NASCAR: Full Speed Review: what it got right and wrong

09th February 2024
Ben Miles

NASCAR: Full Speed was better than Formula 1: Drive to Survive. But it was always going to be. NASCAR’s drivers are allowed to be more interesting than F1 stars, the series is a bigger ‘show’ and US motorsport fans don’t hope for access at events, they expect it. So cameras were always going to go further and drivers were always going to be more open. But it wasn’t perfect. So what did it do well and what can producers learn for series two?


Good: Didn’t just try to copy Drive to Survive

It would have been very easy for NASCAR to have just commissioned an identical show to Formula 1: Drive to Survive. The phenomenal global success of Drive to Survive is pretty much the sole reason behind NASCARs recent attempts at a behind the scenes documentary. Even Formula E and the World Endurance Championship, which both work on much lower budgets, have tried to recreate something similar on a smaller scale.

But NASCAR bosses, perhaps having had their fingers burned by attempting to follow an entire season of narratives in its last series: NASCAR: Under Pressure, instead decided to go their own way. NASCAR: Full Speed has a laser focus on one part of the season, brings in just a small group of drivers, doesn’t bounce around in time and allows its drivers to let their full personalities out. Where Drive to Survive tries to ramp up the drama where there is none, Full Speed is able to lean on the actual drama of the playoffs to create a better viewing experience.


Bad: Explaining NASCAR for new viewers

However, where Drive to Survive has spent its entire five seasons so far attempting to explain F1 in its most basic possible terms, NASCAR: Full Speed at times felt like it was relying on existing knowledge.

The constant lowest common denominator nature of Drive to Survive might be annoying for long standing fans (“To win you must finish first”), but it’s part of the reason why it has drawn in casual fans. NASCAR: Full Speed felt at times like it was missing that. NASCAR’s convoluted play off system is explained adequately, but it fails to really tell people what NASCAR actually is.

On the face of it, NASCAR seems like a simple sport, but it’s really not. What are stage points? How many drivers take part? How long are races? Who else is racing? What actually leads up to the playoffs? How did NASCAR get here? What is oval racing? What are the cars? In five episodes it probably couldn’t explain all of this, but it felt to me like it could have at least done a few better, especially with expert voices including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon available.


Good: Didn’t stretch the narrative

Perhaps the reason for that was the concise nature of NASCAR: Full Speed. Rather than spin out to a full ten-episode miniseries, Full Speed stuck with five episodes for its first season.

While we perhaps missed out on a few things because of that, it meant that the series never had to pad. It didn’t have to fill out extra time with faux rivalries or tail end stories that go nowhere. You couldn’t really take your eyes off Full Speed for ten minutes or you would have missed out on something key. Where Drive to Survive has episodes that feel like a slog, Full Speed was just that, a top end rush through the high-speed world of NASCAR.


Bad: Missed major stars

The series focus on just those drivers in the playoffs helped the narrative, but to those of us who know NASCAR it felt like there were some big characters missing. When I heard about the series I fully expected at least some Kyle Busch to be unleashed on the world. But as far as Full Speed was concerned he might as well not exist. And what about Kevin Harvick? We saw him multiple times in b-roll shots, but one of modern-era NASCAR’s greatest drivers saw out his final season without a mention in its major new media output.

Even some drivers who made the playoffs were ignored. Martin Truex Jr. was the regular season champion, but not as far as Full Speed was concerned, and how can you tell the story of Denny Hamlin’s season without mentioning Chase Elliott and Charlotte?

Next series cannot get over bloated, but perhaps one more episode so we can bring these characters and stories in?


Good: Let the drivers be themselves

The drivers that NASCAR: Full Speed did include were framed in a much better manner than we’ve seen in other shows. Rather than sitting them down in a formal black room, with a PR officer standing somewhere nearby and then adding in the odd bit of home life, every driver was interviewed in as open a situation as possible.

We saw Kyle Larson joking about his wife no longer being from the country, Ryan Blaney openly discussing his sister dating William Byron, Byron himself doing Lego and rewatching races. They were all in comfortable situations, happy to just be open about their thoughts.

Admittedly, the very nature of NASCAR and its less media-trained drivers made that a much easier job for the producers. But the fact the teams allowed this to happen, and NASCAR allowed much faster and better access immediately post-race, just made the series better.


Bad: Not enough of the crew chiefs

What I did feel like I missed was more from the people who help bring these victories to life. We heard the drivers talking to their crew chiefs on the radio, and even met one spotter, but those radio voices were from faceless, anonymous people. A little extra from them would have helped bring us further into the NASCAR world.

Perhaps the producers were scared of going too far down this road, like Drive to Survive has with its hero worship of Christian Horner, Toto Wolff et al. We got some behind the scenes of team meetings, and the odd interview, but a little more in season two would do well.


Good: No jumping in time

This isn’t just the fault of Drive to Survive. If you’ve watched the Tour de France series Unchained you’ll know that in order to fit so many narratives from a full event/season, these shows often jump backwards and forwards, making it hard to follow. NASCAR: Full Speed set on a single timeline and never wavered. Yes, the intro was from the penultimate race, but we started the show proper at playoff race one, and ended on the final race at Phoenix and never jumped back and forth.

Sometimes narrative jumping can work, but that’s mainly in major feature films or documentaries that jump from past to present. In Drive to Survive it pulls you out of the world, suddenly inserting you back into a race you’ve already seen. It leaves me feeling less interested in that moment because I’ve already seen it. This was a major pitfall that Full Speed avoided, leaving you starting the next episode where you finished off, rather than back where you were two shows ago.


Bad or good: I want more

I got to the end of Full Speed thinking that I needed more. That five episodes just wasn’t quite enough to sate my appetite for these characters. That was undoubtedly a showcase that the series was a success, or I’d have turned off after episode three. But it also meant that maybe, just maybe, we could have had seven episodes and fitted in the missing elements.

Or perhaps I’m just being really, really picky. NASCAR: Full Speed had its flaws, but it felt like the right way to go about things. Just before the Daytona 500 it’s making me more desperate than ever to see the biggest show in stock car racing.

Images courtesty of Motorsport Images.


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