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NASCAR vs. Formula 1: a timeless question for motorsports fans. You may already know that NASCAR restricts the top speed of its Cup Cars. But Formula 1 cars are engineered more for cornering than straight-line speed. So in a contest between an unrestricted NASCAR Cup Car and Formula 1 racer, who would be faster?

The fastest known NASCAR top speed

Rusty Wallace's #2 Miller Lite Dodge Intrepid throws flames out its exhaust pipes while completing a lap at a race track.
Rusty Wallace’s #2 Miller Lite Dodge | Jonathan Ferrey via Getty Images

NASCAR stock cars continued to get faster from the sport’s 1958 inception up through the 1980s. But then, during a high-profile 1987 crash at Talladega Superspeedway Bobby Allison’s car went airborne and nearly flew into the stands. NASCAR immediately required restrictor plates on the Cup Cars’ V8 engines, limiting them to about 410 horsepower and keeping the top speed below 200 mph.

Thanks to the restrictor plates, Bill Elliot’s 212.809 mph record–set while qualifying for the fateful 1987 race–became an unbreakable NASCAR record. Over the next two decades, the Cup Cars’ aerodynamics and suspension continued to improve, but their top speed stayed the same.

In June 2004, Rusty Wallace was running his #2 Miller Lite Dodge through practice laps at Talladega. Wallace admitted, “We’d all been wondering what it would feel like to run at Talladega again without the plates.” So he had his pit crew remove his restrictor plate and took his car back out on the track.

Wallace called those laps “a deal that I certainly will remember for the rest of my life.” He revealed, “We hit 228 at the end of the straightaway.”

Honda’s Formula 1 top speed record attempt

Modified Formula 1 car parked at Honda headquarters after setting a world record.
Honda’s RA106 Formula 1 car | Chris McGrath/Getty Images for Honda Motor Co.

Fast forward to 2006, and Honda’s Formula 1 team was wondering a very similar thing: How fast could a Formula 1 car drive with no restrictions?

Honda Racing took a retired Formula 1 car and began modifying it for a top-speed run. Like NASCAR Cup Cars, Formula 1 cars have restricted engines. So first, Honda swapped the car’s old V10 out for an all-new, unrestricted V10.

Second, Honda needed to do something about the car’s wing, engineered to create downforce for tight cornering. The engineers actually removed the wing entirely, replacing it with a “stability fin” designed for speed runs.

Then, Honda sent test driver Alan van der Merwe to the Bonneville Salt Flats on a mission it called Bonneville 400. The goal? Break the magic 400 km/h mark.

The Bonneville 400

Modified Honda Formula 1 car on the Bonneville salt flats at sunset attempting a world record.
Honda’s RA106 Formula 1 car | Formula 1

Formula 1 announced that the team would need to sustain its top speed and could not use a tailwind to its advantage. Therefore the record speed would be van der Merwe’s speed, averaged over a full mile, run in both directions.

The Honda team completed many runs, tuning in the car’s suspension and van der Merwe’s shift points with each run. Van der Merwe described the experience as otherworldly:

“There’s no feedback…you’re surrounded by this vast whiteness. The only way you know you’re going fast is because your helmet is getting pulled off your head and the car is screaming in seventh gear.”

Alan van der Merwe

They reached a top speed of 413.205 km/h, but they failed to maintain the speed on the return run. The official F1 record the team set was 397.360 km/h.

Is NASCAR or Formula 1 faster?

NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace behind the wheel of his race car with his helmet on.
NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace | Rusty Jarrett via Getty Images

Honda and Alan van der Merwe’s official top-speed record of 397 km/h translates to a dizzying 246 mph. And that’s the speed when they ran the record in both directions. The F1 car’s absolute top speed at Bonneville was 256.75 mph.

That’s much faster than Rusty Wallace’s unofficial top Talladega speed of 228 mph. But Wallace did not have multiple runs and could have further tuned his suspension for top speed. He estimates that with multiple attempts, he could have reached 235 mph on the Talladega Superspeedway.

The F1 record attempt also had the advantage of running on a wide-open salt flat. The record for the highest speed an F1 car has ever achieved on a track is held by Valtteri Bottas. He was qualifying for the 2016 Azerbaijan Grand Prix and drove 234.9 mph. And according to Rusty Wallace, a NASCAR Cup Car just might be able to beat that.

Here’s how the top speeds stack up:

NASCAR Top Speed (on track)Formula 1 Speed Record (on track)Formula 1 Top Speed (Bonneville)
DriverRusty WallaceValtteri BottasAlan van der Merwe
Model2004 Dodge Intrepid2016 Williams Racing Mercedes2006 BAR-Honda RA106
LocationTalladega SuperspeedwayBaku City Circuit – Azerbaijan Grand Prix QualifyingBonneville Salt Flats
Top Speed228 mph234.9 mph256.75 mph (413.205 km/h)

Next, learn more about the Formula 1 top speed or see the Bonneville 400 attempt for yourself in the video below:


How Talladega Became NASCAR’s Fastest Track