Running Tracks Backward

The All Star Race, let’s face it, is a series of gimmicks strung together in the cause of entertainment.

Not that there’s anything wrong with doing that. It’s what every sport does. People like home runs? Then let’s have an ‘event’ in which people just try to hit home runs. People want to feel like they play a role? Then let’s make a ballot and let people pick who they want to see.

It’s all O.K. because (as Drew Carey said “What’s My Line”) the points don’t count.

NASCAR had an interesting thought last year. What if we use the All-Star race to test out the proposed 2016 rules package? They’ve since backed off on the idea. It’s asking the teams to do a lot of work for a race with no points, and a public test has few benefits. If the rules don’t work, it’s embarrassing. Even if they do work, getting data from instrumented cars (as could happen at a real “test”) offers a much more controlled way in which to evaluate the new package. (Bob Pockrass has a nice summary of this.)

Not to worry, though, because NASCAR fans are full of ideas about how to spice up the All-Star Race. Let’s move the venue. Let’s have no rules at all and let the teams bring anything they want. Let’s race the haulers instead of the cars. Let’s have everyone bring back a favorite old-time paint scheme.

Let’s run the race backward.

That seems like a pretty simple modification


Handedness-ChiralityYour scientific word for today is chirality.

Chirality is a type of asymmetry. Put your hands out in front of you, palms down. Keeping your palms facing down, try to move them in such a way that they exactly match up with each other.

I’ll save you some time. It can’t be done.

Your hands are chiral. Don’t be going getting a big head about it, though. Everyone’s are. So are your feet. But you can toss that you’re chiral into conversation and (some) people will be impressed.

If you look at the way a spiral twists, we say that it is either left-handed or right-handed, as shown in the picture at right.  Your fingers on the appropriate hand curl in the same direction as the spiral.

Not only are your hands and feet chiral, so is you DNA. Imaging taking a long ladder and twisting it into a spiral – that’s what you DNA looks like. It’s commonly described as a twisted helix

Interestingly, it only twists one way. DNA (shown below) is right-handed.


So is NASCAR. Well, if you leave out the road courses. For all but two out of the 26 races in a year, we turn left. (And yes, that makes the trace track right-handed.)

NASCAR is Chiral

Why turn left? If you try to track down the answer, you’ll find a lot of interesting theories about this. The one I see most often is that turning left is safer. Since you’re more likely to spin out and hit an outside wall, you should put the driver so that he or she sits on the side of the car away from the outside wall.

Okay, except for the face that most forms of non-stock car racing have the driver sitting in the center of the car.

So let’s look back at racing’s DNA by considering non-automotive competitions. Most race track designers adopted the conventions used by the closest form of non-car racing: horse racing.

In the U.S., horse races turn left. The USA track and field organization tells us that in 1912, the international governing body of track and field made an arbitrary decision that runners would run counterclockwise and it’s been that way ever since.

But I like this theory better. The Thoroughbred Racing Association says American racetracks were designed to be counterclockwise in 1780 because American breeders were still angry at the British because 1776.

British horses turn right. So in true American tradition, we did the opposite.

Left, Right… Does It Really Matter?

Impact_PitRoadWallEndIn a word, yes.

Tracks are designed to be run in particular direction, which means everything is optimized for that direction. There are some minor issues, like sightlines, pitting from the “wrong” side of the car, etc., but there is one very good reason for not running a track in the opposite direction.

I’ve mentioned before that the most dangerous place a car can hit is the end of a wall. If a car hits broadside (leftmost picture at right), the entire side of the car is taking the force of the impact.

If the car hits the end of the pit road, you’re concentrating all that force over a much smaller area. You’re much more likely to rupture the car that way and allow the wall (or parts of the car) to hit the driver.

Mark Martin experienced such a crash involving the pit road wall in Michigan in 2012. He noted it was a freak accident, but that class of hits remains the most serious type of impact a driver can experience.

Ideally, you’d just get rid of breaks in the walls, right? Problem is that it is impossible to make a continuous wall around the inside of the track. Cars have to get in and out of the garage and (more importantly) emergency vehicles have to have ready and immediate access to the track. So there are gaps in the wall in various places.

Let’s think about how we might do this. Simplest idea first. Just put a break in the wall,as shown below. The emergency vehicles can sit just beyond the opening and, if they’re needed, they can be out on the track in a matter of seconds.


Here’s the problem. You’ve now got cars headed toward an unprotected wall end. The cars move from left to right in the picture. Given the momentum toward the right, it’s far more probable that the car would hit something in front of it than behind it.



So if you look carefully the next time you’re at the track, look for the fishscales.

No, not the rap album.

Most tracks have them, so if you know what you’re looking for, they’re pretty easy to find examples of. Thanks to Google Earth, I’m able to show you one from Charlotte Motor Speedway at right. I highlighted the feature of interest.

They’re called fish scales because they overlap and the overlap provides protection while still allowing for motion – the same way the scales on a fish protect the fish, but still allow it to move.

It’s a little easier to see if we change the opening I designed up above to something more like this:


We’ve put the facing end of the wall pretty much out of reach of the car by overlapping the walls as shown. Now if there’s a hit, it’s on a curved portion of the wall, not an end.

But Wait…

You’re thinking – but the other end of the opening hasn’t changed. It’s still a concrete wall sticking out there.

True, but the probability of a driver hitting it is very small.

Except if you’re running the track in the direction opposite for which it was designed.

I know, you’re thinking this isn’t a big deal. But it was to Gary Terry.

Terry worked for a company that offered driving experiences in ‘exotic’ cars – Lamborghinis and the like at the Walt Disney World track. Terry was riding in the right seat (as a passenger) on April 12th of this year when the car hit the end of a wall. The driver was not seriously injured.

Terry was killed.

A heartfelt post by Jon Miller entitled “Please Stop Killing My Friends” on Jalopnik points out that the car was driving the course backward.


The green arrow shows the direction the track designer intended when he laid it out. The orange arrow shows the direction they were going.

The campaign to pay for funeral and related expenses, and for a college trust fund for Terry’s daughter Taylor. If you have a few dollars for a good cause, please donate:

And tell everyone who suggests running a race backward that there’s a really good reason for not doing so.

Another example where something seemingly simple turns out to have much more behind it.

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