Surviving NASCAR’s Initial Inspection
Long before drivers go to drivers’ meetings or teams put the final touches on their racecars, their cars must be approved to race by NASCAR officials. Throughout race weekend, NASCAR inspects cars to see if teams abide by the rules. If they do follow the rules, officials give teams permission for their cars to go on the track.
If they don’t, teams must work on the cars until officials deem them ready to race. Formally, those processes are called inspections.
A race weekend in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, the NASCAR Busch Series, and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series usually begins on Fridays — and inspections begin not long after the garage opens that morning. Teams arrive at the garage early in the morning, and then start preparing their cars for NASCAR inspectors to examine.
If the car doesn’t pass inspection the first time through, team members know right away that the weekend won’t be an easy one.
The initial inspection begins the morning the track opens, when each car is put on four stands without tires. Inspectors do a quick check of the following:
- Body: Even though stock-car racing involves only Fords, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and Dodges, there’s a lot of room for tweaking. So officials must make sure that each of the cars conforms to a certain shape. No missiles or bullet trains allowed.
- Safety belts and nets: An inspector takes a quick look around the inside to make sure everything is in order, especially the seatbelts and the window net, which are safety features on the cars. The seatbelts strap the driver in with five adjoining belts, while the window net is a piece of mesh fastened to the inside of the window. The net keeps the driver’s head or arms from coming out of the window during an accident.
- To make sure these items work, the inspector examines them to see if they are made of the correct material and also to ensure that their locking mechanisms are functioning.
- Roll bars: Roll bars are the part of the car’s frame that protects the driver because they’re made of strong tubing with a minimum thickness — like a tubular cage. If a driver rolls his car over, the roll bars ideally protect him from getting crushed.
- An inspector leans into the car window to check the thickness of these bars with a special instrument that measures the diameter and thickness of the steel tubing.
- Fuel cell: Whenever fuel or the fuel cell (the fancy phrase for “gas tank”) is involved, NASCAR officials get nervous because of the potential fire hazard. In the initial inspection, officials check the fuel tank to make sure it holds the correct amount of fuel (22 gallons) and that it has a foam rubber interior to prevent it from breaking open and spilling gasoline.
- The inspector also takes a look at the check-valve, which is a valve that prevents fuel spills if the car turns over.
- Engine volume and compression ratio: Even though the engine is checked more thoroughly in subsequent inspections, officials like to give it a once-over at this stage. They check to see if the engine is the right size and if the compression ratio is correct — and that both follow NASCAR rules.
- Bigger engines (with more volume) produce more horsepower. Higher compression ratios produce more power, too.
- Metal check: To ensure teams aren’t cheating by substituting a lighter material, such as titanium, for steel (to make their car lighter and faster), inspectors go over the main parts of the car with a magnet. If the magnet doesn’t stick, then they’ve caught a team trying to break the rules.
If officials catch teams cheating or see something they don’t like in this initial inspection, they can ask teams to fix or replace the part or parts in question. If NASCAR gives them an initial okay, the team’s next step is to head for a more-thorough inspection, where officials examine the car more closely. If a team doesn’t fix or replace a questioned part, officials don’t let its car on the track.