University of Nebraska physics professor Diandra Leslie-Pelecky went behind the scenes at top racing shops, and onto the asphalt at the Daytona International Speedway in her quest to uncover the science behind NASCAR racing. In her public lecture on April 16, she gave Jacksonville residents and April Meeting attendees a taste of what she found.
Leslie-Pelecky became interested in NASCAR physics while watching a race one weekend, in which a car quite suddenly veered into the wall. She couldn’t figure out what had caused the crash and set out to solve the conundrum. And she discovered there’s a lot more to car racing than driving around in circles.
Any good NASCAR driver can recite this basic mantra: go fast, always turn left, and don’t crash. Leslie-Pelecky says that the drivers are working at a point of constant unstable equilibrium. The key to maintaining that precarious balance is maintaining, as much as possible, the same amount of force on all four tires.
She found that the best NASCAR drivers are “intuitive physicists”: they understand the complex interplay of the various forces at work on the track extremely well, from aerodynamics and acceleration to friction and energy dispersion upon impact.