Behind the Science of Speed

The Science of Speed video series is now up at www.science360.gov. We did a press conference at Texas Motor Speedway Friday April 3rd afternoon announcing the series. If you told me three years ago I’d be sitting at a racetrack in-between a real racecar driver and an official from the National Science Foundation, I would have told you that you were nuts.

Photo credit: Getty Images

We got great coverage from nascar.com and even a podcast that Marc at Full Throttle was kind enough to post!

The Science of Speed was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of a major initiative to show people how math and science impact their lives in ways they might not expect. I’ve always advocated that we would have much more luck teaching math and science if we used things that people already care about. And a lot of us care about racing.

The videos were produced by Santa Fe Productions and they have an amazing crew of people involved. Jim Hoppin, Eli Brown, Ylonda Viola, Lennlee Keep and Tony Tiano did most of the real work on the project, and they came to it with virtually no background in NASCAR. The person who had the most challenging task was Leesa Travis, make up artist extraordinaire who had the dual challenge of dealing with me and my often-feral hair, plus trying to get guys who work on race cars to let her put on at least a little powder so they didn’t shine up our shots!

Hendrick Motorsports let us shoot for a couple of days in their lobbies and both Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte sat for interviews. Steve kept insisting that he wasn’t really that smart, then went on to explain a very complicated topic in a much better way than I had planned on doing. I learned a lot from him, including that he is an extremely nice, down-to-earth person.

The series gave me a great opportunity to get some of the people from my book, The Physics of NASCAR on screen, so if you wondered what Josh Browne and Andy Randolph look and sound like, you’ll see them in a number of episodes. I also met a lot of new people who are now in my Rolodex of people to pester with questions. Patrick Canupp (aerodynamicist at JGR), Nick Hughes at MWR and Brandon Thomas and John Probst at Red Bull Racing were really generous with their time.

We shot a number of interviews at Daytona prior to the Shootout. People were really busy and it’s a very stressful time, but again, everyone was really generous with their time. I would really have loved to have had more time with Chris Andrews at Roush Fenway, who had an amazing knack for cutting right to the essence of a topic and giving us a response that was exactly what we needed.

Interviewing crew chiefs and engineers was interesting, because in addition to there being an inherently adversarial relationship between engineers and physicists (a topic for a whole different blog!), they have a totally different language and context than I do. The point of the series is to explain sometimes-complex topics; however, I’m not the expert – they are. I’m the interpreter, so my task is to get them to explain things to me, then figure out how to explain those same ideas to people who may not have the same technical background. Just as a physicist makes a big deal about the difference between weight and mass, a formally trained engineer like Bob Osborne wanted to be very specific about ‘load transfer’ (the correct term) vs. ‘weight transfer’ (technically incorrect, but perhaps more meaningful to people who aren’t engineers). And you’ll notice in the balance segment, we specifically made a point of using the words ‘load transfer’. There’s a fine line between “right” and “not wrong” that is unfortunately very fuzzy.

Carl Edwards’ brother was with him – I saw Kenny beat Carl at the I-80 Speedway before I left Nebraska. Carl actually used the words ‘specific heat’ in one of his answers. Really, can you ask for much more in a man – good looking, drives a race car AND knows thermodynamics?

Speaking of guys who know science, I am throwing over Elliott for Brian Vickers, who was kind enough to not only participate in the series and the press conference, but also promised to take me bump drafting! Jeff Gordon called Brian “a math guy”, which came up when we asked Jeff how long it took him to get out of a car. He didn’t know the time exactly, “but Brian’s a math guy, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he had calculated it out.” Brian is a whole lot more than a “math guy” – he’s one of the drivers you can be proud of supporting. Despite being only 25 years old, he’s got a great deal of maturity and class. I’m looking forward to his first Red Bull Racing win.

Speaking of Red Bull, I learned an awful lot from my day with John, Brandon and Josh. Aside from being a trio of cutups (always a good thing!), they are very engineering focused. All three are formally trained engineers, so they think more mathematically than the folks who aren’t formally trained. I got into a disagreement with Josh about whether “grip” was a force. To me, grip is the lateral frictional force – the force that keeps the car from sliding up the track around a turn. The RBR guys weren’t happy with my definition. It wasn’t just one of those engineering/physics “you say centrifugal and I say centripetal” things.

Race teams deal in second-order corrections. If you ask how much a particular car costs and someone says “about $25,000”, then you press and they say “$24,950” and you press more and they say “$24,949.65”, the $0.65 is the second-order correction. Grip is a force, but grip is the $25,000 and every race team has it. They’re working out in the sixty-five cent region, trying to gain a few hundredths of a second per lap. That’s why it’s so hard to get ahead – you’re looking for very small advantages. Everyone else is looking for the same advantages.

In addition to learning some science, I also learned something about television. While we were out at Texas Motor Speedway and Talladega filming B-roll (pictures you’re going to talk over) last fall, I was watching the people I like watching on television (like Mike Massaro and Randy Pemberton). I’m aware that you can’t learn by watching, but seeing how they moved and looked at the camera at least gave me something to use as a reference. You can see a really big difference in the segments we taped first (which were in October 2008) and the segments we taped at the end (February 2009). Any segment that is in a Hendrick Motorsports lobby was taped early on. The segments that show me at a track were the last ones we taped. It’s much like my experience driving at Texas Motor Speedway: You don’t appreciate how hard it is until you have do it yourself. It is not easy to stand in front of a camera and talk. Seems like it ought to be, but I think about how much I struggled with scripted lines and I am in awe of the pit reporters who have to compose complete sentences in real time. Taping during practice at Daytona meant trying to get lines out (correctly) before the next car came around the track.

It was fun, it was educational and it was a heck of a lot of work. Please share the website with your friends and help us get the word out.

2 thoughts on “Behind the Science of Speed”

  1. Thanks for the mention Diandra.

    As one that has more passion than time for blogging posting the podcast was not a hard decision to make – resistance was futile.

    But that’s true of all your work.

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