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Engaging the Public: Vroom...Vroom...VROOOM!
On Sunday, 20 million people in 150 countries tuned in to television broadcasts in 15 languages to follow one of NASCAR's most exciting races--the Daytona 500.
But while many fans of the world's fastest growing sport tuned in to see car crashes, high-speed pit stops, and the occasional beer commercial with belching frogs, physics professor Diandra Leslie-Pelecky was watching the race for a different reason: scientific and technological innovation.
"If you want to really appreciate NASCAR, you need to know some basic science," said Leslie-Pelecky at an 18 February press breakfast organized by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the AAAS Annual Meeting. "How many other sports have their athletes work directly with engineers, mathematicians, and scientists?"
In her talk, Leslie-Pelecky highlighted several examples of how crew chiefs work with issues of friction, weight, aerodynamics, fire resistance, and Newtonian physics to get their drivers across the finish line first.
Among her many examples of how science and technology is harnessed by NASCAR is innovation in racecar tires. At over $400 apiece with a lifespan of 50-100 miles, crews can go through over $1 million worth of tires in a year.
"The tires NASCAR uses have a high co-efficient of friction, or as some other people may refer to it, 'grip the road better allowing drivers to hold turns,' " she joked.
Among other innovations are safety-cushioned walls, fire retardant suits, asymmetrical car designs, drafting techniques, fuels, and banked curves.
"While some rookie drivers are told just 'go fast, turn left, and don't crash,' there is a lot more that goes into a winning performance," she said.
Science and math also explain why drivers usually prefer to steer a skid into the infield as opposed to into the safety walls.
Leslie-Pelecky said that while infield wrecks usually feature a long series of spectacular flips and tumbles, the car is able to dissipate energy through friction with the grass, air, broken glass, and bent metal. But, when drivers hit the wall, "almost all of the energy is dissipated by the wall, and the driver pays the price."
Leslie-Pelecky believes that teaching how science is used by NASCAR drivers, pit crews, team captains, and safety coordinators is an effective way to make people interested in science that otherwise would not take an interest.
"To engage the public, scientists need to be careful not to just communicate what we find important," she concluded. "Communicating how science works, like with NASCAR, may be more important than communicating specific facts."
18 February 2007