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NASCAR-in-the-classroom? 'The Physics of NASCAR'


Dr. Diandra Leslie-Pelecky: ready to learn bump-drafting.....(Photo: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   FORT WORTH, Texas
   Remember 'The physics of Star Trek,' the 1995 book about inertial dampeners, warp drive, tractor beams, phasers, and other quantum mechanics' 'how-do-they-do-it'?
  Well, beam me up, Scotty, here's one about 'The physics of NASCAR,' and these Detroit-lineage starships-on-wheels.
   Dr. Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, has just published the book, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation.
   The book works with a 12-chapter on-line video series, at http://science360.gov/ that is designed to help improve science scores among high school students – by bringing NASCAR racing into the classroom.
   Not a bad PR angle.
   Not a bad high school angle either.
   The various segments use Jeff Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte, Carl Edwards and chief engineer Chris Andrews, Brian Vickers, Nick Hughes and Michael Waltrip, and a number of other NASCAR figures to explain some of the science behind NASCAR's speed.
   Considering the way some of these star drivers race, maybe they need to read a couple of chapters themselves, like the one on bump-drafting.
    Leslie-Pelecky: "You'd think 'It's a straightforward car. They just turn left. How difficult can this be?'
   "Well, it turns out it's really hard.
   "For example: we've got a new race car, and the new car needs a new tire (bigger), because we're going from a 15-inch wheel to a 17-inch wheel.
   "But you can't just make the tire wider, you have to consider 'aspect ratio,' because that's going to determine how the car behaves in the turns. So now you have to make the car taller. And that will affect the aerodynamics…and that's going to change the fine points of the suspension…which will change the vehicle dynamics. And it will change how the brakes work.
    "It's just not that easy…."
    How about NASCAR terms, like 'loose' and 'tight'?
   Well, sometimes the NASCAR Dictionary is easy to read: "If you're missing the right-front fender when you pull in the pits, then the car was tight," Vickers said with a laugh. "And if you're missing the right-rear, it was loose."
   Also playing a key role in this project was Jeff Nesbit, the director of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at the National Science Foundation.
   "When I first proposed this to the National Science Foundation, I got a few raised eyebrows," Nesbit said. "But then I previewed the safety videos, and they are really amazing.
   "So I can think of nothing better than a kid bored in science class watching this and suddenly saying 'Hey, I'd better start paying attention….because maybe I could grow up to be a NASCAR crew chief.'"
   "I never really understood the centrifugal forces involved here until they took me around the turns here at 160 mph," Leslie-Pelecky said.
   "Next I want to experience bump-drafting to understand that."
    "Now you need to understand that this is one of those experiments that might not go as planned…it could turn into barrel-rolling," Vickers warns with a grin.


Brian Vickers (L): Now the science of 'bump-drafting,' he tells Leslie-Pelecky (C), isn't always classroom-pretty. NSF's Jeff Nesbit (R) gets the drift (Photo: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)


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