Nov 252015

Admit it. You (like me) have sat in front of the television watching pre-race interviews for a Camping World Truck Series race and asked yourself “Is that kid even old enough to drive?”

I thought maybe it was just me getting old, but the numbers bear me out. NASCAR drivers are getting younger. In the Sprint Cup Series, you have Eric Jones (19 and currently the youngest NASCAR main-series champion ever) and Chase Elliott (19). Kyle Larson, at 23, is in his second year as a full-time Cup driver.

All this age-related thinking was spurred, of course, by Jeff Gordon’s last race as a full-time NASCAR driver. Many of the tributes we saw last weekend credit Gordon with starting a “NASCAR Youth Movement”. He ran his first race at the age of 21 and won his first championship at 23, making him the youngest Cup champion in the modern era.

But is Gordon actually responsible for the “Youth Movement”? To answer that question, we go to the numbers.

TECHNICAL NOTE:  The official records appear to use a slightly different age convention. Example: Jeff Gordon was born on August 4, 1971. His first championship was in 1995.  As of August 1995, he was 24.

All the records say 23, so I’m assuming they use either the age at the start of the season or the age during the majority of the station or something. To make my life a little easier (so I only had to deal with years and not full dates), the ages I’m using are the current year minus the birth year. In other words, I’m using the biggest age the person was in that year.

Ages of Champions

Let’s start with how the overall ages of Champions have changed over time.


I know – it looks like random dots scattered over the page, doesn’t it? But here’s where what you should have learned in math and science class becomes useful. Look for trends. For example…


If we bound the data by showing how the extremes have changed over time, you notice that the bounding lines slope downward, toward younger ages with increasing time. In science, we call these “lines to guide the eye”, which is code for “I have no mathematical justification for drawing this line, but you see it, too, right?

See how two lines can make a trend stand out? But there’s a trend within a trend, too.

Look closely. There are groups of points that form lines going up and to the right. And they look like really, really straight lines. When something like that happens, you know there’s got to be a reason because points don’t line up like that by coincidence. If you look into the data, you’ll find it’s not coincidence at all.


Even Sprint Cup champions age. The straight lines represent drivers who have won multiple championships. Since they age one year every year just like us regular humans), their points form a consistent line with slope (rise over run) equal to one.

Notice something else, though.  Richard Petty won his last championship at age 42. The very next championship was won by an upstart 29-year-old (named Dale Earnhardt).

The trend repeats itself. When Earnhardt won what was to be his last championship at age 43, the very next year, the championship was won by a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon.

Aha! you say – the young buck comes in and unseats the veteran. So after Gordon won his last championship in 2001, he was unseated by… Tony Stewart, who was born the same year as Gordon and is, in fact, only two months and a couple of weeks younger than Gordon.

Continuing to buck the trend, the next “dynastical” champion (I made up that word, thank you.) was Jimmie Johnson — and he was older than Gordon was when Gordon won his last championship.

It’s true that Gordon started his run five years younger than Earnhardt, but if you look at the data going back to 1970, he’s merely continuing a trend, not starting it. And the trend didn’t even continue after him.

What About the Whole Field?

You can argue that the younger drivers are present, just not represented as Champions (yet). So I did the following: I took the top 30 drivers for seven years: 2015, 2010, 2005, 2000, 1995, 1990, 1985, and 1980. That’s the year Gordon won his first Championship, the four years after and the three years before.

I chose the top 30 drivers because (at least in later years) those are the drivers who tend to be full-time. They either run or attempt all 36 races. And since that’s the cutoff for The Chase, I thought it was fitting. I also chose the top 30 because I didn’t have time to look up birth years for all 125 drivers who ran at least one race in 1980. (The huge number of people who drove in 1980 actually becomes relevant later.)

Warning: The next graph is a little scary because it’s BIG. Bear with me. I’ll explain everything.

I made histograms for each year. A histogram tells you how many people were in a certain age range. Let’s start with the histogram for 2015, because it’s at the top. The information you should get out of this graph is that there were:

  • no drivers ages 16-20
  • 4 drivers ages 21-25
  • 4 drivers ages 26-30
  • 8 drivers aged 31-35
  • 9 drivers aged36-40
  • 4 drivers aged 41-45 and…
  • 1 driver aged 46-50 (Greg Biffle!)
  • no drivers 51-55.

Also that the perspective function in Excel graphs makes it hard to see the actual numbers. You’ll have to trust me.

Most of the histograms peak somewhere around 30-45. So much for the “youth movement”, huh? There may be the occasional young ‘un, but the vast majority of drivers are in the mid-range of ages. My calculation doesn’t include drivers like Chase Elliott, who will go full time next year and only ran a couple of races this year. But it also doesn’t include drivers like Michael Waltrip (on the other end of the age spectrum from Chase) who ran only the restrictor plate races this year.

Scroll down and see how the age ranges change over the years. You don’t actually have to think too hard because I’ll meet you at the bottom and explain.


Whew. Is there a trend to lower ages after Jeff Gordon appeared on the scene? Let’s see by comparing the average driver age over time.


The first thing to notice is that the average varies from a low of 33.1 to a high of 38.2, so we’re looking at a 5 year difference. So we do see the average age of competitors going down soon after Gordon entered the Sprint (then Winston) Cup. It looks like it’s starting up this year – but more on that in a moment.

One more look at this data, this time in the form of a high-average-low graph. The top green mark is the oldest driver, the blue box is the average and the red mark at the bottom is the youngest driver.  You clearly see that, to within a few years, there isn’t a big different between 1980 and 2010. In fact, we have older drivers running in 2010 than we had in 1980. And there was a 20-year old running in 1980 – Kyle Petty just like there was a 20-year-old (Joey Logano) running in 2010.


Overall, there is a decrease in average age since Jeff Gordon joined the series.  So there is definitely a correlation between Gordon entering the series and the average age of drivers shifting to lower numbers.


You knew there was a BUT, right? A correlation doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a causation. There are alternative explanations and factors that could also be responsible for the decrease.  To make a definite statement, we’d have to eliminate all those other possibilities. Which means we have to know what they are first. A couple thoughts.

  • The average age trend seems to be returning to higher ages in 2015. Did the Jeff Gordon Effect (JGE) wear off when he got older? Or maybe that’s just a fluctuation and it will continue down.  Or maybe, the large number of aging drivers taking up seats is preventing young drivers from joining up. These are all alternate theories and you can’t refute them (or the existence of the Jeff Gordon Effect) from the data here.
  • Look at the 2005 histogram – it’s different from the others. The other histograms show a nice peaky (“normal”) distribution, but in 2005, there were a lot of drivers in the 30-50 range. What happened to them? From 2005 to 2009, Rusty Wallace (48), Ricky Craven (40), Jimmy Spencer (48), Darrell Waltrip (53), Ricky Rudd (50), Dale Jarrett (51), Kyle Petty (48),  and Sterling Marlin (52) all retired. That’s a couple hundred cumulative years removed from the series. The drivers who replace these veterans are usually newer, younger drivers. So it’s possible you could have a decrease in average age without bringing in new, younger, drivers – just retiring out the older ones.
  • Finally, the nature of the Sprint Cup Series has changed profoundly.
    • In the old days, the team found the sponsorship and the driver. A new driver often has to bring his/her own sponsorship and companies are always looking for bright, smiling, young people to represent them well
    • The advent of the multi-car team changed a lot. All of a sudden, teams started having development programs, especially after 1982 when the XFINITY series started. You can’t deny that after Jeff Gordon was successful, a lot of owners started looking for young standouts.
    • What it takes to compete in terms of money and infrastructure has changed. Teams have to run a whole season to be competitive and there are far fewer drivers who drive one or a few races. Sorry. I just had to graph this.


Over the period from 1980 to 1995, there is a steep decline in the total number of drivers (blue squares). I also plotted how many drivers drove one race (orange diamonds) and how many drivers drove 5 or fewer races (blue triangles). It looks like most of the lost drivers come from those who were driving only a few races. Those drivers were often the older drivers. So this might be entirely responsible for the phenomenon we saw above, partially responsible, or just a correlation with no causation.

It’s a complicated question, so we resort to the statement all scientists use when they just don’t know: We need more data.

But it doesn’t really matter in the end if Gordon was responsible for the “Youth Movement”, right? Because Jeff Gordon has made such significant and lasting contributions to the sport, not just in terms of on-track, but also as a respected voice in the garage, especially in matters of safety. We were cheering for him Sunday, but as you all know…


Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my readers. I am thankful you’ve put up with me this long. I hope I’m becoming a better writing and just wish I could find more time to do it. Be safe on the road and in the kitchen. I’m also thankful to for being such a wonderful repository of data. I couldn’t do this kind of blog without them.








Nov 062015

The introduction of automotive safety innovations is usually accompanied by concern about the side-effects of those innovations. For example, when seat belts were introduced, people worried that the belts would keep them from getting out of a car quickly enough if they needed to. When HANS devices first became available, drivers also expressed worry that the protective devices would keep them from getting out of the car fast enough, especially if there were a fire.

On the race track, those worries were quickly put to rest when drivers wearing HANS devices were able to escape their cars just about as quickly as they could without the potentially life-saving devices on.

But there is another side-effect of safety innovations that has become known via a theory called risk compensation. This theory say that people typically adjust their behavior according to the perceived level of effect. For example, when it’s icy outside, people tend to walk more slowly and watch where they’re going more closely because the risk of falling is greater. When it rains or snows, you drive more slowly because you know it will take you more time to stop.

peltzmanThe opposite side of this effect is that when you make cars safer, people will drive more recklessly. This is embodied by the Peltzman Effect, which is named after University of Chicago Professor Sam Peltzman (shown at left). This gentleman’s research in business focuses on the interactions between the public sector (government) and the private economy. Professor Peltzman is a distinguished researcher, having served as senior staff economist for the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.

Peltzman was interested in whether mandatory seat belt laws actually had any impact on decreasing injuries or fatalities. Peltzman came to the conclusion that the increase in safety was essentially entirely offset by and increase in risky behavior by drivers (driving faster, not paying as much attention, etc.) Peltzman came to the conclusion that regulation was “at best useless, at worst, counterproductive”.

Not everyone buys Peltzman’s arguments.  There were a lot of technical criticisms about the data set he used and the particulars of the analysis. As I’ll mention in a moment, trying to get an appropriate data set for this is a lot trickier than you might think. You can find papers in the literature that both support and don’t support the Peltzman effect.

But the big sticking point is estimating the magnitude of the effect. I think about it this way:



When I make the car (or track, or personal protection equipment) safer, I decrease the probability that a driver is injured in an accident. But if my doing that increases the number of accidents in some way (for example, drivers try riskier passes, take more chances), then I could conceivably offset the improvements. Let’s consider three cases. I’ll make the same safety improvement each time, but we’ll look at how behavior changes vary.

CASE 1: The safety innovation prompts much riskier behavior and the number of accidents increases a lot. Even though you’re safer in the car, if there are more accidents, more people get injured. Think about everyone you know who thinks anti-lock brakes make them invincible in a snowstorm.

CASE 2: The safety innovation prompts riskier behavior, but the magnitude of the riskier behavior exactly offsets the safety innovation. There’s no change.

CASE 3: The safety innovation prompts riskier behavior, but not a large increase – so the net effect is that the number of injuries decreases, even though there is some riskier behavior happening as a result of the safety innovation.



As usual, I’ve oversimplified this terribly. It’s not that easy a thing to measure. Let’s say that I want to look at the effects of wearing seat belts in Charlotte and compare before  mandatory seat belt laws and after mandatory seat belt laws. There are records of accidents I can access and I can follow up on who was injured and how badly.

BUT… (there’s always a but)

  • What about weather?
  • What if people weren’t actually wearing their seat belts?
  • What if people were drunk when they had their accidents?
  • What about injuries in little sports cars vs. injuries in pick up trucks?
  • What about the world’s stupidest animal and accident causer – the deer?

We call these confounding variables and they make trying to get sense out of your data really difficult. The world is just not well-enough controlled for some analyses.

But you know what is?


Think about it. The cars are similar. Safety equipment is mandated. You’re not going to have to worry about Dale, Jr. unhooking his safety harness in the middle of a race because he needs to stretch. We don’t race when it’s wet (mostly). The drivers are of comparable quality (I know some of you would argue this, but if you look on the grand scale of all the drivers in the country, these guys are all in the top echelon compared to us.) And mostly, the animals stay off the track.

In a paper entitled “Automobile Safety Regulation and the Incentive to Drive Recklessly: Evidence from NASCAR” in the Souther Economic Journal, Russel S. Sobel and Todd M. Nesbit analyze publicly available NASCAR race and accident data from 1972-1993 with the goal of quantifying how much more riskier driver behavior has gotten as major advances in safety were implemented in NASCAR.

Racing is all about knowing when to take risks. If you’re going to chance wrecking your own car, that’s a high penalty for risky behavior. Injury is also a consequence. But if you know that you’re likely to walk away from an accident without injury, you’re going to be much more likely to take that risk that there’s just enough room for you to squeeze up into the next lane between two other cars.

I won’t go into the data analysis because there’s a lot of math things like differential equations and matrices and regressions. I will tell you that I learned a new fancy Latin phrase from reading this paper:  ceteris parabus, which means “all other things equal”. Sure, you can say ‘all other things equal’, but doesn’t it sound so much smarter in Latin?

Anyway, Sobel and Nesbit’s conclusion is that, for NASCAR drivers

“… a 10% improvement in NASCAR automobile safety results in approximately a 2% increase in reckless driving”

Then go on to point out that the increase in reckless driving isn’t enough to produce a larger number of injuries, but is large enough to prove that there is a negative driver response to safety innovations in the form of riskier driving.

They analyzed five drivers who drove from 1972 to 1998 (Yarborough, Parsons, Bobby Allison, Dave Marcis and Richard Petty) in an attempt to get away from some confounding variables, like people who only ran a few races. Even at this micro-level, they found that this group of drivers did get into more accidents as the car got safer, again confirming the authors’ earlier finding that safety innovations encourage risky behavior.

They point out something interesting, based on the idea that there are a group of race fans who want to see crashes, but don’t want to see people hurt. The riskier behavior produced by the safety improvements should actually help NASCAR attract those fans. More accidents, but fewer injuries.

This paper was from well before the Chase, but the current Chase format incentivizes drivers toward even riskier behavior. Even with higher speed and more at stake, remember that the last deaths in one of NASCAR’s top three series was in 2001.

And that got me thinking.

When they switched driving from the left side of the road to the right in Sweden in 1967, there was a drop in crashes and fatalities. For six weeks after the change, the number of car insurance claims were down by 40%. But after those six weeks, the insurance claims returned to normal. And after two years, the fatalities returned to where they had been.

I started wondering how many drivers on the track today were there at the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died? Then I broadened that a little to look at who of that era was still active on track.

I took a pretty deep data dive and managed to confused myself a couple times, so let me explain exactly what I did.


The blue (taller) bars represent the total number of drivers who drove each season. If you look at 2006, you’ll see that out of the original 70 drivers who drove in 2001, only 36 of those drivers were still driving in 2006. The problem with that number is that it includes the road course ringers, the one-offs for people who only drive the Daytona 500, the retired drivers who do a few races a year and the like.

So I went ahead and looked at how many of those drivers were full time drivers – the ones who are the backbone of the series. That’s what the orange bars represent. In 2006, out of the 36 drivers who had been driving in the Series in 2001, 17 of those were driving full time in 2001.  You can also compare the full-time drivers from 2001 (24) with the 17 in 2006. That’s how many drivers who ran full time retired (or ran reduced schedules) between 2001 and 2006.

You can see a pretty clear and steady decrease (as you’d expect) as time goes on. In 2015, there were only fifteen drivers who had been driving (at all) in 2001 and are still around. Six of those were full-season drivers in 2001.

  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  • Jeff Gordon
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Tony Stewart
  • Bobby Labonte
  • Michael Waltrip

Note that of the last two of these drivers, Waltrip has run 3 races and Bobby Labonte 4 races.

A couple other familiar full time in 2015 names and how many races they ran in 2001:

  • Kevin Harvick (35)
  • Kurt Busch (35)
  • Ryan Newman (7)
  • Jimmie Johnson (3)

So there are 8 current full time drivers in the Sprint Cup Garage today (out of 43+) who were racing in the era where drivers lost their lives on the track.  Out of those 8, only four (Stewart, Gordon, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. if I counted right) were on track when Dale Earnhardt, Sr. lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500.

If I had a little more time, I’d go look at how the accidents for the next couple races compared to those from the year before in which there hadn’t been a fatal crash at the Daytona 500.

All this data is confusing, I know. So I thought about how to make it a little more accessible and came up with this interactive infographic! I looked at only the 43 drivers who competed in the most number of races each year in an attempt to get rid of the road course ringers and the one-offs. For each of the gauge charts, the blue bar tells you who ran full time in 2001 and ran most of the races in each year indicated. The yellow bar gives you the number of drivers running part-time in 2001.

There’s no orange bar in 2001, which is because the orange bar tells you how many drivers were not driving in the Sprint Cup Series in 2001.

What I’d like you to take away from this is that, as time goes on, the collective memory of the days when drivers lost their lives on a racetrack disappears. I’ve said over and over here, on the radio, everywhere, that there is no way to make racing 100% safe. Despite the best attempts of racing sanctioning bodies, there will be deaths on the racetrack. It’s a matter of the odds and the inherent danger of racing.

That’s why the current trend of ‘I’m mad at someone, I’ll crash him out’ is so disturbing. The probability of a freak accident is independent of intent. How many stories have you heard of people goofing off and something unexpected and tragic happens? It doesn’t matter it’s Martinsville and a slow track. Something in the car breaks and safety measures fail and we have a serious injury or maybe a death.

For my money, here’s the best commentary on the incident.

Tony DiZinno, who consistently provides smart, well-thought out and well-written commentary on motorsports of all types.

Ricky Craven is always on target. He’s got the driver’s perspective, he’s always measured in his thoughts and balances the practical with the ideal.

Nate Ryan and Bob Pockrass react to the Kenseth suspension. Two of the smartest guys on the NASCAR beat.


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Oct 162015

I finally got to the NASCAR Hall of Fame last week. It was a lot of fun, especially since I was there on a Monday morning and it wasn’t all that crowded. The next day they had the Chase drivers there for interviews, so I sort of lucked out having a lot of time to look at things without holding up anyone else.

I especially liked the exhibits that showed how much things have changed over time. Your first impression is to look at the lap belts and t-shirt/jeans that most drivers used back in the day and shake your head. But they didn’t know everything we know now about safety. You might think at this point we know everything we need to know about safety, but the field is constantly evolving.

Racing safety research presents unique challenges because the audience (the people who will benefit from it) is small — which means the money available is small.  I’ve talked about it before for catchfences. Count up how many tracks there are in the U.S. that have high-kinetic-energy motorsports (top level, Indy, NASCAR, F1) where cars launching into fences is possible. You might make a bit when you sell the first generation, but after that…? Maybe you can make some money off maintaining the fences, but they’re not something you replace frequently. It’s not a big market. So there’s a limit as to how much money a company can put into researching something that ultimately won’t make them a huge profit.

You might argue it’s different for driver personal protection equipment because you’re talking not only the few big-name drivers, but the slew of drivers in lower level professional and even the Saturday night racing circuit. Lower-level racers aren’t going to spend top-dollar for a safer helmet. The requirements at most small tracks in terms of safety are pretty minimal and if you give a driver a chance of putting money into making the car faster or making the car safer… You know what they’re going to do.


The head is one of the  most vulnerable parts of the body. The first function of a racing helmet was protecting against skull injuries. NASCAR was founded in 1947, just two years after the end of WWII. So it’s probably not surprising that many of the first racing helmets were actually repurposed military helmets. In the 1950’s, drivers switched from military to motorcycle helmets. (Take a look at the great photos at The Driver Suit Blog.) The purpose of these helmets was to form a protective shield around the head so that if you did bump your head, it wasn’t hard enough to crack it open. The National Geographic video below shows how motorcycle helmets are tested.

The helmets evolved to include a foam liner to cushion any blows. But even a well-padded open-face helmet (like the one on the left, below) leave plenty of room for injury. There’s no face protection. Many drivers wore goggles to keep dirt out of their eyes, but there was a compromise between safety and the ability of the driver to move and see what was around him or her.


Contrast the open-face helmet with the helmet on the right, which is a Bell HP7 carbon-fiber helmet that is favored by F1 drivers because it is light and aerodynamic (the latter being something closed-cockpit drivers don’t have to worry about.) It costs around $3,500. A good quality NASCAR certified helmet is around $700-$1,000, although drivers increasingly look to other series for anything that will provide an advantage.  Today’s helmets have electronics for communication, custom fitted padding around the face and inlets for cooling hoses.

NASCAR didn’t mandate closed-face helmets until after Dale Earnhardt’s passing in 2001. The argument was that the decrease in visibility could actually cause more accidents. But NASCAR quickly realized that accidents were going to happen, including the occasional ‘freak accident’ and their responsibility to the driver was to protect him or her in the worst-case accident.

Today’s helmets are remarkable and do an outstanding job of protecting drivers against blunt force trauma, cuts and such. But the more we learn about concussions and how seemingly insignificant impacts can have a very serious cumulative effect, the more we realized that helmets need to protect against not only skill injuries, but brain injuries as well.

I was at the University of Southern Mississippi earlier this week and learned that NASCAR drivers (as well as NFL players) may soon benefit from technology being developed for the U.S. Army. The military has the same problem as NASCAR (and the NFL), but on a much more serious scale. Fewer soldiers die on the battlefield, but more soldiers return from deployments with traumatic brain injuries. USM researchers have a $5M grant to study how to improve the military helmet to guard not only against blunt force injuries, but also against concussions.

Rawlings, a major manufacturer of helmets for professional and college football, are using one of their advances, which combines foam with pneumatic cushioning made of pressurized air bladders. This gives multiple levels of cushioning and protects both low-velocity and high-velocity impacts. Research geared at bringing home soldiers safely may also help NASCAR drivers extend their careers.


The first Strictly Stock race at Charlotte Speedway in 1949 didn’t require the racers to have roll bars or seat belts. That may sound nuts to the young people, but remember that many people didn’t use seat belts and it wasn’t even a requirement that car manufacturers put seat belts in their cars.

In fact, the first seat belt law was a Title 49 of the United States Code, which took effect on January 1, 1968 and required all vehicles to have seat belts installed.  Although the progressive state of Wisconsin required seat belts in the front passenger seat in 1961.

Seat belts save lives. There’s no debating that. Anyone who tells you that they survived an accident because they were thrown clear of the car is either totally wrong or extremely, extremely lucky. More people die needlessly in auto accidents because they aren’t wearing their seat belt.

I’m going on about this to toss in a gratuitous graph for Moody. Here’s the seat belt usage by state for 2013. Please note that I started the lower axis at 65% in order to make the differences more pronounced . I’m not surprised that Oregon is first. Oregonians like to be rebellious without being stupid. That’s a great state trait.

Safety_TwoandThreePointHarnessesIf you’re old like me, you remember when all we had in cars were lap belts. They’re called two-point harnesses because they are anchored to the car in two places. The three-point harness is now the passenger car standard and it’s called that because (duh) the belt attaches to the car in three places.

You’re beginning to see the trend, right?

OK, so if one is good and two are better… No, actually, the issue here is that the shoulder belt allows for rotational movement, especially if you’re hit on the side. So the next step is a four-point system, but the goal here is uniform retention of the body. Instead of a shoulder belt, you’ve got one belt for each shoulder.

Additionally, the place where the belts come together is now centralized on the body. It’s more easily accessible to the driver since it’s right up front. No need to twist or turn or fumble.


Here’s the problem with all three of these systems: Submarining. The video below (and this one) show you how, in some types of crashes, you can actually be pulled under the belt.  The reason they tell you to pull your airplane seat belt “low and tight across your lap” is because a poorly fitted seat belt is especially subject to submarining.


So someone came up with an idea and it’s a familiar idea for anyone who has ever had to put a young child in a car seat.

The 5-point restraint system.


I wanted to use the mounting instruction diagram from a race supplier to show you how specific they are about how the belts are mounted. That’s because of everything we’ve learned about safety, down to the angle at which the belts are installed making a difference in how well the driver is restrained.

They aren’t quite this precise when it comes to mounting baby seats.

The strap in the middle is called the anti-submarine (or anti-sub) belt. It’s there to keep you from sliding out under the lap and shoulder belts in a collision. But there was a bit of a problem with this configuration. Some drivers (predominantly those with the Y chromosomes) found this belt uncomfortable when tightened to the correct tension. Even worse, when there was an accident and the anti-sub belt did it’s job, the driver might find himself talking in a slightly higher octave for awhile.

So, no surprise here, right?

The Six-Point and Seven-Point Restraints


The anti-sub belt is replaced by two new belts, each of which secures one of the legs. This helps hold the driver in the seat and prevent anti-submarining. These are sometimes called “Negative-G belts”. The seven-point restraint is just the six-point with the anti-sub put back, so you have three lower belts: one around each leg and one down the middle. 2015 was the first year NASCAR required a seven-point restraint for all drivers. Since 2007, NASCAR had only required six-point harnesses.

Predictably, the move to seven prompted a lot of grumping about by the drivers, but there is a method to this. In most cases, the two leg straps will stop the driver before any tension gets into the third belt. But the third belt really helps keep the driver locked into the seat and becomes important when the car goes upside down. Austin Dillon credits the harness for allowing him to walk away from that horrible crash in Daytona last July.

So now you think you’ve got it down, right? You know what’s coming next.  The eight-point harness?

No. There is no eight-point harness.

Why a nine-point harness? The answer is in yet another piece of safety equipment: The HANS device. HANS is a head-and-neck restraint system that prevents the driver’s head from jerking forward and his neck snapping.


The HANS was designed to work with the existing restraint system, which at the time featured 2″ webbing in the shoulder belts. The shoulder belts go over the HANS device, holding it onto the driver’s shoulders. Remember – the driver has to be able to get out of the car in a really big hurry if necessary. There may not be time to undo or un-attach anything,  so the helmet and HANS device have to be of a size that it can fit through the window.

Here’s the issue. The wider a belt, the more it spreads the force out on the body. If you had a piece of wire and stopped, you’d be sliced in half. So the standard in NASCAR in the mid-2000s was three-inch belts everywhere; however, a 2-inch belt works really well on the lap and the legs. A 3-inch belt sits on your Iliac Crest (the bone that sticks out at the front of your hip.) If you use a 2″ belt, then the belt sits below the crest and transfer force to the pelvis, not the crest.

That means you can get a 2″ lap belt tighter than a 3″ lap belt because it just fits into the space better.

A 2-inch belt also works better with the HANS device — but, because of the geometry of your upper body, it’s a lot more comfortable to use a 3-inch belt and spread the force out over more of your chest.

Safety_Five-PointSchroth_2and3ShoulderStrapsThe first attempt to work this out was a belt that was 3″ where it went over the chest and 2″ where it went over the HANS device.  I’ve shown an example of this belt (in a 6-point restraint). See how the upper belts go from wider to narrower? That was the compromise. You can do this on four-, five- six- or seven-point restraint harnesses.

But more is better, right?

The Nine-Point Harness

The nine-point restraint system has two sets of shoulder belts. One of the sets (two belts) is 3 inches wide. Those belts sit under the HANS and against the drivers’ chest and shoulders. They are strictly to hold the driver into the seat.

The second set of belts are only 2 inches wide. They are the ones that go over the HANS device and hold it in place. So you’ve got separate protection for the driver’s and the HANS system that protects the driver’s neck and head.

I looked all over for a picture showing a nine-point harness and didn’t find one. I do know for sure that Logano uses one, and that many of the other drivers have switched to nine-point harnesses.  The 2016 rules package sticks with the 7-point harness as mandatory and recommends the 9-point harness. All systems must meet safety specification (SFI 16.6).  A set of belts costs about $1200 — and they must be replaced anytime the car is in an accident.

So to sum up harnesses:


Could you do an 8-point harness? You could. You’d leave off the anti-sub strap. But as far as I could tell, there’s no one making or marketing those.

So there’s your summary of where we stand on driver protection. Enjoy the races this weekend!

Oct 022015

Last week at New Hampshire, Kevin Harvick easily had the most dominant car, but failed to win the race. They ran out of fuel with three laps to go and finished 21st. The #4 team wasn’t the only team that gambled on gas, but they were probably the team that lost the most. Now they’re in a must-win situation this week at Dover.

Team owner Gene Haas said that the team made a “simple miscalculation” about how far they could go on the final tank of gas. As reported by Jared Turner on Haas said,

“Somewhere we were off in our calculations. That’s something we’ll be talking about tomorrow and the next couple days real hard.”

A lot of people wrote this week that Childers and Harvick have been their own worst enemies during this year’s Chase. Can a wrong calculation cost them a shot at a second title. Much Fuel Gets in the Car?

NASCAR race cars have approximately an 18-gallon fuel cell. Each fuel can (at right) holds about 12 gallons.

Before a pit stop, team members carefully weigh each fuel can and record the weight. After the pit stop, the fuel cans are weighed again.

The weight of fuel that went into the car is the difference between the two weights.

To get from weight to volume, you have to use the fuel’s density.


On their website, Sunoco gives the density of the E-15 fuel that NASCAR specifies for all cars and all races as 6.2 lbs per gallon. That’s accurate enough that we can suss out that the weight of the fuel inside a 12-gallon fuel can is (12 gallons x 6.2 lbs per gallon =) 74.4 lbs.  The fuel plus can weighs about 94 lbs total, which is why the gas man is usually right up there with the jackman in terms of pit crew member muscles. It takes about 10 seconds to fully empty a can of fuel into the car.

So let’s say that we put 105 pounds of fuel in the car on the last pitstop. Then we can back calculate how many gallons that is:


This seems like a pretty coarse calculation, but Sunoco actually provides a much more specific value for the density to the teams each day. Why would it change? Temperature and humidity can affect the density of any gasoline – which we talked about the last time we were in Dover when Kurt Busch’s team was told they weren’t allowed to try to cool down the fuel during an unseasonably hot race.

This is how regular gasoline changes density as a function of temperature. When the temperature rises, the molecules in the gasoline like to have slightly more space between them, which means that there are fewer molecules in a given volume. If you had a row of seats that normally sat six and you insisted on having an empty seat on either side of a person, you’d end up with only three people in the row instead of six.


The E15 fuel that NASCAR uses has a similar change in density with temperature. Humidity can also impact the density because ethanol likes to absorb water. So each morning, Sunoco distributes a very precise (measured) number to the teams and that is the number they use. It’s an incredibly precise (and simple) calculation to make.

Theoretically, you’d have to make a pretty massive mistake to screw up that number.

But the big uncertainty in fuel mileage calculation is not in the calculation – it’s in the assumptions that go into the calculation.  There’s really two levels of assumptions, too:

  1. How much fuel got into the car and
  2. How fast is it being used?

And, as the diagram below shows… there are a lot of places to screw things up.

Gas In

Spillage and Leakage: We used to have an outlet on the gas tank so that any overflow would go into a catch can. That amount was put back into the gas can and weighed. The new models of gas cans are supposed to prevent spilling, but if you don’t get the can coupled to the gas inlet correctly, or if there’s a malfunction with the gas can, you can spill gasoline on the ground or on yourself. That’s gas that doesn’t get accounted for when the cans are weighed. And since everything happens quickly, it’s possible no one can tell how much was spilled well enough to make a good estimate. It’s also possible that there’s a leak in the fuel line or the fuel cell, although that’s a rather more serious issue because that goes to safety.

Miscalculation: It is surprisingly easy to screw up a calculation when you’re in the rush and crazyness of a race weekend, especially if you’re short-handed, new or a lot of things are changing – or even if you have a new baby and you’re not sleeping much. Someone reads the scale wrong and reports the wrong weight. Someone messes up the excel spreadsheet where the calculation is done, or you’re using the wrong density for some reason. These are the most irritating possibilities because, frankly, they are preventable.

Hold that last thought because I’m coming back to it later.

Gas Out

Here’s where things get really tricky. You’ll hear commentators throw about a number like 4.6 miles per gallon under green and half that under caution. In reality, the teams try to make much better estimates of these two numbers because they are absolutely critical.

Measuring Gas Mileage: Most drivers don’t get the same mileage at all tracks. Gasoline usage is tracked carefully during practices. Gas mileage changes with the condition of your tires, so every time the tires are changed, the gas mileage calculation is done anew. Over the course of a couple hours of practice, the crew chief gets a snapshot of how his or her particular driver’s style at that track with that particular set up uses fuel.

But when you’re racing, some of that goes out of your hands. If there’s someone on your tail and you don’t want to give up a position, the driver may be more aggressive, which means he or she is using gas at a faster rate.  The teams get scads (a techincal term) of data from the Electronic Fuel Injection system that they can mine for more information about how their driver and car use fuel at different tracks.

Cautions: Is it me, or has there been a lot more talk in recent years about drivers’ abilities to save fuel under caution? They’ve always played games like flipping off the ignition and coasting during cautions, or driving on the apron to decrease the distance traveled. Now we’re hearing more about getting off the gas a little earlier, getting on a little later. I think a lot of that focus on finesse is due to the EFI date. After a race, you can go back and show your driver how good he or she was at saving gas.

So What Happened to Harvick?

You have to understand that, for an engineer, being accused of screwing up a calculation is like being stabbed through the heart. It’s a simple calculation and you’d have to be pretty far off your game to screw it up.

So I wasn’t all that surprised when Rodney Childers tweeted an explanation of what went wrong and used some choice words in reference to the people calling for his head for costing Harvick a chance at winning the race.

BSPEED_2015_NHMS_ChildersFuelMileageRaceChilders was able to look at the EFI (Electronic Fuel Injection) data and determine that Kevin had saved enough fuel that they should have had six laps worth of fuel left. They should have been able to finish the race with fuel to spare.

But they were short by three laps.

This can only mean that they overestimated the amount of fuel that went into the car.  Childers suggested the crew hadn’t gotten all the gas from the can into the car or that possibly a fuel cell bladder might have “come apart”. It’s also possible someone misread the scale or mis-recorded the weight.

As he points out, these kinds of mistakes are pretty rare (and I add, especially with top-level people like Childers and his crew) – but it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Ultimately the crew chief takes responsible for everything except driver decisions, so it does fall on Childers’ shoulders – but all the commentaries attacking him for using bad judgement at New Hampshire are just wrong. He made the right decision based on the data he had in front of him. That data was incorrect. The problem isn’t the judgement – it’s the data.

And you can bet they are going over every step of every process this week at the shop because Dover is their last chance to keep their hopes alive for a repeat championship.

Fuel mileage concerns never go away. Just for kicks, I wanted to see how much fuel you needed for each of the tracks in The Chase.


Remember that there are 128 ounces of fuel in a gallon, so even at the longest track in the Chase, you’re talking about a little more than a half-gallon of fuel for that last lap. If you think about the times someone’s run out of fuel coming around turn 4, divide those numbers by four and in some cases (looking at you, Martinsville), as little as a quarter of a cup of fuel could lose you a race. This is a sport not only of tenths and hundredths of seconds, but also of quarter and half-cups of fuel.

Disclaimer: Back in 2008, Rodney Childers was one of the crew chiefs for Elliott Sadler and I spent a weekend with the team at Daytona while writing the update for the paperback version of my book. His desire to win coupled with a measured calm and can-do attitude makes him a person you really can’t help but like and admire. So I’m probably biased toward him, but I think my analysis still holds up!

Jun 052015 at the Dover race were unseasonably high. Kurt Busch’s Stewart-Haas 41 team was told by NASCAR officials to remove “heat shields” from their fuel cans. The cans (shown at right) have an 11-gallon capacity. Not shown in the pictures is a tube that connects the nozzle at the top with the vertical part coming straight up from the can. This attachment recovers overflow fuel – remember when we used to have a ‘catch can man’?

Apparently, Busch’s team was using some type of heat shield on the cans to keep them cool. All of the things I’ve read about NASCAR’s response seem to mention safety. This is an important consideration, especially given the incident we had at Richmond where three people were burned seriously enough by a fuel fire to have to go to the hospital.

What hasn’t been mentioned is whether this is actually a performance issue.


As you probably know from middle school, “dense” means “thick”. But we’re going to use it in its precise scientific meaning.



Density has units like grams per liter or pounds per cubic foot.

Simplifying Assumptions

OK – let’s make some simplifications for the purposes of discussion.

1.  Gasoline is made up of a mix of molecules, so there’s really no such things as “a gasoline molecule”. In reality, gasoline contains a bunch of hydrocarbons with four to twelve carbons atoms per molecule.  For you specialists, it’s a mix of alkanes, cycloalkanes and alkenes. For the sake of discussion, I’m going to talking about “a gasoline molecule”.

2. Molecules are absurdly small. and talking about their mass becomes unwieldy.  Octane (one of the hydrocarbons in gasoline) has a molecular weight of 114.22852, which means that if you put Avogadro’s number of octane molecules (which would be 6.023×1023 molecules) on a scale, the scale would read 114.22852 grams.

This means that a single octane molecule weighs 1.897 x 10-22 g. That is  0.00000000000000000000001897 g.  You get the point: they’re very small. So we’re going to talk about density in terms of number of molecules more than their mass. The two are related, of course (mass = number of molecules x mass of one molecule), but I think it’s easier to visualize with number.

3. Finally, there ought to be a couple billion billion billion molecules in the drawings, but I just don’t have the patience to draw them. So we’re using simpler numbers like “10” and “20”.

Density of Gasoline and Temperature

The density of typical gasoline is 6.073 lb/gal at 60°F. Whenever you list a density, you must list the temperature at which the density if measured, because density changes with temperature. If you blow up a balloon, then put it in a freezer, the volume of the balloon shrinks -that’s because molecules slow down when it gets cold (like most of us do).

Most things in an automobile that deal with gasses or liquids work on volume. A fuel injector, for example, is set to let a particular volume of gasoline into the combustion chamber. So let’s think about what the change in density with temperature means in terms of a constant volume.

Most liquids become less dense at the temperature gets warmer. So if you get a gallon of gasoline at a higher temperature, the molecules are spaced out more, which means you get fewer molecules when it’s warm than you do when it’s cold.


How the density of gasoline changes with temperature is pretty well known and shown below. Let’s check the axes here to see the magnitude we’re talking about.  I’ve plotted a 126 degree change in temperature, over which the density changes by about 8 percent. If you’re looking at a ten degree change, say from 60°F to 70°F, you’re talking about a little more than a half a percent change in density.


Combustion works on the basis of a precise chemical equation. Each fuel molecule needs a particular number of oxygen molecules to combust. If there are too few oxygen molecules, then some of the gasoline molecules do not combust. If there are too many oxygen molecules, then some of the oxygen molecules just hang around. Either way, you’re limited by whichever component of the combustion process is smaller.

At high altitudes, or high moisture in the air, you get less power from the engine because there are fewer oxygen molecules in the air coming into the engine.

This is the idea behind turbochargers. Turbochargers compress the air going into the engine, so in a fixed volume of air, you get more oxygen molecules. More oxygen molecules means you can inject a larger volume of gasoline and make more power with each combustion.

The same idea can be used on the fuel side. There are systems on the market you can buy that use compressed gasses to cool the fuel – essentially they’re an air conditional, but for the gasoline. That lets you pack as many fuel molecules as possible into each charge that goes into the cylinder. You can let in more air, and – voila – more power. Of course, you reach a point of diminishing returns. The fuel has to be heated to combust and if the fuel is too cold, it won’t heat fast enough and some of those molecules won’t combust and won’t produce any power.

Is It a Performance Advantage?

Did having heat shields on the fuel cans help Kurt Busch? If we’re just talking mechanical heat shields – metal that reflects heat and keeps it from being absorbed by the can – I don’t see how they could’ve gotten more than a five to (maybe) ten degree decrease in temperature. That’s less than one percent change in density, which is pretty small. But also remember that over a 400-mile race, a typical NASCAR race car will use 100 gallons of gasoline, so you’re getting a 1% advantage over the entire course of the race. And races are determined on very small margins, so it’s not impossible that it’s a performance advantage – but it’s not a huge one.

Is This a Safety Issue?

No. The auto-ignition temperature of gasoline (the temperature at which gasoline will spontaneously ignite) is around 500°F. Cooling the gasoline on pit road will have pretty much zero effect on safety aspects.

What about my car? Do I get cheated when I fill up when it’s hot?

There’s an urban legend that you should always fill up your car in the morning instead of in the evening because you get fewer gas molecules for the price when you’re dispensing warmer gasoline. Maybe on those rare days when you have a 40°F temperature change, but on most days… it’s not going to make a heck of a lot of difference. Consumer Reports actually did the experiment.

But the winter/summer change and the sheer amount of gasoline we use does have an effect. The Today Show had a report a couple years ago (2012) on this very phenomenon. If gas pumps are calibrated in cool weather, then you’re actually getting less gasoline for the dollar when you fill the tank in hot weather.  They cite a 2007 Congressional report that says Americans paid an estimated $1.5 billion extra for gas that summer. That sounds like a really big number, but remember there are 300 million people in the U.S. and we use a lot of gas. If each person in the country gets $1 (edit  – I should never do math in my head…)  less gasoline in the summer, there’s 300 million dollars right there.

A group called for a mandate for gas stations to use equipment that measures the temperature and takes that into account when calculating gas prices. After all, they do it in Canada and have been doing it for a couple decades now.  The problem is that most cost-effectiveness studies show that if the government mandates temperature compensating pumps, the cost for installing and maintaining them gets passed along to the consumer. In the short term, no one would save any money.

Plus, there are a lot more important things to be worrying about in the world, don’t you think?




Apr 172015

Sounds like an energy drink, right?

Listening to Kyle Busch’s press conference Wednesday was alternately fascinating and cringe-worthy. The fact that he remembers so much about the crash is amazing – it will be a great boon to the safety people who probably will use this as a case study in the future. And best wishes to Kyle to get well soon.

Kyle said he left the track at 176 mph, hit at 90 mph and sustained 90 Gs.  My twitter was flooded with people asking “90Gs? No one could survive that kind of a hit.”

That’s actually not true. Trying to quantify a crash via one number is a nice attempt at simplifying things, but totally wrong.

Warning – I wrote and researched this while flying halfway across the country, so we’re likely to need a re-write when I get back home Monday and have a little more time to make this prettier. But let’s start by clarifying terms.


The ‘G’ is quite possibly the most misunderstood unit in racing.  A ‘G’ measures acceleration, not force.   One ‘G’  is equal to the acceleration of any object due to Earth’s gravity. You are experiencing one ‘G’ right now. The product of your mass times the acceleration due to gravity is your weight.

Acceleration is how fast you change speed. If you go from 0 to 62 mph in 2.8 seconds (like the Lykan HyperSport in the Furious 7 Movie), you’ve got an acceleration of 22.4 mph each second. Every second, your speed increases by 22.4 mph. It’s an acceleration of a little more than 1G. (which, by the way does may the Etihad towers jump possible. I did the math, just thought I’d throw that in.)

Let’s set the scale. The Space Shuttle pulled 3G on launch, Apollo 16 pulled 7G on re-entry. A Formula 1 car pulls about 5-6 G laterally during sharp turns and 4-5G during linear acceleration. I’ve got a story in the Physics of NASCAR book about Texas Motor Speedway having to cancel an open-wheel race at the last moment because the drivers were pulling so many Gs that they were having mini blackouts. A good rollercoaster will give you 2-3G.

Electronics spec’ed for the military for use in shells have to survive 15,000 G.

Weight is the force resulting from the acceleration. Remember F-ma? When you experience ’3Gs’ of acceleration, the force you experience is the number of G’s times your weight.

We use the unit ‘G’ just like a unit like ‘dozen’.  I can express anything in terms of dozens:  a dozen eggs, a dozen jellybeans or a dozen beers.  Likewise, we can use the unit ‘G’ to express the acceleration of anything.  I can measure the acceleration when you step on the gas after stopping at a red light in ‘G’s.   I can measure the acceleration you feel on a rollercoaster in Gs.

Important: Although Earth’s gravity pulls down (toward the center of the Earth), we use ‘G’ to measure acceleration in any direction:  up or down, back or forth, or sideways.

How Many G’s Can a Person Withstand?

Again, this is by no means meant to minimize Kyle’s experience. He had a really hard crash and broke bones in both legs. So don’t interpret what I’m going to say as trying to say he’s lying or wrong or is trying to exaggerate his injury. It was serious.

But it wasn’t as simple as “90 Gs”

I’m pretty sure the numbers Kyle had were the numbers from the car’s transponder. As far as I know, NASCAR hasn’t instituted in-ear accelerometers like IndyCar.

An accelerometer is exactly what is sounds like: a meter for acceleration. Most iPads and iPhones today have one. Especially given the increasing concern about concussion, IndyCar and F1 have both provided drivers with a tiny accelerometer that fits into the ear and thus gives a much more accurate measurement of the actual acceleration of the head. (Remember that the problem with concussion is that the brain actually hits the inside of the skull.)

NASCAR relies on a transponder located near the frame rails (low) in the car. That means it measures what happens to the car, not the driver. A number of safety measures make the driver slow down less quickly than the car. I’ll come back to that.

There are three primary factors in a crash: The change in speed, the time over which the change in speed happens and the direction of the force.

So it’s not only how fast you’re going when you crash, it’s how fast you stop. When the people who study these things talk about crashes, they talk about the “crash pulse”, which incorporates the first two of these factors. Here’s one I drew for illustration.


When someone talks about 90G, they mean that was the peak value of the acceleration vs time curve was 90G. In my plot above, both curves show a crash from the same starting speed. The difference is that the red curve was a case in which the force/acceleration was spread out over a longer time. That’s why the peak value is lower.

How many Gs you experience depends on your starting and ending speeds and how long it takes you to stop. In the case of a crash where you go from 90 mph to stopped over 1 second, you experience about 4 Gs. If it happens in a tenth of a second, you experience 4o Gs.

Now let’s look at a real crash pulse.


Here, you see the crash and you see the backlash – that’s the negative acceleration on the right side of the graph. The details of these graph give you a much fuller picture of a crash because you learn how the force was distributed in time.

Although the peak force was 90G, that 90G was applied for a short time. Lesser accelerations were experienced during the rest of the crash. A peak force is like a snapshot of a dance. You get one impression, but it’s not the whole picture.

Let’s get back to measuring the car vs. measuring the driver. The driver is belted in by 2 to 3-inch-wide belts over the shoulders, around the lap and around the legs. Those belts are designed to stretch when they’re stressed, which means that the driver doesn’t stop as quickly as the car stops.

Same thing with the HANS device. The tethers on the helmet allow the driver’s head to move forward, but they slow the rate at which the head moves. So even if the car experiences 90G, the driver experiences less. How much less would require a lot of assumptions, but if the various safety devices double the time it takes for a driver to stop, it halves the force.

I mentioned direction is important. That’s because any force on your body also is a force on your blood. Pilots who make sharp accelerations up or down (parallel to the spine) have issues because the heart has to work extra hard to pump the blood. The human body can withstand higher accelerations perpendicular to the spine than parallel to it.

No, Really. How Many G’s Before It’s Really Bad.

StappSledYeah. That’s what you’re really asking, isn’t it? What are the limits of the human body? These are difficult questions to answer because you can’t really do the experiment. People don’t volunteer to be accelerated really fast so scientists can see if they survive.

With one exception.

Col John Stapp (Air Force, shown at left) was active in the late 40s and early 50s. We didn’t know how far or how fast airplanes (and rockets) would allow us to go. And even if we could build the machinery, would a pilot or passengers survive?

The military didn’t want to hand over soldiers for him to run experiments on.

So he experimented on himself.

Today, that would never happen because there’d be so much paperwork that he’d die of old age before he got approval. But back in the 50s, people got away with a lot more.

The picture shows a test in 1954 where Stapp accelerated at 15g for 0.6 seconds and reached a peak acceleration of 22 second. His record was 46 g, and he sustained more than 25 g for 1.1 seconds.

This was no 90 G, but whereas a driver might experience that acceleration for a couple hundredths of a second, Stapp did it for tenths or full seconds.

These experiments had consequences. There is one really big problem with acceleration perpendicular to your spine. Your eyes bug out (or in).

No, seriously. Your eyes are held into your skull by a couple muscles and optic nerves. High accelerations (and decelerations) is like putting your peepers on a bungee cord. What finally stopped Stapp’s experiments was that he sustained major damage to his vision. I highly recommend if you’d like to learn more.

C’Mon. How Many G’s Has a Human Being Sustained Before…

O.K. A paper (Society of Automotive Engineers. Indy racecar crash analysis. Automotive Engineering International, June 1999, pages 87-90) says that IndyCar drivers have survived 100G+ crashes. I don’t know yet whether those are crashes measured with the in-ear accelerometer, so it’s difficult to make a direct comparison with NASCAR.

But remember that even smaller accelerations – if applied in just the wrong way — can have equally catastrophic results for the driver.

Closing note: You know what they use in doing crash research? Yes, Crash Test Dummies, but the human body is so complex and intricate that a dummy can’t tell you everything.

They use cadavers.






Apr 032015

There are three things you don’t mess with in NASCAR: engines, fuel and tires.

Tuesday, NASCAR handed down a P5 penalty – the penultimate penalty on the books – to Ryan Newman’s 31 team. Crew Chief Luke Lambert was suspended six races, fined $125,000, and Newman and his owner Richard Childress were each docked 75 points. The tire specialist and team engineer were suspended for six races as well. RCR is appealing the penalty, but I wager they’ve got an uphill battle.

NASCAR’s made its stand loud and clear in the last few weeks. Tire bleeding will not be allowed. If you persist in trying, they’ll come down hard on you.


Why Would You Bleed Tires?

The hotter the gas inside a tire gets, the higher the tire pressure gets (says the ideal gas law).


The tire volume changes a little with temperature and pressure, but it’s not a huge change. If you were doing actual calculations to use in a race, you wouldn’t ignore it. For us, it’ll be good enough to approximate that the volume remains constant.  The equation tells us then that the ratio of pressure to temperature has to stay the same. If the temperature goes up, the pressure goes up, and vice-versa.

The video below (from the National Science Foundation) details how and why the tire pressure increases. Steve Letarte is a nice person and a very clear explainer of things. I look forward to seeing how he does when NBC takes over broadcasting NASCAR later this year.

The main problem with changing tire pressures is that grip depends on tire pressure – a lot.  If the tire pressure is too low, you lose energy to rolling resistance. If the tire pressure is too high, the sides of the tread pull away from the track, giving you a smaller contact patch and less grip.

Tire builds can be significant. At some tracks, you might see a 35 psi change in tire pressure. A large build means teams have to start a run with very low tire pressure – 8-10 psi at some tracks. If you look at a car at Martinsville waiting to go out on track, it’ll appear as thought it has flat tires.

Bleeding tires prevents the tire build (increase in pressure) from getting too large by releasing some of the pressure once the tire pressure reaches some value.

Wait… Like a Pop-Off Valve?

This is the same principle teams use in the radiator systems. Put water into a closed metal tube and heat it. We call that “a bomb”. As the liquid gets warm, it turns into gas, the gas pressure increases and eventually the gas inside pushes so hard it breaks the radiator or the tubing in the cooling system.

So we use a little valve called a pop-off valve on the radiator. When you see steam pouring out from near the bottom of the windshield, it means the pop-off valve has popped. The video below explains the pop-off valve in the cooling system.


That’s a great idea, right? They ought to make something like that for tires, so that the tires can’t get overinflated.

TireBleedValvesThey do. It’s called a tire bleed valve. Shown at left, you install it in the valve stem of the tire. Most are adjustable between some range of pressures.

An o-ring sits atop a spring. When the pressure is low enough (left), the spring is relaxed. The o-ring forms a seal on the valve seat,which holds in the air.

When the pressure inside the tire increases past a pre-set value, the spring compresses and unseats the o-ring. Notice how by where it says “no seal” the o-ring doesn’t touch the sides of the valve anymore . This gives air a path to escape. As soon as enough air has escaped so that the pressure returns to the maximum value, the spring relaxes and the valve closes. There’s less air in the tire, which allows the pressure to remain lower.


Seems Like the Perfect Solution. So…?

So bleed valves (or tire pressure relief valves) aren’t legal in NASCAR. However much nitrogen you put into the tire is how much you have and the driver is supposed to deal with the changes in the tire pressure. The harder you drive the tire, the hotter it gets, so having a way to relieve pressure gives the driver the option of pushing the car harder than a driver who is limited by the building tire pressure.

The scuttlebutt around the garage is that the tires on the 31 had small holes poked in the sidewalls. Rubber is stretchy enough that you can get a tiny, tiny puncture and it won’t open up a gaping hole that lets all the air out of your tire. The rubber on the sidewall is thinner than the rubber on the tread, so a pin prick or something similar would do the job.

The disadvantage of this method is that it’s totally random. With a bleeder valve, you can set it to go off at 35 psi and you know it won’t let any air out until 35 psi. With something like poking tiny holes in the tire, you have to guess at the number and placement of holes so that you don’t let out too much or too little. There’s also a safety issue, in that your well-intentioned “tiny” hole might actually do more damage than you intended – or noticed until the right front below out going 180 mph into a turn.

Plus, one of the fundamental tenets of NASCAR is that you do not mess with the tires. It’s bad from a sportsmanship angle and from a safety angle.

How would you tell?  The easiest way to find out if there are tiny holes in the tire is to over pressure the tire (maybe fill it up to 50 psi) and toss it in a bathtub or a swimming pool. If there are holes, you’ll see air bubbles coming out from the holes. (We actually used to use this technique to find big leaks in our vacuum chambers.) If you can’t submerge the tire, you can overpressure the tire and then squirt a little soapy water on the suspicious areas. You’ll see bubbles (from the soap) appearing near the holes.

If you want to be really pedantic about it, you can look at the material under a microscope once you’ve narrowed down where you suspect the holes might be located.

Can You Really Be Sure Someone Cheated?

There are a lot of things that could put a hole in a tire. But not the same size/shape hole multiple times in multiple tires. NASCAR is pretty cautious about not nailing people without solid evidence. I will be majorly surprised if RCR wins their appeal. That’s not to say upholding the penalty means there was a plan by the team to cheat the tires that way. It could have been one person thinking they were helping and the folks who got fined knew nothing about it. Science says nothing about intention or motive.


Mar 062015

Jeff Gordon’s decision to step away from full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup racing has resulted in a lot of discussion about aging drivers. We’re on the verge of a turnover as a number of drivers (Johnson, Stewart, Junior, Harvick among others) reach their forties. And what an appropriate topic for this week as I hit one of those milestone birthdays next week myself.

Slowing down is a part of aging. The print on menus shrinks, you wake up with aches and pains you can’t figure out where they came from, and you find that it takes you longer to recover from colds and injuries. Sprint Cup drivers are no different. In fact, it’s probably exacerbated because they subject their bodies to more physical punishment than your average human being.

But there are some advantages to aging. You’ve got more experience.  And… well, I’m sure there are others.

So how does age affect a driver’s career? Let’s look at the numbers. (And while you’re at it, check out Eric Chemi’s blog – he took a different approach, but came up with mostly the same conclusions.)

What Do We Measure?

The challenge in questions like this is what to graph that actually makes some sense.

DriverAges_Stewart The first obvious thing to try is wins (or top 5s or top 10s) vs. age, right? I did this (at right) to look for obvious trends. (Note – you can click on any of these graphs and they should like to a full-size version so you can see details.)

This is pretty useless. Stewart won championships at ages 31, 34 and 40. All years where he won a respectable number of races; however, there are years where he won a lot of races and didn’t win the championship.

I also plotted Top 5s and Top 10s this way and it wasn’t any more enlightening.

So I had to re-think a little. What we’re interested in is whether a driver becomes a worse driver as he or she ages. This got me thinking about cumulative stats.

If you’re staying at the same level, you ought to add the same number of wins each year (on average, of course). So what if I plot the cumulative wins as a function of age. That turned out to yield some interesting information.

Cumulative Statistics

It’s always rewarding when you plot something and you realize you finally found the right thing to measure and graph. As a note, I did not include years at the end of a driver’s career where he (and they’ll all men here) didn’t run all the races that year. A number of drivers ran part-time at the ends of their careers, some for lower-tier teams and I didn’t think that would be a fair representation of their career to include those later years.

Let’s start by looking at stats for someone with a long career that spans a wide age range: Darrell Waltrip.

From top to bottom are cumulative wins, cumulative top 5s and cumulative top 10s. There are some subtle differences between the three graphs, but let’s talka bout what they have in common.

If you look at the later years, the graphs become essentially flat – which means there were no more wins, top 5s or top 10s. But the point at which they plateau changes. The wins flatten out first (no new wins after age 45), then the top 5s (only two more after age 50)  and then top 10s (8 after age 50).

The areas where the slope of the graph is constant over a period of time I would characterize as consistent. They are adding to their record at the same rate. All three of Waltrip’s championships (shown in the highlighted regions) came during that period of time.


DriverAges_Portrait_waltripByOwner2This would seem to suggest that this is a driver who reached a certain age and just couldn’t hack it after that – but there are some extenuating circumstances, namely a crash at age 43 and his transition from Hendrick to becoming a driver-owner shortly after.  I’ve put a thumbnail of the graph to right – click to see it larger.

Just a warning that you have to be careful about the rationale.

A number of drivers have very similar looking graphs: Both Labonte brothers, Dale Jarrett, and Mark Martin. But in those cases, there were also extenuating circumstances in terms of changing to lower-tier teams (Bobby Labonte went from Gibbs to Petty, for example). So let’s look at the drivers who don’t follow this pattern.



Wow. You want to talk consistent? Here’s a man who (until the nightmares of the last two years) is almost one straight line from start to finish. The top 5s and top 10s are almost perfectly straight lines. The wins have a little more scatter – but that’s typical because the overall numbers are smaller. Jimmie Johnson’s graphs look very similar.

When we analyze graphs we like to talk about curvature. There’s no curvature here. If the graph curved up (i.e. looked like a saucer), that means the person was getting better. If the graph curves down (as it does when it plateaus), then the person is getting worse.

And now for one of the the interesting ones. It’s interesting in part because Jeff Gordon has driven for the same company his entire career, which eliminates the question of equipment from the analysis. Here’s the raw data for wins.


Again, it’s small to save space – click to get a larger version. This is really interesting. You can divide his career into specific segments – see how the slope changes in different ranges of years? My first attempt to explain this was to look at personal events like marriages and children. There might have been a correlation there, but them I looked at his crew chiefs.


That’s sort of interesting, huh? I didn’t make a line during Steve Letarte’s (I know, I spelled it wrong in the graph) tenure. There was a jump there, then it was pretty flat. But that’s a pretty convincing correlation, I think.

Gordon’s still very consistent when it come to the top 5s and top 10s.


Okay, But Can Older Drivers Compete Against Younger Ones?

I know. I got carried away with the data. I do that.

I made a lot of other plots, but here’s the one I think is the most interesting.DriverAges_Champions

There’s been an influx of younger drivers – they start earlier and one might think that would lead the average age of the Sprint Cup Champion to be going down. Overall, though, it’s not. It’s going up. The most recent “Young” winner is Brad Keselowski – and he was 28 years old.


Don’t count the old folks out yet. Even at the advanced age of (gasp) 40-something, drivers like Tony Stewart (pre the last two years), Jimmie Johnson, and Matt Kenseth are remaining consistent with their performance when they started in the series.

Ever scarier, if you look at Kevin Harvick or Brad Keselowski’s graphs, they’re better than straight lines. These drivers are still improving (even as Harvick approaches 40 and Keselowski 30), which means we probably haven’t seen the best of them yet.


Feb 252015

TL;DR:  No.

As the extent of Kyle Busch’s injury Saturday evening at Daytona became evident, Twitter erupted in angry calls for SAFER barriers to be put up on every wall at every track. An interesting division of sides appeared. A small number of people cautioned that simply plastering every track with SAFER barriers was likely to not only not prevent driver injuries, but might actually introduce new problems. Other people accused this group of being insensitive and “stupid”.

Interestingly, the small number of cautionary voices were people like the folks who write Racecar Engineering magazine, people who have been involved with motorsports safety research and people with advanced engineering degrees.

So let’s be really clear here. While I appreciate the passion with which people responded to the accident, opinion has absolutely no place in science and engineering. We work with facts, realizing that oftentimes, we don’t have all the facts we need. In an ideal world, we would have data from collisions at every track in the world, from every angle, with every type of racecar. But we don’t.

It’s fine for fans (and especially for drivers and their teams) to raise their voices and demand more attention to safety, but the average fan (or the average driver) has zero business specifying what those safety measures ought to be. The average NASCAR executive or track administrator doesn’t, either.  Motorsports safety is a constantly evolving research field and luckily, NASCAR recognizes that and works with the top people in the field.


Let’s start with the obvious. A bare concrete wall at a track where speeds reach 200 mph is indefensible. To their credit, NASCAR and the Daytona folks promised to rectify that right away. Tire barriers – which are not ideal, but are definitely better than nothing – were up for the next day’s race.

Racetracks originally put up concrete walls to contain the cars and protect the fans. They weren’t there for driver safety. People don’t question the status quo.  It wasn’t until a number of serious accidents in both IndyCar and NASCAR prompted an effort to develop a better wall. I detail the origin and development of the SAFER barriers in my book, The Physics of NASCAR, based on my interviews with the barrier developers. The effort was initiated by IndyCar, but gained momentum when NASCAR threw their support (and money) behind it.

Once the technology was developed and proven, NASCAR mandated SAFER barriers on the outside walls of all tracks. It was a long road to development because it was a brand new (and frankly, counterintuitive) idea and everyone wanted to make sure it would work under as many conditions as possible.

How SAFER Barriers Work

For an overview of NASCAR safety, check out this video I made with the National Science Foundation. Here’s the brief version.


The SAFER barrier works by extending the time of impact. It’s much more comfortable to fall on a mattress than a floor because the mattress gives. The mattress absorbs and dissipates energy, so that the energy isn’t dissipated through you.

BSPEED_SAFERBarrier_HitA NASCAR stock car going 180 mph has approximately the same kinetic energy as stored in 2 pounds of T.N.T. When the car comes to a stop, all that energy has to go somewhere. Energy can be dissipated by skidding (friction between wheels and asphalt), light and sound (it takes energy to make that screeching noise and to produce sparks), spinning (energy is used to rotate the car) and deformation (energy is used to crunch or break things).  The key is that you want to dissipate energy any way except through your driver.

A mattress won’t make much difference to a speeding stock car. You need something much stiffer, and that’s the purpose of the SAFER barriers. They’re like mattresses for race cars. They use the energy of the car to deform the barriers and spread out the impact over a longer time. This directs energy away from the driver.

Why SAFER Barriers Aren’t the Only Answer

SAFER barriers save lives and this analysis is meant in no way to diminish their importance. But the inventors of the SAFER barriers would be the first folks to remind us that it takes multiple safety devices, working in unison, to protect the drivers (and the crowds). HANS or hybrid devices, helmets, restraints and the car itself are all part of the equation. You can’t address any one of those elements without considering the others. So here, briefly, are some things to think about.

Kinetic Energy Ranges

SAFER barriers work best in a specific kinetic energy range. I was surprised when interviewing drivers for my book to find that more than one mentioned that hitting a SAFER barrier at low speed actually hurt worse than hitting a concrete wall. But it’s true. The wall works by giving. If you don’t hit it hard enough, it doesn’t give and then it is just like hitting a concrete wall. This is relevant for a couple reasons.
1.  Most tracks host more than one kind of racing series. The kinetic energy scales of those series can vary widely. Any solution has to make the track safer for everyone who races there, not just stock cars.
2. Different tracks have different speeds, so even just within a single racing series, this means different kinetic energies. Compare Martinsville and Daytona, where the maximum speeds are a factor of 1.5-2 different. That means the kinetic energy scales differ by a factor of 2.25-4. That’s a big range. The response of the SAFER barriers can be tuned by using different strength foams and different types of steel tubing – but again, it has to work for all series racing there, not just NASCAR.

Get Off Your Grass

Get rid of the grass. Grass has no business being anywhere in a racetrack that cars could possible end up in.

a. Remember how I mentioned that you can dissipate energy by friction between the tires and the ground? The higher the coefficient of friction between the two materials, the more energy you dissipate. You know what the coefficient of friction is between grass and rubber? Very small. It’s even smaller when the grass is wet. This is why road courses have gravel traps. Huge friction that slows down the cars and hopefully stops them before they hit. (Gravel traps have their problems, notably that it’s near impossible to get out of one once you get in one, and that flying gravel is dangerous and difficult to clean up.)

b. Second, there is a drop off between the asphalt and the grass – a lip on which the car can catch, creating a torque. Check out Elliott Sadler’s crash at Talladega.

When he comes from the grass back onto the track, the roof of the car catches on that lip and starts the car rolling again. If I were a driver or an owner, I would be after every track to get rid of any grass near the track.

The Car Itself

NASCAR has done an amazing job engineering a much safer car than we had fifteen years ago. But the job isn’t done. There hasn’t been a career-ending injury (including death) during a race in any of NASCAR’s three major series since 2001. (Note added. It was pointed out to me that Jerry Nadeau‘s career ended after a very hard hit in 2003 during practice for a race at Richmond.) The injuries we have seen have all been below the knee. Dario Franchitti broke an ankle at Talladega. Brad Keselowski hit a wall testing at Road Atlanta and broke an ankle. Kyle Busch’s injuries from the Daytona crash were to his left foot and right lower leg.

The pedal box and the front of the car need some attention. Can the idea of collapsible steering columns be worked into the pedals? The front of the car is designed to crush (thus dissipating energy) in a crash, but maybe there is a way to refine how the crushing happens and reinforce the driver’s cockpit near the legs. I’m sure the folks at the NASCAR R&D Center are already thinking about this side of the problem.

Perhaps there are driver safety devices than could be developed as well, similar to the HANS device that prevents the head from slamming forward in  a wreck. Maybe there’s a carbon fiber leg brace or similar piece that could provide some extra protection for the driver’s legs in a crash. Of course, anything developed can’t interfere with the driver’s ability to control the car after a crash.

The Fallacy of Safe Racing

Motorsports is dangerous. People are killed participating in motorsports – especially at the lower levels, where the safety requirements are much lower than in the high-dollar, high-visibility series. But even in NASCAR, even in F1, even in Indy, there will be serious injuries and – I’m sorry to say – we haven’t lost our last driver to an on-track incident. All you need is that one in a thousand, one in ten-thousand confluence of events.

What Should Fans and Drivers Be Demanding?

Don’t tell NASCAR and the tracks that they should cover every conceivable wall with SAFER barriers and then sit back and congratulate yourself for a job well done.

Consider for a moment the ratio of people whose job it is to make cars fast to people whose job it is to make racing safer.

NASCAR has become so much more proactive about safety in the last years. If I were a driver, I would be lobbying NASCAR to hire more people at their R&D Center focused on safety, and to support more motorsports safety research at universities and industry.

The FIA has an Institute for Motorsports Safety.  It’s a non-profit foundation that centralizes safety initiatives and testing and works to get safety innovations on the track quickly.

Maybe it’s time for NASCAR to team up with IndyCar and the Tudor United Sports Car series and form something similar in the U.S. This isn’t an issue that should come up only after a serious wreck. It’s an issue that needs long-term, on-going commitment and attention. As a fan, I’d pay an extra buck or two on top of a race ticket if that ‘tax’ were earmarked for safety research.

For More:


Nov 202014

One of the biggest changes NASCAR has instituted for the 2015 season is eliminating individual team testing at any tracks. In 2014, teams were limited to four tests and were not allowed to test at tracks that were included in the schedule.  NASCAR may run some limited tests, but they won’t be having the week-long marathon that was Daytona Speedweeks.

Given the intensive schedule in February, most teams are happy to be losing the Daytona tests. A lot of focus for one race – and a race in which the probability that the car comes home in one piece is vanishingly tiny.

Will It Save Teams Money?

Even though some teams will amp up other types of testing, eliminating sending a dozen people and a car out to a track will most likely result in a net savings of money.  NASCAR’s done a good job lately talking with the teams and most teams were in favor of the new rule.

Perhaps more important than the dollars saved is the time and energy of the team members. The season is already 36 points-paying races, plus the week before Daytona and All-Star week. That’s a lot of time to be away from home.  Even when they are  in Charlotte, the team members are at the track enough that they don’t really have time to be “at home”. They get to sleep in their own beds, which is nice, but it’s still pretty intense work.

A lot of NASCAR crew members simply burn out. It’s fun being part of a traveling circus – for a little while.  But eating out all the time, getting irregular sleep and dealing with the stress of the race weekend takes its toll. Once you start having kids, or a crisis at home, being on the road becomes a huge barrier to living the rest of your life. There are a lot of former crew chiefs who are very happy working out of the shop.

The few at-track tests that will be allowed will be run by NASCAR, and one assumes that they will schedule those immediately before or after race weekends, which again will minimize transportation costs, although it’s another day away from the shop for the participating crew and the driver.

Types of Testing

You can divide “testing” into two broad categories:  testing with the driver and testing without the driver.  NASCAR has historically come at it from both sides, hoping they’ll meet in the middle.  The testing rule has effectively taken away a lot of the tools on one side with the intent that tools from the other will compensate.

Remember that NASCAR’s goal isn’t so much keeping the status quo. It’s ensuring that whatever the rules are, they don’t give one company a huge advantage over the others.

So here’s my breakdown:


You’ll notice the driving simulators are in a different color – that’s because that’s the only type of ‘testing’ that really involves only the driver. Teams are trying to use this tool in a more scientific way (see my blog on the Ford tech center, for example), but it still doesn’t address the communication between the team and the driver – which I happen to think is one of the most critical aspects of driver-involved testing.


With Driver vs. Without Driver

Some properties of a car are driver independent.  Drag is never a good thing, so any testing that shows you how to lower the car’s drag is useful and requires absolutely no input from the driver.  Similarly, downforce is almost always good, so changes that increase downforce are also good and will be the same, regardless of who’s inside.

But a lot of the magic in setting up a car is finding out what your specific driver prefers for specific conditions at specific tracks. Someone who comes from a dirt-track background has very different preferences than someone who grew up racing open-wheel cars on asphalt.

All drivers want more grip, but different drivers can make do with different levels of grip in different places along the corner. The really successful long-running crew chief/driver combinations (Chad/Jimmie, notably) work because the driver and crew chief have learned how to communicate. The driver can express what the car is doing and the crew chief knows how to change it so that it favor his driver.

What They’re Losing

This will be one of the few seasons where teams have no say in where and when they test. This eliminates their opportunity to strategize. When there were no rules regarding numbers of tests, you did as many tests as you could afford. You might test at places you were historically good at to optimize your changes of winning, or you might test at places you normally didn’t run well at so that you could get better.

When numbers of tests were limited, teams had to strategize. For example, some teams decided to make sure they were really good at one of the three races in a each segment of the chase eliminations. If you won one of those races, you were automatically in. And just about everyone who was in the Chase wanted to test at Homestead. Now those choices are out of the teams’ hands entirely.

Goodyear will run tire tests – but they aren’t promising they’ll include everyone. Tire tests exist for Goodyear to get the information they need to produce a good tire. That goal is often at odds with the information the teams would like to get from testing. Goodyear prefers 3-5 cars in a test.  You need one from each manufacturer at a minimum to ensure fairness, but you don’t want too many voices providing feedback because it becomes impossible to get detail.

Goodyear also has drivers and teams they like testing with. Some drivers are better at providing the kind of feedback Goodyear would like. And, frankly, some teams are just easier to work with than others. If you mandate that every car running the full season get to participate, that disadvantages Goodyear – which means disadvantaging the rest of us.  That kind of scheme means more Chevrolets test than the other brands, simply because there are more Chevrolet cars.  But if you limit the test to one or two teams per manufacturer, then some Chevy teams will be disadvantaged because there won’t be enough slots for everyone.

NASCAR-run tests are the best shot most teams will have to get real testing with the driver in the car.  The tests will be open, so everyone has a shot at participating. The disadvantage is that NASCAR decides the tracks. Given history, NASCAR is likely to hold tests at tracks that have been repaved, or for which there are new tires. Helping teams perform in the Chase is not part of their strategy.

Although both tire tests and NASCAR-run tests will allow the driver and crew chief additional practice at communicating, drivers who are changing companies and/or crew chiefs are the ones who will suffer most from this testing ban. The crew chief-driver relationship is critical. I maintain that one of the reasons Tony Stewart struggled the first part of this year (I’m talking before the accident in New York) is that his time out of the car with the broken leg the year before interrupted his developing the routine week in-week out relationship you need with your crew chief.

If I were Rick Hendrick, for example, I might put Keith Rodden (Kasey Kahne’s new crew chief) and Kasey in an XFINITY Car (that still sounds weird) just to give them some quality one-on-one time during an actual race. Because the cars are different, not a lot of specifics will transfer; however, the practice in driver giving feedback and crew chief adjusting is absolutely critical. Those lower-level series may be the only opportunity some drivers get to forge a bond with a new crew chief.

Without the Driver

I’m going to cover each of these techniques in a little more detail over the break, but for now, suffice it to say that the type of information you get from a technique like a seven-post rig or a wind tunnel is much more general. Yes, the particular car being tested will have the setup (springs, shocks, etc.) that the driver favors, but you’re missing the crucial component of the driver telling you how it feels.  All the charts and graphs in the world do not compensate for having a driver’s butt in the seat.

Below is what the underside of a seven-post rig looks like.  The four large pillars make the tires go up and down. You program the movements of those pillars based on sensor data you collected from on-track testing. The quality of the results go up the better input data you have. If you have data from a couple years ago, or data from the car with a different driver, you’ve lost some fidelity, some precision.


And the unfortunate fact is that we just don’t know enough about reality to be able to replicate it in our theories. A wind tunnel has a huge advantage over a computation fluid dynamics simulation because one of the hardest things to simulate in a computer is turbulence (shown below, in red just because turbulence looks way cooler in red.)


Will The New Rule Level the Playing Field?

One of the claims I’ve heard people make is that banning on-track testing will help the smaller teams. Let’s start by saying that there are very few teams that are single-car operations anymore. Not because a given company has more than one car, but because manufacturers are doing a better job sharing information between their teams. So the question of one-car vs. multi-car really isn’t a relevant as it used to me.

The question of smaller vs. larger teams, however, is very relevant. Anyone can book time at a wind tunnel, but with time running $1200-$1700 an hour, smaller teams will spend much less time in the wind tunnel than teams with higher budgets. Larger teams have their own seven-post rigs, so they can run 24/7 if they are so inclined.

But even if NASCAR limited wind tunnel time and even the amount of computational fluid dynamics calculations you can make, it still wouldn’t be even. Smaller teams pay less. They generally have less-experienced crew and smaller R&D divisions. If you gave everyone exactly the same amount of data for their cars, the smaller teams would not gain as much as the more experienced teams.

RCR has (at last count) five Ph.D.-level people on staff.  The whole point of getting a Ph.D. is that you are being trained not to implement things that are already known, but to figure out things no one else knows. That is the level at which teams are analyzing this data. If I want to work at SpaceX or Orbital Sciences developing the next alternative to the Space Shuttle, there is a very well-defined path I take.  I train for eight to twelve years, learning as much as I can about what we already know. Then I strike out and try to learn things we don’t know.

There isn’t a Ph.D. level program in race car engineering in this country. The folks who are working in the industry have created their own set of knowledge and boy, is it proprietary. Their experience isn’t in books. So even if a team suddenly got a windfall and can hire smart people, they have to find a way to pull them away from the existing teams. I’ve got a Ph.D., but I couldn’t walk into a race team and help them. It would take me months, maybe years, to understand what they’re doing and what they know before I’d be able to make a contribution.

I think the upshot is that the new rule will keep things pretty much the way they are already, with the exception that teams with new driver/crew chief combinations are going to be at a disadvantage because of the lack of on-track testing.



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