Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


nascar

The Physics of NASCAR

• December 21, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky (ILLUSTRATION: JOE CIARDIELLO)

What Jimmie Johnson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., owe to a PhD in the pit crew.

WHO: Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, racecar researcher at West Viriginia University

WHAT: Breaks down the physics of racing, from the heat-resistant properties of drivers’ suits, to the aerodynamics of their cars, to what makes them crash.

WHY: “I used to be one of those people who thought, ‘Why would anyone want to watch cars going in circles?’” Then, while channel-flipping one day, Leslie-Pelecky came across a NASCAR race just as a car skidded out and slammed into a wall—for no apparent reason. Intrigued, she started trying to figure out what had caused the crash. “It was all stuff I’m supposed to be teaching my students: acceleration, velocity, the laws of force. But it’s so much more interesting at 200 miles per hour than looking at a ball rolling down an inclined plane.” She now spreads that message via a book, a blog, and frequent appearances on the SiriusXM Speedway radio show.

UNEXPECTED FINDING: Drivers need to be attuned to a myriad of constantly changing variables. For instance, a car’s weight changes by the second as the initial 120 pounds of gasoline in its tank burns away, and each lap measurably wears down the tires, changing their grip on the track.

PERK: Drove a race car at 160 mph. “I got on the track and thought, ‘This is the coolest thing in the world.’”

PITFALL: Leslie-Pelecky’s day job is developing magnetic nanomaterials—submicroscopic artificial objects—that she hopes will eventually be used to direct drugs at cancerous tumors and other ailments. “I get invitations to give lectures all the time, but not about my research. Way more people are interested in hearing about NASCAR than nanomaterials.”

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

More From Vince Beiser

Tags: , ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

When a Romance Is Threatened, People Rebound With God

And when they feel God might reject them, they buddy up to their partner.

How Can We Protect Open Ocean That Does Not Yet Exist?

As global warming melts ice and ushers in a wave of commercial activity in the Arctic, scientists are thinking about how to protect environments of the future.

What Kind of Beat Makes You Want to Groove?

The science behind the rhythms that get you on the dance floor.

Pollution’s Racial Divides

When it comes to the injustice of air pollution, the divide between blacks and whites is greater than the gap between the rich and the poor.

Hunger and Low Blood Sugar Can Spur Domestic Quarrels

In an experiment, scientists found a correlation between low blood glucose and higher levels of spousal frustration.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014