The Science of Speed: Why Driving Fast is Harder than you Think
The next time you watch a flurry of screaming racecars taking a thirty-one degree banked turn at the Daytona 500 at 200 m.p.h., think not only of the sheer guts it takes to drive such machines, says physicist Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, but also ponder the physics involved.
Auto racing is virtually teeming with physics in action, she says, including aerodynamics, materials science, and vehicle dynamics.
Diandra, a nanomaterials physicist with a special interest in the physics of racecars, became interested in the science of auto racing by accident -- literally. Flipping through channels, she happened to see a car crash into the wall for seemingly no reason. Trying to explain what she saw led to more questions and ultimately to the racetrack.
"One of my professors in grad school", Diandra remembers, "told me that the single most important attribute you need to be a scientist is what he called the 'pit bull gene'. That's the gene responsible for a person getting a question in their head and not being able to rest until they have an answer."
For instance, she pondered, how do you make an engine strong enough to run at 9500 mph, so that the valves open and close 79 times every second? Can a hybrid car go fast enough to race with its gasoline-powered brethren? What does it feel like to drive a race car?
Diandra is an experimentalist, which means that her research requires her to design experiments and try things out. It was only natural that she would take her need for speed onto the track at Texas Motor Speedway to find out whether there was more to going fast than a heavy right foot.
She found that almost anyone can drive a racecar at 150 mph. It's much harder to go 160 mph and still harder to go 170 mph. The combination of understanding physics, a lack of fear and a superb feel for how the car behaves that is required to hit 200 mph is present in only a small handful of people, she says.
Although racecar drivers may not use terms like 'impulse' or 'friction', the best of them have developed what Diandra calls a 'gut-level understanding of physics'.
"I've worked a lot of problems while teaching physics classes – like how many g's you pull going around a particular corner. You end up with a number – but when you actually pull that number of g's and you have to brace yourself to stay upright in the seat, you get a much better appreciation for centripetal force."
Although her book The Physics of NASCAR focused on stock car racing, she's expanded her interest to sports car racing.
While a term like "green racing" may sound like an oxymoron to some people, the fact is that automobile manufacturers have always used racing as a research and development laboratory where they can test new ideas. As passenger cars move toward alternative fuels and alternative propulsion mechanisms, it's only natural that racing should lead the way.
Diandra Leslie-Pelecky earned undergraduate degrees in physics and philosophy from the University of North Texas and a Ph.D. in condensed matter physics from Michigan State University. She spent most of her career as a professor of Physics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln
She also serves as a consultant and outreach educator in physics, speed and NASCAR through the buildingspeed.org website.
Diandra has been involved with science education for K-12 schools, future science teachers, and the public since her graduate school days. She has directed projects aimed at improving science education at all levels, supported primarily by the National Science Foundation. She has given numerous presentations for technical and non-technical audiences, including addresses for the public sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society.
She has appeared on television for ESPN, H2 and VOOM channels, and in print for publications such as TIME and Sporting News magazines, and professional society publications such as C&EN and the Materials Research Society Bulletin. She appears periodically on the SiriusXM Speedway satellite radio program where she uses science to dispel popular myths about NASCAR and update listeners on the scientific principles that affect their favorite drivers. Most recently, she wrote and hosted the Science of Speed video series produced by the National Science Foundation, which can be found at www.buildingspeed.org.
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