The carbocation intermediate formed in the reaction’s rate limiting step is an sp2 hybridized carbon with trigonal planar molecular geometry. This allows two different avenues for the nucleophilic attack, one on either side of the planar molecule. If neither avenue is preferentially favored, these two avenues occur equally, yielding a racemic mix of enantiomers if the reaction takes place at a stereocenter.This is illustrated below in the SN1 reaction of S-3-chloro-3-methylhexane with an iodide ion, which yields a racemic mixture of 3-iodo-3-methylhexane:
However, an excess of one stereoisomer can be observed, as the leaving group can remain in proximity to the carbocation intermediate for a short time and block nucleophilic attack. This stands in contrast to the SN2 mechanism, which is a stereospecific mechanism where stereochemistry is always inverted.