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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.

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