automobile racing, sport in which specially designed or modified automobiles race on any of various courses. Automobile racing originated in France in 1894 and appeared in the United States the following year. It is now one of the most popular spectator sports in the world. Of many different types of competition, the most prestigious have traditionally involved Formula One (Grand Prix) or "Indy-type" automobiles, both cars with low-slung bodies capable of speeds greater than 230 mph (370 kph). Their design and maintenance require full-time racing teams and large corporate investment. A number of countries sponsor Grand Prix races, which contribute to the designation of a world champion driver. The Grands Prix of Monaco, France, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia are among the best known.
America's famous Indianapolis 500 (begun 1911) is the best known of a series of races in which drivers compete for a series championship, organized by the United States Auto Club (USAC) and overseen from 1979 to 1996 by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). In 1996 CART began a competing series, leaving the Indy 500 and several other races in the hands of the Indy Racing League (IRL). The Indianapolis 500 attracts over 500,000 spectators annually, making it the nation's largest paid-admission sporting event. Many top drivers compete in both Formula One and Indy-type races, and some also drive in the two major endurance races for sports cars, the 24 Hours at Daytona (Daytona Beach, Fla.) and the 24 Hours at LeMans (France; officially the LeMans Grand Prix d'Endurance, held since 1923).
Enormously popular in the United States are the races of the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) circuit, in which standard, or stock, cars with special equipment race at speeds that can average close to 200 mph (320 kph). The major races of the NASCAR circuit include the Daytona 500 and the Talladega 500. Midget racing originated in the 1940s among enthusiasts unable to afford Indy cars. Originally held on dirt tracks at fairgrounds, midget races have yielded their popularity to sprint cars, larger versions of the midgets that travel half-mile tracks at 100 mph (161 kph) or more. Drag racing, which grew out of the often illegal sprints held among American teenagers during the 1950s, involves acceleration tests among extremely powerful cars over .25-mi (.4025-km) courses at speeds exceeding 300 mph (483 kph). Hill climbing, done by cars of various classes against the clock, is popular in Europe, but has never attained more than regional popularity in the United States.
See R. Cutter and B. Fendell, Encyclopedia of Auto Racing (1973); A. E. Brown, The History of the American Speedway (1984).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.