Sprint cars are auto racing’s best kept secret. With the power-to-weight ratio of a Formula One car, sprint cars slide into corners at a pitch that would make Ken Block cry. Launching out of the apex, they perform wheel stands longer than any drag car. The machines are wicked step-sisters to an Indy Car, and the drivers are unpolished, modern-day cowboys that we wish filled NASCAR’s roster.
To understand how we reached this magnificent madness, let’s take a look back. Sprint car racing’s family tree is a mass of complex, interweaving vines all tracing back to the 1920s. The cars were built out of necessity for “sprint” races that were much shorter than typical grand prix or Indianapolis-style racing. After World War II, the cars evolved from bobbed Model A frame rails to all-tube chassis, built by the same engineers that were fabricating Indy-bound roadsters at the time. Power plants shifted from stock Ford and Chevy four-cylinder engines, to Ford Flatheads, to DOHC Offenhauser engines, before eventually settling on purpose-built race motors using a domestic small-block.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, drivers experimented with wings and other aero implements for added downforce. This eventually split the family tree into two distinct branches—winged and traditional non-winged sprint cars.
While most series like NASCAR and Formula have experienced a massive technological evolution, sprint cars have not. They are the antithesis of most modern auto racing. Line up a ’60s sprinter next to its modern contemporary, and you’ll notice, aside from the safety cage, not much has changed. A fuel-injected, methanol-chugging, small-block V-8 is connected to a coupler known as the “in-out box,” which connects to the driveshaft. The driver sits on top of the live rear axle in the equivalent of a dining room chair, legs straddling the driveshaft. They heave on the wheel and mash the gas, unaided by likes of power steering or traction control. Asymmetrical chassis geometry and a massive amount of stagger help the car turn, but for the most part, it’s up to the driver to stomp the brakes and pitch the car sideways.
Even the racing arenas remain the same. While the upper ranks such ditched dirt back in the ’70s, grated clay ovals and mucky fairground horse tracks remain the surface of choice for most sprint car racing.
So why would drivers subject themselves to this antiquated nonsense? Two reasons. First, sprint car racing has a long-standing history as the connector between racing locally on Saturday night to turning laps in the big leagues on Sunday. Open-wheel historian Josh Shaw says, “Sprint cars from the 1930s to 1970s were a direct path to the Indy 500. If you survived with all your limbs, senses, and your life, you had a chance to make it big.” A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Jeff Gordon were all diamonds in the rough, cutting their teeth on dirt short tracks. National sprint car racing series, such as USAC or World of Outlaws, continue to serve as a feeder series, churning out top-tier drivers. Recent grads include Ed Carpenter, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell.
The second reason mirrors the rationale behind skydiving, cliff jumping, or any death-defying sport. The drivers are adrenaline junkies. Chad Boespflug, USAC national title contender and driver of the Fox Paving-Capitol Renegade-Maxim 98e sprint car, puts it this way: “Driving a sprint car is both a blast and horrifying at times. It’s hard to explain the feeling of 850-plus horsepower at your feet going over 100 mph into a corner. They’re the wildest race cars on this planet, giving you that adrenaline rush like nothing you’ve ever felt.”
If this is all news to you, I understand. It sounds a bit farcical. Best thing you can do is check out a race for yourself and see why sprint cars are auto racing’s best kept secret.