Keeping Racecars on the Racetrack

Ryan Newman escaped NASCAR sanctions for his comments immediately after being discharged from the infield care center at Talladega.

“They can build safer racecars, they can build safer walls, but they can’t get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track and that’s pretty disappointing, and I wanted to make sure I get that point across,” he said. “You all can figure out who ‘they’ is.”

You’ll hear people talk about aerogrip and mechanical grip.  Aerogrip comes from air pushing the car into the track, while mechanical grip is due to the weight of the car pushing the car into the track.  What pushes down can also push up, so it’s not surprising that the same two factors contribute to cars becoming airborne.

Aerodynamic Takeoff

When a car rotates (so that its side or its back is leading instead of its front), it looks an awful lot like an airplane wing — a shape that is optimized to generate lift.  The faster air flows over a surface, the lower the pressure.  In the figure below, the longer and greener the arrow is, the faster the air flows over the car.  This shows airflow from the front of the car, but the same areas where air flows quickly when the car is going straight are the same areas where air flows quickly when the car is yawed.

NASCAR race cars have roof flaps and hood flaps that are located where – surprise – the green arrows are in the figure above.  (Figure Credit: USA Today) .  In the Gen-6 car, the roof flaps are much larger and the previous “cowl flaps” were moved onto the hood proper.  The hood now extends up to the windshield and there is no cowl anymore.

A roof flap or hood flap slows down the air passing over the car, thus forcing it to exert more pressure downward, which pushes the car back down to the ground.

Mechanical Take-Off

The other way a car’s wheels can leave the ground is due to mechanical forces that cause the car to roll over.  Torque is the application of a force that causes rotation.  If you look at some of the classic rolling accidents from Talladega, a number of them are caused by a car moving from the pavement to the grass or vice-versa.  There is almost always a step up or down at the transition from one surface to another and that step creates a torque that causes the car to roll.   In the diagram below, the car is skidding sideways, then hits a bump.  The torque created by the bump causes the car to rotate.

A torque can be applied anywhere and could be caused by anything on the track — including another car.

The incident last weekend at Talladega was combination of these factors.  The video shows that the 36 hits Busch (78) at the right rear quarter panel, turning the 78.  As the car rotates, one roof flap deploys, indicating that the pressure above the car became less than that inside the car; however, the critical factor looks to be the 36 getting under the right rear quarter panel and creating a torque that rolls the 78.  If you look back to the first diagram, you’ll see that these cars have a rake in the back. The upswing helps air move out from under the car and decreases lift; however, it’s also a place where the nose of one car can launch the other.  As the 78 is rolling, the 39 drives right under him and the 78 lands on the 38.

The Fix(es)

1.  Eliminate abrupt steps between the racing surface and the infield in the triovals.  Remove the grass in the infield of the trioval area so that there isn’t a transition.  You can paint asphalt as well as you can paint grass.  Having a continuous surface, with a very smooth transition from banking to flat (the abrupt change from banked to flat can also create a torque that flips cars) would eliminate a lot of problems.

2.  Decrease speed.  The ability of cars to take off when they rotate is dependent on the yaw angle and the speed they are traveling.  You can’t do anything to prevent the cars from rotating, so the only option is to decrease the speed of the cars.  You could do this by making the restrictor plate smaller (see below why that probably won’t help) or giving the cars much more drag so that they can’t go as fast.

3.  Stop Pack Racing.  The Big One happens because there are so many cars so close to each other traveling at high speed.  200 mph is a football field per second.  You literally have no time to react.  This is a direct consequence of restrictor plate racing, where the drivers are at full throttle all the time.  Many fans like pack racing; however, if you want pack racing, you’re going to have to accept that we’re going to have accidents like the ones we’ve seen this year during the Nationwide race in Daytona (in which fans were injured) and like we saw last weekend at Talladega.

4.  Have the drivers get their heads out of their @**\$* and drive better.  The Talladega accident happened because drivers tried to make their cars do things the cars weren’t capable of doing.  Simple as that.  NASCAR cannot fabricate an idiot-proof car.  As long as drivers push their cars past their limits, there will be accidents.

It’s really easy to criticize abstract entities like “NASCAR” because you’re not really criticizing a person — it’s a faceless corporate entity.  When you know the people who are being criticized, you take the criticism differently.  I know a number of the people responsible for safety in NASCAR.  They have dedicated their lives to making racing safer and not just for  ‘stars’ like Mr. Newman.  Think about how many lives these folks have saved.  It is unfair  to characterize them the way Mr. Newman did.  I understand being mad, but it’s disappointing that Mr. Newman lacks the grace to express his frustration some way other than name calling.

I’m also disappointed by NASCAR’s stand on the issue, either.  I’m OK with not fining Mr. Newman for his comments.  They were made in the heat of the moment and I’d be pretty steamed if a car landed on me, too.   It seems to me that there’s a very fine line between criticizing officiating and criticizing people’s integrity.  The statement NASCAR put out, however, seems to imply that it’s OK to attack the integrity of people as long as you’re not attacking the “racing product”.  Seems to me there’s something wrong when you put product before people.

I’ve said it before, but it beats repeating:  there is no way to make racing 100% safe.  NASCAR has made enormous strides in safety, but there is — and always will be — the potential for serious injury and death.  If human beings never made mistakes, racing would be significantly safer than it is; however, the fact is that the human element of racing is perhaps the most important and that brings with it the likelihood of mistakes.

If you’re not willing to accept that, you should consider another line of work

Here’s an older video about aerodynamics and lift: