

This causes the driver of the leading car to have to correct their steering or spin out entirely, which reduces their speed. The trailing car then puts their foot down and passes the car in front of them.

This has led to some pretty spectacular lead changes in the last lap of a race. Drivers are also allowed to bump draft and “if you ain’t bumping, you ain’t racing” in NASCAR.

IndyCar allows no contact between the cars. At all. There’s no bump and runs or bump drafting (this is a drafting technique where the rear car actually touches its bumper to the lead car, drafting while in contact).

Bump drafting is a dangerous practice, and many older drivers don’t use it at all. IndyCars can draft, and that’s a viable race strategy, but their cars aren’t meant to take any hits or bumps at all. The heavier NASCAR cars can trade paint without a big crash as a result.

Intentionally wrecking a car in NASCAR is prohibited, but it’s up to the judge’s discretion. This often leads to no calls during a race, with fines are punishments handed out after the race. This doesn’t change what happens while the race is ongoing, leading to some pretty crazy battles between the drivers.

IndyCar has the most dangerous tracks. They mostly race on road tracks, with some races even being on street tracks. The asphalt isn’t kept to track standards on a street track, making the race more dangerous. NASCAR takes place mostly on oval tracks, with only a handful of races on a road track. This is where NASCAR gets the reputation of only “left” turns.

Which has More On-Track Deaths, IndyCar or NASCAR?

NASCAR. That’s the short answer. NASCAR has had a total of 28 track deaths of the drivers, the most recent (and most famous) on being Dale Earnhardt Sr in 2001. However, they’ve been an organization for 72 years. This works out to 0.38 deaths per season.

IndyCar has had 5 total fatalities since 1996. The first was Scott Brayton during the 1996 Indy 500 practice session. The last was Justin Wilson during the 2015 ABC Supply 500.

That’s an average of 0.22 deaths per season. However, IndyCar is more dangerous to spectators, with 3 spectators dying at a race in 1998 and another 3 dying at a race in 1999.

The open-wheel concept of IndyCars means that there is far more likelihood that a tire will bounce into the crowd.

IndyCar is also more dangerous in the 21st century. Since Earnhardt Sr, there hasn’t been a death in NASCAR. That’s 19 years without a death. IndyCar has had 4 deaths in the 21st century, far surpassing NASCAR.