Sunday, April 6, 2008


By Diandra Leslie-Pelecky

Dutton, $25.95, 286 pages


Even diehard NASCAR fans might believe racing cars is not much different from driving a normal car extremely fast, but Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, University of Texas-Dallas physics professor and author of “The Physics of NASCAR” explains there is a lot more to it than that.

Her book explains the sport works at the “limits of what we understand about aerodynamics, structural engineering, and even human physiology … Crew members — even if they can’t recite Newton’s Laws of Motion — have used these principles since the sport began to makecars faster and safer. Although they might not use the same words I use, NASCAR drivers quickly develop an intuitive understanding of the principles of aerodynamics and kinematics—or they crash a lot.” This behind-the-scenes look at the science of the sport is an exciting lesson for those of us who might not have considered Newton’s laws since high school.

A NASCAR race car enters turn three at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 170 mph. That sounds extremely fast already, but it is even more impressive when you consider, as Ms. Leslie-Pelecky explains, a Boeing 757 touches down a runway at roughly the same speed. And a Boeing isn’t positioned, like a race car, just inches away from another vehicle while it travels at such a high speed. How are these vehicles designed to protect the driver and maintain shape in such high speeds?

Ms. Leslie-Pelecky starts explaining the skeleton structure of the vehicle — the chassis — works like the bones in your body. Drivers modify their vehicles depending on weather and tracks, “sheet metal gets put on and cut off, and engines, springs, and shocks are installed and removed but the chassis really is the car.”

National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing mandates certain sizes for parts and wall thickness for the same reasons the Boyscout Pinewood derby require cars under a certain weight — drivers need to start with a roughly even base. After that, it is up to the mechanics.

Teams customize the bodies of their cars not just to the type of tracks, but every individual track. Small changes in the shape of the vehicle can produce the difference between winning and losing a race. Even still, an unexpected change in the weather might turn a brilliantly crafted car into a “slug.” Good mechanics are extremely intuitive about the racetrack working conditions.

Next, Ms. Leslie-Pelecky describes the engines. She says “blowing an engine,” “throwing a rod,” and “melting down” are not just metaphors when it comes to engine trouble, the second most common reason a race car doesn’t make it to finish (accidents are first.) The parts can indeed melt . “Oh, yeah!” Andy Randolph a chemical engineering PhD and Bill Davis Racing’s engine technical director told the author when she asked if even the pistons melt. “You take something going at 800 horsepower and break it and lots of damage happens.”

You might have paid more attention in class if only your high school physics instructor were as succinct and understandable as Ms. Leslie-Pelecky. She explains “torque,” as “how fast the car can accelerate, and the amount of torque is determined by the force with which the pistons rotate the crankshaft. An engine’s torque is always measured at a specific engine speed. The engine speed is how many revolutions per minute (rpm) the crankshaft makes, and the engine produces different amounts of torque at different engine speeds.” It is, the “twisting ability, like you use for turning bolts … If you’re having a hard time loosening a lug nut, try using a longer wrench.”

But the book is not just a series of science lessons, there is also a lot of great storytelling to be found. Junior Johnson was a last minute entrant into the 1960 Daytona 500. On top of that, he wasn’t enthusiastic about driving a year-old Chevrolet, when Pontiac race cars were the fastest race cars at the time.

In practice runs, he was surprised to see he could keep up with the Pontiacs if he trailed right on their rear bumpers. He told Ms. Leslie-Pelecky, “they couldn’t shake me … I knew I was right about the air creating a situation — a slipstream type of thing — in which a slower car could keep up with a much faster one.”

Using this intuitive sense, Mr. Johnson paced himself until he trailed behind another driver. Coming off the second turn, the back glass of his opponent’s car popped out. “I think our speed and the traffic circumstances combined to create a vacuum that sucked that back glass right out,” Mr. Johnson said, recalling his eventual win.

This story is even more impressive when you realize it is what inspired an entire field of research in race car aerodynamics.

One of the most exciting chapters is a first-hand account of driving a race car. The author steps inside the car, and realizes that cars designed for high speed are not also designed for great comfort. The “cockpit is so small that the steering wheel has to be removable to allow the driver to get in and out of the car. The seat, which enveloped me, was low in the car. The rib braces on the seat came up to my underarms and stuck out so far that there was no easy way for me to put my arms down.”

It is so compact even the gas and break are close together. Ms. Leslie-Pelecky finally gets the car in gear, and notices, a “race car is set up to pull to the left, so you sometimes have to steer right to go straight. I had no peripheral vision, and I was so focused on staying on the right line that I didn’t even use the mirrors. The engine is optimized for speed, so when you’re puttering along at a mere 100 mph, the engine chugs and huffs uncomfortably.”

Once she steps out of the car, she realizes she made it to about 150 mph. She writers, her “legs were wobbly and my heart was racing. I learned later that it was adrenaline. Professional drivers shake the same way after their qualifying runs. Even though my brain didn’t realize we were going fast, the rest of my body did.”

A NASCAR race car accelerates at about 0.76 “g,” the acceleration due to gravity. Even at 0.6g, a 160 lb person will feel the force of about 96 pounds. Taking off in a space shuttle, at 3g, “feels like three people your weight sitting on top of you.”

Even those who haven’t any prior interest in race car driving will find themselves rooting for some of the drivers profiles. And race car fans might discover they know a lot more about science than they previously thought. Diandra Leslie-Pelecky’s “The Physics of NASCAR” is a great introduction to physics and a very exciting ride.

Joanne McNeil is a freelance writer in Massachusetts.

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