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A History of NASCAR Reducing Horsepower

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Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

If there is one thing that most NASCAR fans can agree on, it’s that they want to see increased horsepower in the NASCAR Cup Series. However, reducing horsepower in some form or fashion has been a part of NASCAR for a lot longer than fans realize. This history can give us some idea of why NASCAR keeps on reducing horsepower.

  • NASCAR has been gradually reducing horsepower since the 2015 season. In 2014, the cars put out around 900 horsepower, which was reduced to 750 in 2015, then 550 in 2019, then up to 670 in 2022 with the introduction of the Next-gen car.
  • This is not the only time in history this has happened NASCAR has looked at decreasing horsepower for a variety of reasons. From safety to the manufacturers to looking to improve the racing product, there are plenty of reasons for why.
  • Fans generally want to see NASCAR increase horsepower. However, this will attempt to explain why NASCAR continues to decrease horsepower despite fan sentiment.

Safety

NASCAR’s first major attempt to reduce horsepower in the modern era was safety-related. In 1987, Bobby Allison spun and flew into the catch fence at Talladega, nearly flying into the grandstands. In that era, cars were going around 210 mph at Talladega during the race.

After this, NASCAR quickly worked to reduce the speed of the cars on superspeedways to eliminate flying cars. This resulted in the restrictor plate being implemented in 1988 at Daytona and Talladega. As a result, pole speeds went from upwards of 210 mph down into the low to mid 190s mph range.

However, there was an unintended consequence. Because of the restrictor plate, the cars were not only slower but they also did not get up to speed as quickly As a result, the field would bunch up into tight packs, which, was the start of the superspeedway racing we know today. More on that later.

Was it really “safer”? The cars are certainly slower than they have been in the past, but, the large packs of cars often help create major accidents with just the slightest miscalculation. On top of that, flying cars still happen to this day, albeit rarely, despite NASCAR’s efforts to eliminate them.

Improve the Racing Product

We just mentioned the tight packs created by the reduced horsepower at Daytona and Talladega. “Pack racing” became very popular with fans because of how close the drivers were to each other. The leader could no longer pull away from the pack to take a big lead by themself.

Meanwhile, the racing product on many of the intermediate tracks being built throughout the 1990s was not as popular. The cars would often spread out, and dirty air made it tough for cars to race close together.

As early as 2001, NASCAR was testing a superspeedway-style aero package at Texas Motor Speedway to make the racing product better. Steve Park was the one to test the package, but, he gave an unfavorably review. NASCAR scrapped the idea for the time being.

NASCAR came back to the idea in the late 2010s. They first experimented with reduced horsepower and increased drag in the Xfinity Series at Indianapolis in 2017, then in the Cup Series at the Charlotte All-Star Race in 2018. The reviews were favorable enough that NASCAR implemented the package for the Cup Series at all tracks in 2019 and on large ovals in 2020 and 2021.

NASCAR quickly took the package away from short tracks after the 2019 season because fans disliked the product. For example, both Martinsville races that year had only 3 lead changes apiece because the reduced horsepower made it that much more difficult to pass.

However, fans quickly grew tired of the slower racing product on intermediates. This all came to a head at Kansas in the fall of 2020, when Joey Logano held off the faster Kevin Harvick by aero blocking. The package created an immense amount of turbulent air for the following car to navigate, and it also made the cars much easier to drive.

Did the reduced horsepower create a better racing product? Well, NASCAR increased horsepower to 670 when the Next-Gen car was introduced, so, that answers the question.

Costs

Frankly, this is probably the biggest reason behind the reduction in horsepower. When engines pump out more horsepower, it naturally means the engine is straining much harder than in decreased horsepower. The further and further an engine is pushed over an extended period, it causes it to wear. Multiply this over more engines during a full NASCAR season, and the costs begin to rack up.

Steve Phelps cited this as a reason why NASCAR is not increasing horsepower as early as November. He said in a webinar when asked about horsepower, “More horsepower is expensive”.

Is it really that much more expensive? Sr. Vice President of ECR Engines, Bob Fisher, said on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio that increasing horsepower to 750 “Wouldn’t be a huge tear up for engine companies”. Denny Hamlin echoed a similar sentiment on the Dale Jr. Download saying that engine bills now compared to the increased horsepower of the past are, “No different”.

Manufacturer

Another reason NASCAR often cites is to bring in new manufacturers. Steve O’Donnell said regarding horsepower at the “State of the Sport” address in November, “[Increased horsepower] better make sense for any potential new OEM and technology.”

To the manufacturers, motorsports is a testing ground. It’s an opportunity to develop new technologies and promote themselves so they can do what makes them real money, selling cars.

This is a large reason why NASCAR is showcasing an electric vehicle at the LA Coliseum. It’s also why Formula One switched from internal combustion engines to hybrid power units and IndyCar will soon do the same. These motorsports have to follow wherever the auto industry is going.

What does Ford get out of continuously producing 900+ horsepower NASCAR engines that may only run for a few races before being scrapped? If they are not discovering new things to fit into their consumer vehicles, then there is no benefit to it. Why continue to invest in something that does not give a good return on investment?

Whether or not the fans agree with NASCAR’s direction on horsepower, it will continue to be a hot topic. It’s a very complicated issue.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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