The Physics of NASCAR by Diandra Leslie-Pelecky

When this first came out, I didn’t pick it up, despite a glowing recommendation from Jennifer Ouellette, because NASCAR is one of the few things on ESPN that interests me less than baseball. I didn’t really think I’d be interested in reading a whole book on the subject.

I saw Jennifer and Diandra on Bloggingheads a little while back, and she made it sound pretty interesting. And then I saw that she was giving a public lecture at DAMOP, and figured it would be good for airplane reading on the way down and back.

The Preface gives a nice description of how she came to write the book:

Absentmindedly flipping through channels the Sunday before Memorial Day, I happened to see a group of six cars rounding the corner of a track. Before I could flip to the next channel, chaos ensued. The back of one car wiggled slightly, and then– WHAM! The car smacked against the outside wall, then careened back down across the track, taking out the other five cars. Brakes screeched, cars spun through the grass, and a giant cloud of smoke rose over the infield.

People like me go into science because we like understanding things– or maybe it’s better to say that it bothers us when we don’t understand things. Why would one car, for seemingly no reason, all of a sudden hit the wall?

Books have been written for much worse reasons.

Leslie-Pelecky goes on to explain, well, the science that goes into making a race car go fast. The book is roughly divided into two parts (though there isn’t a formal division)– the first half outlines the basic science of engines and aerodynamics and car design, informed by visits to several NASCAR shops, while the second half focuses on one particular race team, the 19 car of Elliott Sadler, who she tagged along with for a couple of races, and openly roots for.

The physics explanations here are very good, and in several places, she actually comes pretty close to writing the sort of interesting explanation of materials science that I’ve wished for here (this shouldn’t be surprising, as that appears to be her research area, broadly speaking). If you’ve ever wanted to know the difference between cast iron and other metals, I recommend chapter 4, on the design and construction of engines.

The later sections on Sadler’s race season were weakened slightly by my utter ignorance of how NASCAR works– I kept being distracted by passing references to the Byzantine system of points and teams and qualifying and sponsors and all the rest. It does do a god job of showing the science in action, though it does still seem as much art as science.

The one weakness in the book, at least from my perspective, is the lack of figures in some key places. There are a good number of figures in the book, but her DAMOP talk worked a lot better, for me, because she showed a lot of pictures of the cars and car parts she was talking about. There are limits to what can be put into print, though.

The book hasn’t made me want to start spending Sunday afternoons watching people drive in circles, but it is a good, solid, pop-physics book. If you’re even a casual fan of NASCAR, though, it’s the sort of thing that might completely change the way you look at the sport. There’s a lot of science going into the whole business, most of it stuff that we ignore in regular physics classes.