Jul 292014
 

My friend at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, Dave Kallmann (whose online column should be a regular read for race fans) asked about the confiscated firewalls from the Number 11 car at Indy.  That reminded me of the  first NASCAR race I was supposed to attend as research for my book The Physics of NASCAR. That was California in 2007. I was to follow around the number 19 car, at that time driven by Elliott Sadler and crew chiefed by Josh Browne.

VentedScrewsThen Josh and three other crew chiefs got themselves suspended at Daytona for using bolts in the spoilers that had tiny holes drilled all the way through the shanks. I know what these are (and where to find a picture) because we used to use them in the lab in our vacuum systems.  If you put a bolt into a hole, you trap air in the hole. We’re trying to leave on about 1 in every 1,000,000,000,000 molecules in the vacuum chamber, so it’s absolute critical that we can pull them all out.

The reason the team used… excuse me, I mean allegedly used… the bolts is because it gave the air trapped in the trunk of the car a way out and that should decrease drag and thus increase speed. So my first research race turned out to be Atlanta.

During Indy post-race inspection, some rear firewalls from the number 11 car were confiscated. A firewall is a piece of sheet metal that puts a barrier between the driver and anything you don’t want the driver exposed to, which may include fire, hot oil and other fluids, carbon monoxide, smoke, etc.  I’ve indicated the front firewalls on the picture because I couldn’t find a good picture of rear firewalls.

Firewallpic

Apparently the firewalls, or their positioning, was suspicious to the NASCAR inspectors. It’s possible there was just an error in the way the parts were installed (the teams manufacture a lot of cars and sometimes there are mistakes). But there is also the possibility that moving the rear firewalls around does pretty much the same thing that the vented bolts did: they provide a path for air to get out of the car and thus reduce drag and increase speed.

Seems like a pretty minor thing to move a few pieces of sheet metal around just a little; however, the positions of the sheet metal are specified pretty precisely. Modifying the arrangement can compromise drive safety in terms of an opening allowing smoke or fire into the cockpit.

We’ll see this afternoon whether NACSAR comes down hard on the team because this is a safety-associated issue. It may just have been a mistake; however, NASCAR doesn’t consider intention in determining the severity of a penalty.

Incidentally, Dave does an online race chat on Wednesdays at 1 pm Central. It’s not limited to NASCAR, so if you have a chance, join in the chat.

And can you believe it? I’m finally getting back to Milwaukee and it ends up being a week when the Brewers are out of town the entire week.  I’m going to have to just break down and go see them when they come to town and play the Nats.  At least Karl Ratzsch’s is still there.  And the Zoo.

 

 

 

 

Jun 202014
 

 

Brad Keselowski, that never ending source of material on slow news days, had a few words about the state of American Motorsports Engineering. These quotes are from an article by Mike Pryson in Autoweek.com.

“It’s probably a larger story in itself that the American engineering pool is very shallow right now,” said Keselowski after he qualified sixth at Michigan International Speedway on Friday for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. “Penske is moving to any other country [to find them]. We’ve hired multiple engineers from Europe over the last three or four years and we’re pilfering everyone we can in the great country of Canada, so if you know any of them, send them our way.

“It’s just very hard to get engineers with the educational background and commitment that we need to be successful at this level from the United States. There’s certainly a shortage, not just at Penske, but throughout the garage.”

His comments (here and in the last few days) have to be interpreted in the context of their being responses to questions about why Ford (and Penske) were struggling compared to Chevy (and Hendrick in particular).  The mainstream motorsports media (try saying that fast five times) tend to want a simple answer, like “They have more horsepower”. As we know, racing is a holistic enterprise and often it’s the interplay of things and not just the things that is most critical.  And people want to reduce answers to more provocative things like “Keselowski hates American Engineers”.

I know a lot of racing engineers who found his comments derogatory. It reminded me of being in grad school and always hearing the professors complain that they needed “More and better graduate students”. When I finally called on on this and told him it bothered us, he looked at me blankly. “We don’t mean you guys. You guys are great. It’s our applicant pool…”

Sometimes a little clarification makes a huge difference to the people involved. The big thing I got out of it after reading all the media reports I could find about Keselowski’s comments was that he said that Penske got a very small number of applications from highly qualified American engineers.

Let’s look at the numbers. In 2012, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, 88,176 bachelor’s level and 49,372 masters level engineering degrees were handed out.  There were 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees in all fields, which means that engineering degrees make up only 5% of all bachelor’s level degrees. Compare that with Japan and Chine where engineering degrees are 50% of the degrees granted.  That’s for all fields of engineering. Most people working in motorsports have degrees in mechanical engineering (few schools offer a dedicated motorsports engineering degree), which is somewhere around 20,000 degrees at the bachelor’s level and 6,o00 master’s level degrees. (85- 90% of mechanical engineering degrees are earned by men, incidentally).

The schools that offer motorsports engineering degrees are schools like Indiana University – Purdue University at Indiana (IUPUI), UNC-Charlotte and the University of Northern Ohio.  In fact, UNC-Charlotte boasts that 10% of NASCAR engineers come from UNC-Charlotte.  Other schools, like the University of Colorado – Denver offer motorsports specializations within mechanical engineering. Nothing against these schools. But if I look at the engineers I know who are successful in NASCAR, they’ve got degrees from places like Northwestern, Duke, Penn State, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon.  Newman went to Purdue. Those universities attract a different level of student. Nothing against folks who went to a small state school. I did. But if you want the best and the brightest, you’ve got a higher likelihood of finding them at the elite engineering schools.

Europe, in particular, has a well-established stream of motorsports engineering because of the high technical level of F1. I was at Oxford On Brookes in England a few years ago and their facilities and program are amazing. Well ahead of most of what we have in the States.

The numbers are small to start with, and I think three factors narrow the pool:  Money, work environment, and personal goals.

The mean annual wage for mechanical engineers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor is $85,930 – and it’s much higher (over $100,ooo) in select field like energy.  I started off thinking salary wasn’t an issue because teams like Hendrick and Gibbs have very deep pockets and understand how important it is to have strong engineering. On second though, few people get to start with the big teams. So salaries may  be a contributing factor to there being a smaller application pool. If someone’s faced with a starting salary from an auto manufacturer or a  Nationwide-only team, the production car job might look a lot better.

Even if the salary is high, you have to consider the job responsibilities relative to the salary. NASCAR engineers work in an extremely high-stress, rapid output environment. They have to work with a broad range of people, from mechanics to public relations people (to drivers, some of whom are not shy about throwing their teams under the bus when they don’t finish well). Failure in motorsports is extremely visible. If you are slow, the whole world sees it. Many engineers spend a significant amount of time on the road, away from family. Even those that don’t travel as part of the raceday team are involved in testing.  A lot of people don’t want an eighty-hour-a-week, high stress job.

Finally, there’s the question of what you want out of your career. People I know who have worked in motorsports and left are working in everything from production car development to trying to make the country less dependent on foreign energy sources. A number of them enjoyed motorsports, but there are bigger and more significant problems in the world than making cars go fast. People want different things out of life. You have to really like racing to make a career of it.

Keselowski pointed out as much in a tweet.

kestweet

 

 

But that didn’t make it into any of the stories, of course.

Jun 162014
 

Equilibrium. It’s more than just a neat word. It’s the holy grail for a racecar driver.

Brian Vickers lost his car on the first lap of yesterday’s Michigan Sprint Cup Race. Vickers said (quote from an article by Jay Pennell of Fox Sports).

“I was going into Turn 3 and expecting to follow the 48 in there and the 22 jumped inside of us and it just came around,” Vickers said. “I mean I just lost it. I have no idea what happened or why. The car just got really loose into three and I chased it all the way up to the wall. I thought I had it saved and it just came all the way around.”

A racecar driver’s goal is to keep the car exactly at equilibrium. Equilibrium means that all the forces acting on a object equal out.  For example, I’m sitting in a chair at my desk. Gravity pulls me down with a force equal to my weight. The chair pushes up with a force equal to my weight. If you add them up, they equal out. If the chair were to break, it would exert less force on me than gravity and I would accelerate downward.

The chair is actually capable of exerting a much larger force than my weight (which I know because people heavier than me have sat in this chair and it didn’t break.) Most things we use have a safety factor – they’re much stronger, or capable of exerting a greater force, than we will ever need.  We’re not even close to having to worry about equilibrium.

Racing is the act of keeping the car exactly at equilibrium. I like to think of equilibrium as applied to racecars like this:

EquilbriumWhen the forces are exactly balanced, you’re living up to car’s potential and getting it to go as fast as it’s capable of going.  If you’re not pushing the car to the limits of the tire’s traction, you’re giving up speed.  If you push the car beyond the tire’s limits, you crash. Look at the in-car cameras during a race and see how tenuous the connection is between the car and the track.

With the car perched on the top of an unstable equilibrium like the one diagrammed above, all it takes is a little perturbation and the car moves off the peak position. If the perturbation is small, the driver may be able to recover. But it doesn’t have to be very large – a good wind is more than enough – and the driver is caught in a spin. The side of a racecar presents a huge area for the wind to push on. It’s not surprising that a good wind, hitting at exactly the wrong angle, could spin out even a 3,480 lb racecar – because the racecar is already on the edge of crashing.

 

Jun 132014
 

You are hurtling down the frontstretch at Michigan, your speed approaching 215 mph.  Your seat moves up and down as you hit the seams, but your focus is squarely on getting into Turn 1 losing as little speed as possible.  You squeeze the brakes and feel yourself moving forward, only to realize that you’re still moving too quickly. As the car starts to head toward the wall, you panic and squeeze the brake even harder.

The car snaps loose and the next thing you feel… is an engineer’s hand on your shoulder.  You turn around to see her barely suppressing a smile.

“Let’s try that again. Maybe you want to brake earlier this time, huh?”

The latest racing simulators are far more involved than your steering-wheel-feedback-enabled video game. When you hear drivers talk about using simulators to familiarize themselves with new tracks, you are only hearing about the surface layer.

Ford opened a new Racing Technology Center in Concord NC just about a month ago.  The old Ford facility used to be called “The Shack” because of it’s size. The new facility, which is across the street from Roush Fenway Racing, is 33,000 square feet. One of the main features is a driving simulator similar to the ones that F1 uses.  Five screens provide a 180-degree view for the driver. The cockpit is the front half of a NASCAR Sprint Cup car that is set on a full-motion platform.  The platform duplicates the exact motions you would feel in the car – bumps, slips, sways, yaw.

Let’s move away from the driver for a moment, because he (or she) is a relatively recent addition. All race teams use vehicle dynamics simulations: computer programs that predict lap times for specific setups. A crew chief changes the setup on the computer – camber, cross weight, track bar, etc. – and can see in advance whether the changes make the lap time better or worse.

DriverintheLoop2

Simulation programs have to be validated, meaning you have to make sure they correspond with reality. Every team also has (or rents time on)  K&C and seven-post rigs.  (K&C stands for Kinematics and Compliance – I’ll be getting into those in upcoming posts.) These machines attempt to quantify how the car responds to external changes, like turning, bumps, etc.

Engineers thus went back and forth between theory (the simulations) and experiment, developing a model of the car, testing it against how the car behaved, and then refining their model.  (Unsurprisingly, this is exactly how scientific research on things like alternative energy sources and cancer works.)

This is a great model for the Google driverless car. But that’s not how racing works. Racing requires a living, breathing, thinking (hopefully) human being in the seat who has to constantly take in information, process that information and act on it.

And that’s where racing simulators are moving. The buzzword is “Driver in the Loop”, which means that you’re creating a model that includes the driver.  This is not an easy step. Drivers are very different in terms of their preferences for set-up, what they’re comfortable driving, how loose they’re willing to be early in a run to make the car faster later, etc.

The simulator in the new Ford Tech Center is a sled-type simulator. Less advanced models have hydraulic pistons that raise and lower the cockpit to simulate bumps and change attitude.  The sled can actually duplicate all six types of motion: three linear motions (up/down, left/right, front/back) and three rotational degrees of freedom (yaw, roll and pitch).  This motion platform was developed by a British company called Ansible Motion and the picture below is from their website. You can see the sled rails at the back, and the 180+degree surround on which the images of the track are displayed. The steering wheel provides feedback to the driver and even the seatbelts are cued in so that when you brake, the seatbelt tightens just as it would in a real car. Ansible is the same vendor that worked on McLaren’s F1 simulator. The Ford folks claim that this design has a much faster response time, meaning that the time between when you turn the steering wheel and when you feel the result, is shorter and more like real life.

AnsibleMotionPlatform

 

 

At present, they’ve got ten tracks in the library for the new simulator – eventually they will have all the NASCAR tracks and, since the Tech Center is meant to support all of Ford’s motorsport activities, they will be able to change out the cockpit to, say, a Daytona Prototype, and including tracks like Sebring.

So far, I’ve made it sound like they’re just one-upping iRacing, but a prime feature of the center is that there is a whole room associated with the simulator that is filled with engineers who are watching both the driver and the racecar input/output data.  The driver is being assimilated into the simulations. This is why it’s called “Driver-in-the-Loop” simulation.
DriverintheLoop

 

On the one hand, the driver will help validate all the models.  If there’s a bump on Pit Road at a track that gives a driver trouble, he or she will recognize when it’s not in the model of the track used by the simulator. (And since tracks change significantly, the models have to change to keep up with reality.)

While we’re talking tracks, let’s point out that the track models aren’t made by someone sent out with a tape measure. Tracks are laser scanned to a resolution of a few millimeters. Every dip and bump is recorded and used in modeling the tracks. Laser scanning not only collects three-dimensional location information, it looks at the quality of the reflection.  Laser scanning can differentiate between a white painted line and a yellow painted line, between two different lanes of asphalt, or even skid marks. When you’re traveling at top speed, any surface irregularity becomes important because all it takes is for the car to be throw a little out of equilibrium and you’re in the wall.

In addition to the track, the driver can also provide feedback about whether the “car” responds the way it does in real life. But at the same time the driver is evaluating the simulator elements, the engineers are evaluating the driver. They can start to look at things like how a particular driver’s comfort level may dictate a different line for them relative to another driver. They can run repeated tests to find out how constant a driver is. Do they brake the same way going into Turn 1 at Charlotte every time? Or are they hyper aware of something like tire fall off and able to tailor their braking to the condition of the car?  This type of research has great potential to improve communication between the team and the driver.

Skeptics will worry that we’re getting uncomfortably close to a situation in which we have a bunch of engineers sitting around driving the racecar via remote control and the driver is no more than a warm body executing commands as he’s told. The beautiful thing about human beings is that you can’t model a human being. Having done research in both physics and science education, there’s a huge difference between measuring electrons and measuring people. You kick an electron twenty times and it will pretty much do the same thing each time. You kick a person twenty times and (aside from the danger of being kicked back), you’ll get at least ten responses depending on the person’s mood.

It’ll be interesting to see whether tools like this can help the Ford teams (especially Roush Fenway Racing) catch up to Chevy.

May 012014
 

We’ve heard a lot, especially this week at Richmond, about tire wear.  A lot of right front tires were wearing excessively.  As seems to be usual at this point, teams would like Goodyear to use a stronger tire and Goodyear would like teams to dial back their setups, especially their camber.

What’s Camber?

Camber is the tilt of the wheels relative to the vertical.  If the top of the wheel is father out (away from the car’s centerline) then the bottom, it’s called positive camber.  If the top of the wheel is closer than the bottom, it’s negative camber.

CamberIllustrated

Turning Left

On oval tracks where all the turns are left, they use negative camber on the right wheel and positive camber on the left.

CamberIllustrated_TurningLeft

NASCAR opened up the range of allowed cambers on the Gen-6 car.  In 2013, the front wheels could have up to 9 degrees camber and the rear wheels 3.5 degrees.  Clint Bowyer even tweeted about having blown the setup by being over agressive.

Although this makes turning easier, it means that the cars are riding on the edges of their tires when they’re not turning.  See how the inside of the right tire is the lower part?

The camber isn’t the only issue.  When you change direction, brake or accelerate, the car shifts (called load transfer).  When you turn left, the load shifts right.  When you brake, it shifts forward.  So if you brake hard while turning left, or if you have a suspension setup that allows a lot of shifting, you’re going to put a big load on the right-front tire and that also stresses the tire.

Goodyear used their dual-tread tire on the right-side tires at Richmond, where the rightmost ten inches are softer rubber and the innermost two inches are harder – but they were still having problems with cording on those inner edges of the right front tires.

Stu Grant, Goodyear’s General Manager of Global Race Tires, noted that “the operating window between acceptable wear on the right front and unacceptable wear is pretty small.”  Tires seemed to do fine up to a point, and then went catastrophically.

While Goodyear’s decided they’re going to look at the tire wear before this Fall’s Richmond Race (which will have a lot on the line), the teams are also going to have to do some set-up searching and decide how much of a risk they want to take with high levels of camber.

 

 

Nov 222013
 

Now that the season is over, it’s time to look through the statistics from the year.  One big story this year was Danica Patrick’s rookie season in Sprint Cup.  She didn’t set the world on fire:  One top ten, one pole, five laps led and only thirteen lead lap finishes put her in 27th place for the season.

Tony Stewart, when asked about Danica’s rookie year, said that he saw ‘potential’.  Potential tends to be an ephemeral thing and numbers geeks like me strive to put a quantitative slant on everything, so I thought I’d look at the numbers and see if there was anything we could glean from comparing different driver’s rookie year stats.  With thanks again to the folks at racing-reference.info for the numbers, here goes.

I didn’t include stats like average starting position or poles because, frankly, you don’t get a championship that way.  I focused on how drivers finished.  The graph below shows the percentage wins, top five and top tens for a number of drivers, ranging from champions to drivers still proving themselves and, yes, two of our rookie-of-the-year competitors.

Rookies

I think it is fair to conclude that the best drivers in the series – the multi-time champions like Johnson and Stewart – were just good from day one.  Finishing almost 60 percent of your races in the top 10 in your first year is pretty darned impressive.  The guys who looked like champions in their first year usually became champions (or came pretty close).

But the converse doesn’t hold.  A slow start doesn’t preclude the possibility of your becoming a champion.

If you look at the graph above to find a driver whose rookie year is comparable to Danica’s, you inevitably land on Brad Kezelowski.  His rookie stats weren’t that different than Danica’s.  She had one top-ten, he had two.  Neither had any top fives or wins.  They both had a pole.

So maybe there’s something that average statistics, like top tens and top fives don’t tell you.

Digging Deeper:  Histograms

Johnson2002

A histogram plots the frequency of occurrence – for example, how many times a driver finished within each particular range of finishing positions.

I chose this kind of analysis because it’s the next step up from an average finishing position.  You can take two drivers with the same average, and one could finish 17th every race, while the other alternated between winning and crashing out in the first lap.    Someone once told me that ‘averages hide a multitude of sins’ .

I broke the finishing positions into five-position segments, but I broke out wins separately.  The histogram to the right shows Jimmie Johnson’s finishes for his rookie (2002) season.  The bar corresponding to ’35′ on the chart at right shows that Jimmie Johnson had four finishes between 35th and 39th that year.  The bar corresponding to ’5′ shows that Jimmie had 14 finishes between P5 and P9.   Johnson had an average finish of 13.5 and finished 5th in the standings that year.

Stewart1999The histogram for Tony Stewart’s rookie season (1999) looks a little different than Johnson’s in the details, but (like Jimmies) it’s skewed to the right-hand side of the plot (meaning more good finishes).   Stewart had an average finish of 10.3 and finished 4th in the standings.

And then we come to Kezelowski, who had an average finish of 22.4 and finished 25th in the standings.  Unlike Johnson and Stewart, who have significant bars for top fives and wins, there are no bars for Kezelowski.  He had a few bad finishes, but he consistently ran between 25th and 10th, with more of the finishes being on the higher end of that range.

Kez2010

Which brings us to Danica.  Even though she finished in 27th place (only two behind Brad in his rookie year), the statistical distribution of her finishes looks much different than Keselowski’s.

Patrick2013

The mode of a group of numbers is the number that appears most often.  It’s the most probable outcome – and the highest bar in these histograms.  Brad has a pretty even spread between 30-10, but Danica has a pretty significant peak at the 25-29th place finishing positions.  She had a lot of finishes in the 25-29, while Brad was almost equally likely to finish 10th as 30th.

How Drivers Change

The big question, of course, isn’t how anyone did last year – it’s how they’re going to do in the future.  If there were some magical algorithm that allowed an owner to predict that, if they put three years of development into a driver, he or she would pay off, they’d have no problems deciding who to keep and who to let go.

I was curious about how drivers changed.  If you start off good, there isn’t much room for improvement, right?

JohnsonTime

This histogram compares Jimmie Johnson’s finishes in 2002 with those of this year.  He’s got fewer bad finishes and increased the number of wins, top 5s and top 10s.  Bad finishes are tricky because in a sport like this, you can get a bad finish through no fault of your own if you get caught up in someone else’s accident.  I haven’t looked at it in detail, but my first glance suggests many of the bad finishes for drivers who don’t have a lot of bad finishes are at the short tracks and the superspeedways, or they’re due to equipment malfunctioning, like a motor or transmission giving out.

What about Brad, whose rookie year wasn’t quite as promising?

KezTimeThis histogram compares Brad’s rookie year, 2010 with his championship year, 2012.  Look at the difference in finishes in just two years.  With the exception of a very few bad finishes (one was Daytona) every finish was 19th place and up.  What happened in those two years?  Some experience.  A new crew chief with whom Kezelowski seems to have really bonded.

What Does it All Mean?

If a driver starts off with a slew of top 10s in his first year, the chances are very high that driver will continue to run at the top as his or her career progresses.   You cannot, however, make the converse argument:  a driver with a weak rookie year may — or may not — become competitive.  We’ve seen some good drivers from other series come to NASCAR and struggle.

There are many factors that go into winning:  you have to have most of them to run well.  Sometimes something like changing crew chiefs, owners or even being in the final year of a contract will radically change how a driver runs.  Look at Joey Logano when he moved to Penske, or Matt Kenseth when he moved to Gibbs.

Now… that isn’t to say that there aren’t some clues that might tell you whether a driver is destined for greatness or mid-pack purgatory.  We’ll dive deeper into the data next time.

 

 

Nov 142013
 

Hard to believe it’s winter, but we got our first snow already. Here’s the news of the week.

  • It’s holiday shopping time – great idea for your gearhead: magazine subscriptions.
  • Despite hoping for a down-to-the-last-lap Homestead finale, all the stats geeks cite a pretty high probability Johnson takes it all.
    •  36 Races notes that Johnson has a 91% chance of winning the championship, but also that Harvick has a 3% chance of taking home the title.
    • Focusing more on who wins the Homestead race, PitRho has an interesting first choice for your fantasy team:  Parker Kligerman.
  • @nascarnomics looks NPR’s “esteemed commentator” Frank DeFord’s assertion that NASCAR fan numbers rose as speed increased and now that we’re only getting marginal increases in speed, that explains the declining attendance.  He analyzes attendance vs. pole speed and the results are very interesting.
  • F1′s all aflutter about the ugly noses on the 2014 car.
  • Have you ever seen a string theorist interviewed by a cat?  If not, you really should.

And in my news, I’m busy getting things ready for the end of the NASCAR season.  Whole lot of interesting stats I’ve found looking at the year as a whole.  Those’ll be coming up soon…

 

Nov 012013
 

Concussions were big news in a week where no one actually got one.

NASCAR announced a new policy on concussions :  Starting in 2014, all drivers will be required to have a baseline test at the start of the season.  NASCAR will be using the ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment Test) , which I discussed back when Dale Jr had his concussion and had to sit out a couple of races.  The ImPACT test has been widely used already in NASCAR and NASCAR did quite a bit of education to the drivers and teams about the test, how it originated, and why they are doing this.  Unlike the NFL, which has consistently denied that concussions were serious or needed attention, NASCAR is taking this seriously.

Brad Keselowski doesn’t like the new policy. And, as is his style, he made no bones about his unhappiness with the new policy.

“Doctors don’t understand our sport. They never have and they never will. Doctors aren’t risk-takers. We are. That’s what makes our sport what it is and when you get doctors involved, it waters down our sport.” (via USA Today)

One aspect Keselowski didn’t like was the lack of a firm number coming out of the test.  Without one, he said, the test was “a waste of time.”

“It’s just another subjective field for doctors that don’t understand our sport… This is not the field for doctors. Let them play in their arena and I’ll play in mine.” (via USA Today)

Sigh.  I remember being twenty nine and thinking I knew everything.

Let’s just review for a moment.  ‘Concussion’ denotes a range of damage to the brain that results from blunt trauma.  Your brain sits on your spine, but it’s not rigidly held in place.  Cerebrospinal fluid surrounds the brain and cushions it as it moves.  There’s only so much cushioning that fluid can do.  If you get hit hard enough, the brain hits the skull and the cells that make up the brain can be damaged.  Brain cells are essentially electrical components.  If you throw a radio or a television and damage the components inside, it won’t work.  Same thing goes for your brain.

We don’t have a good way of figuring out how much your brain is damaged at present because we can’t open up someone’s head and look for the equivalent of a bruise.  Much like psychological illnesses, we have to piece together symptoms and deduce the cause from the symptoms.  Someone who is concussed may or may not lose consciousness and may or may not suffer from symptoms that include ringing in the ears, headaches ranging from mild to blinding, intolerance to light and sound, and a host of other things.

In most illnesses, the patient wants to help the doctor figure out how to make him or her better.  In a concussion, patients sometimes hide symptoms because they are afraid (as I suspect Mr. Keselowski is) that they are going to be prohibited from doing what they love. Racing IS different than stick-and-ball sports:  if the quarterback on a football team gets a concussion, the team can still make the Superbowl.  If the driver gets concussed and has to miss races, his or her season is over.  It is nearly impossible to make the championship if you miss a race.  Imagine if Matt Kenseth or Jimmie Johnson were told mistakenly that they had a bad concussion and they couldn’t race.  You have no guarantee you’ll ever get back to that position again.  I get that.

Having said that, the idea that racers are risk takers and therefore the rules shouldn’t apply to them is pretty absurd.  Take a look at the articles Matt Crossman wrote about concussions in the NFL for Sporting News.  There are men in their forties and fifties who can’t read because they can’t focus for more than a few minutes, men with sleep disorders that cause them to wake up and find they are choking their wife, men who say that, if they knew what playing football was doing to their brains, might have decided not to play, or to retire earlier.

Think of a concussion as analogous to a broken bone.  The bone needs time to mend.  If you get in another accident and the bone is still weak, you stand a high probability of damaging your body in a way that can’t by fixed.  There is nothing physical that prevents Brian Vickers (who is taking blood thinners to deal with blood clots) from driving.  He said “I can drive fine.  I just can’t crash.”  The blood thinners are doing their job, but if he were to have an accident and start bleeding, the blood thinners would decrease the blood’s ability to clot.  It’s the same thing with a concussion. It might not impair your ability to drive; however, it puts you in a very bad position if you have another accident.

This is why doctors have spent years developing ways to determine whether someone is concussed that is more objective than asking the patient how they feel.  ImPACT tests six areas:  verbal and visual memory, visual motor speed, reaction time, impulse control and symptom score.  It’s a half-hour computer-based test that flashes numbers and letters and asks you to remember colors or sequences.

And the reason they don’t use numbers is that you don’t measure people against some ideal standard.  Everyone’s brain works differently.  Some people have better reflexes than others.  Some people are better are remembering numbers than others.  What is important is how your brain changes after a concussion.  Without a baseline test, there’s nothing to compare the test to if you do have an accident. Likewise, there’s no magical ‘cut off’ where a doctor is going to say “You can’t race”.  They’re going to be able to show you your scores in various areas at the start of the season and then how those scores have changed after an accident.  Then the doctor is going to make a recommendation.  The driver, the owner and NASCAR then have to come to a decision about whether the driver races or not.

We all take risks.  Drinking alcohol has risks.  You decide whether those risks are worth the rewards.  The same should hold with concussions.  A person has the right to know what the risks are – then they have to make decision about what risks they are or aren’t willing to take.  Leaving aside the obvious cases in which a driver’s condition might endanger other people, there’s a broad range of possibilities left.

Keselowski also argued that we simply don’t know enough about concussions to have tests.  That’s also remarkably ill-informed.  Yes, we don’t know everything about concussions, just like we don’t know everything about depression, heart attacks and why we have appendixes (appendices?).  But the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that concussions have much farther ranging impacts than we thought.  A brand new study out this week shows that NFL players benched due to concussions have altered brain connections.  They used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging to study the brains of people while they did tasks.  fMRI detects oxygen.  Since your brain draws blood to the parts that are being used the most, you can tell what areas of the brain are active using MRI.

The study compared football players who had been benched due to at least one concussion with age-matched college graduates and gave them tasks, like given two different arrangements of colored balls, how many moves would it take to change the arrangement from one to the other.

They found very small differences between the two groups.  Only when the number of moves became large did the football players perform significantly below the non-football players.  But – they found that the areas of the brain that were being used were different between the two groups.  The different areas of football players’ brains didn’t interact as much as the non-football players.  This was particularly strong in the frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain being used for planning, organization and attention.  In essence, this study showed that although the two groups performed the same, it took the football players much more brain power to do it.

It’s a limited study and needs follow up, but it sure is interesting because the harder the task, the harder the brain is going to have to compensate.  And these were people who had one concussion.

The other reason I didn’t want to let Mr. Keselowski’s comments go is that we do have evidence that concussions in younger people could be more impactful (sorry, couldn’t think of a better word) than in older people.  The Institute of Medicine released a report this week on the science of youth concussions.  Thousands of young people play football, soccer, hockey and serve in the military – all places with a higher risk of concussion.

Concussions are potentially serious and everyone’s tolerance for risk is different.  But we need to make sure people have enough information so that they make wise decisions.

 

Oct 312013
 

My weekly roundup of math, statistics and science-related motorsports stories… and a few things that maybe are more notable for their lack of speed.

And I’ve just updated my appearances page with trips to Minneapolis, Montana, Albuquerque and Texas next Spring!

Oct 102013
 

Been a busy week – went out to Cincinnati over the weekend, then Vermont for a couple of talks.  More on that and my visit to Thunder Road later!