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What Is a Race Car?

By Jeremy Laukkonen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A race car is a type of automobile that is designed or modified to be used in contests of speed with other vehicles. Some race cars are specifically designed from the ground up for this purpose, though others are stock vehicles that have been modified to varying degrees. One factor that often differentiates a race car from any other automobile is the lack of passenger seating, working doors, and other features that would increase the overall weight of the vehicle. Race cars can also be differentiated based on the types of competitions they are designed to participate in. Some race cars are built for straight line speed, while others require sufficient handling characteristics to run on a circuit, rally race, or tour.

The first automobile races occurred in the 1890s and typically consisted of touring events. Some early races involved each car driving between two cities separately, in which case the winning race car was the one with the best time. Later races pitted the cars directly against each other, though these competitions on public roads sometimes led to fatalities. Some of the first racing circuits were opened in the early part of the 20th century, including some that were converted from horse racetracks. As these different forms of racing began to take shape, many distinct types of race cars were developed.

One common type of race car is the formula one car, which descends from early grand prix motor racing. The reason that these race cars are referred to as formula cars is that they have to comply with a strict set of specifications. Typical designs include open cockpits, wheels that are outside the main body of the vehicle, and wings in the front and rear to help increase traction. These race cars are also purpose-built by the actual racing teams that operate them.

Stock car racing is another motorsport that makes use of a different type of race car. These vehicles are known as stock cars because they are typically modified versions of the production vehicles that normal motorists use. Different stock car racing organizations have varying rules and regulations, but the engines of these vehicles are usually highly modified and are sometimes engineered from scratch to offer much more power than production models.

Drag racing cars are specifically designed and built for short bursts of speed. Unlike formula, stock, and rally cars that all require significant handling characteristics to deal with the corners on a racing circuit or the terrain in a rally race, drag race vehicles only need good acceleration. Weight is usually a concern for this type of race car, and they typically use parachutes instead of brakes to safely decelerate.

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Discussion Comments

By Animandel — On Feb 26, 2014

I enjoy playing race car games on the computer with my kids, but my eyes soon start to blur when I watch cars going round and round and round a track for hour after hour. Actually, I only watch for a few minutes at most, but you get the picture.

By Sporkasia — On Feb 25, 2014

I like the look of the formula one cars and would one day like to drive one around a track several time, or maybe I'll find a place that has old race cars for sale and buy one; or not.

Anyway, even though I prefer the look of the formula one cars, I don't enjoy formula one racing as much because there are fewer passes and less side by side racing than there is on the top stock car circuit.

By Drentel — On Feb 25, 2014

The article makes a valid point about the race cars called stock cars. That name is misleading because the cars that race have little resemblance to what we can buy at the local dealership. I wish my car did have some of the features of those vehicles we see zooming around the race car tracks.

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