NASCAR Fans Find the Physics

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky
KGJ/APS © 2007

University of Nebraska physics professor Diandra Leslie-Pelecky recently went to the asphalt at the Daytona International Speedway to uncover the science behind the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).

She became interested in NASCAR physics while watching a race during which a car suddenly veered into the wall. She couldn’t figure out what caused the crash and set out to solve the problem.
Leslie-Pelecky soon discovered that there was a lot more to car racing than driving around in circles. She shared her information with APS members and local residents during a recent APS meeting in Jacksonville.

Any good NASCAR driver can recite this basic mantra: Go fast, always turn left and don’t crash. Leslie-Pelecky said that the drivers are working at a point of constant unstable equilibrium. The key to keeping 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–from aerodynamics and acceleration to friction and energy dispersion upon impact.

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