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Built for Speed: NASCAR Physics Featured in Public Lecture

Nebraska physics professor Diandra Leslie‑Pelecky says mastery of physics is essential just to compete ‑‑ never mind win ‑‑ in the top NASCAR events
The car says “DLP,” Diandra Leslie-Pelecky’s initials.
In February, 200,000 people gathered in Florida to watch the Daytona 500, with another 35 million tuning in via TV. But NASCAR is more than just a sport: there’s real science involved in piloting a car around the 31‑degree banked turns of the Daytona International Speedway at 190 mph.

“Mastery of the laws of physics is a pre‑requisite to compete, let alone win,” says Diandra Leslie‑Pelecky, an associate professor of physics at the University of Nebraska, who will talk about the physics involved in NASCAR in a public lecture at the APS April Meeting in Jacksonville, Florida. This includes why racecars are shaped like kidney beans; why they don’t have mufflers; why hitting the car in front of you makes both cars go faster; and why NASCAR vehicles need 110‑octane gas when the average SUV gets by on 92 or 93.

A long‑time NASCAR fan, Leslie‑Pelecky’s interest in the science behind the sport was piqued when she watched a car crash, even though the replays showed no obvious cause–no collision, no sideswipe, no flat tires, no engine failures. Her quest to find the answers to this and other questions took her to some unexpected places for a physicist: from behind the scenes at top racing shops, to the asphalt at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Leslie‑Pelecky earned her PhD from Michigan State University and joined the faculty at the University of Nebraska in 1994. Her academic research focuses on magnetic nanomaterials with potential applications in improving MRI technology and cancer diagnosis, and she is also very much involved with science education and public outreach.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff