Feb 282014

Repaving is the last possible remedy a track wants to use, but when potholes (see: Daytona) show up, there is no choice but to tear up the old asphalt and replace it with new, fresh blacktop.  In the last few years, Daytona, Phoenix, Michigan, Pocono and Kansas have all been repaved.

We hear a lot from race teams about their ‘notebooks’ – the collected wisdom and experience from prior experiences at a track.  When that track is repaved — or reconfigured — the notebook pretty much goes out the window .  They have to start over.

They’re not the only ones.  I had a chance to talk with Greg Stucker, Manager of Race Tire Sales for Goodyear as part of an article I was working on for a British publication called Race Cup Technology about the many challenges inherent to ensuring that the tires provided to the teams are safe and fast.

Goodyear doesn’t categorize tracks the way most of us do, with the superspeedways, mile-and-a-halfs, short tracks and road courses. They have to take into account not only length, but the track surface and the loads the tires experience.

Venue Groupings

Grouping Tracks
Group 1 Daytona, Talladega
Group 2 Charlotte, Chicago, Darlington, Homestead, Kansas, Las Vegas, Michigan, Texas
Group 3 Atlanta, California, Dover, Kentucky
Group 4 Bristol, Indy, Iowa, Phoenix, Pocono
Group 5 New Hampshire, Richmond, Gateway
Group 6 Martinsville
Group 7 Sonoma, Road America, Mid-Ohio, Ontario, Watkins Glen

This results in seven “venue groupings”, with superspeedways and road courses in their  own categories.  Martinsville, that unique concrete corner/asphalt straightaway hybrid also stands in a class by itself.  The remaining tracks are categorized into four groups.

Although Atlanta and Kansas have similar length and shape, they are in different groups. Atlanta’s surface is much older and rougher.  Speeds are higher.  That places different demands on the tire than a smooth, newly paved surface like Kansas.   Goodyear’s categories change almost yearly as tracks age and are repaved.  Kansas used to be in the same group as Atlanta prior to the former’s summer 2012 repave.

You wouldn’t think that Bristol, Iowa, Indy, Phoenix and Pocono had much in common, but as far as tires are concerned, they are all in the same group because of the combination of track surfaces and loads.

There’s another dimension to consider here:  time.  Michigan and Kansas  - two tracks in the same venue grouping – were paved within six months of each other.  Stucker points out that the surfaces aren’t aging the same way.  This is a combination of on-track activity, and the vagaries of weather – how extreme the temperature changes have been, how much moisture the tracks have sustained, etc.

Goodyear is starting a new program to record representative three-dimensional images of track surfaces as a function of time so that they can develop a better understanding of how track surfaces age.

The track-mapping project uses a technique called fringe projection.  Imagine that I create a pattern of alternating light and dark stripes, similar to the one in the upper right hand side of the graphic below.


I’m going to project that pattern onto a surface and use a camera to capture the reflection.  A perfectly smooth, regular surface will not distort the pattern; however, if there are any irregularities – bumps or voids for example, then the stripe pattern will be distorted.

By varying the pattern and the angle at which the pattern is projected and recorded, you can use some very fancy mathematics to work backward and determine the shape of the surface that’s responsible for the distorted reflection.

The picture below shows you an example of a stripe pattern and the effect of shining the stripe pattern onto a toy fish.


Goodyear’s project will produce a series of 1.5 by 2-inch samples that can display details as small as three micrometers  (about one ten-thousandth of an inch).   This is smaller than the diameter of a red blood cell and about a tenth to a thirtieth the diameter of a human hair.

This surface-mapping project will help clarify both the smaller year-to-year changes of track surfaces due to weather and use, but also will provide information on how major changes like whole-track resurfacing or reconfigurations affects the racing.

Stucker points out that track technology constantly changes.  You can’t compare the most recent repave of Daytona with the repave more than a decade ago.  One big difference is that the binder – the black sticky stuff that sticks the rocks together –  tends to be much denser than it used to be.  The denser binder prevents water penetration and is more durable, which should decrease how frequently the tracks have to be resurfaced; however, that increased density means that it takes a lot longer for the track to start showing signs of wear.

It’s a cool application of a new technology that is being applied to a large number of possible uses.  The “light” used for these measurements can be any type of light, including lasers, visible light and/or infrared or radio waves, depending on the particular data desired.  This technology is used in Microsoft’s Kinect camera, which is used on the XBox to translate a user’s motions onto a computer display.  That system uses infrared light. Other applications include 3D imaging of the mouth (for dental work), of vascular walls, for facial reconstruction, corrosion analysis and failure evaluation.


Oct 112013

There were 15 cautions last week at Kansas Speedway and at least 15 drivers complaining that driving on the repaved track surface was like driving on ‘razor blades’.  “The worst racetrack I’ve ever driven on.” said race winner Kevin Harvick.

Normally when you have a lot of cautions, the drivers’ first target is Goodyear.  Goodyear even brought a special tire (a multizone tire I analyzed last week) to deal with the specific challenges of repaved tracks.

Surprisingly, the drivers turned their attention this week to the tracks.  Jeff Gordon suggested that the lack of abrasiveness being the origin of the lack of grip.

“To me, it’s really the surface. We’re paving the racetracks with what we pave new highways with, and it’s not a highway.  We had the same issue in Phoenix, at Darlington. We have had the same issue at every repave that we’ve had the last six or seven years.”  (via the Las Vegas Sun)

Friction (the scientific word for ‘grip’) has to do with the rubbing and sticking of two materials against each other.  When you talk about the coefficient of friction for a tire, you are actually talking about the coefficient of friction for a tire on a specific surface.  The coefficient of friction (how ‘sticky’ the tire is) is different on asphalt vs. concrete.  (Also on wet vs. dry surfaces.)

Asphalt is a combination of aggregate (rocks or sometimes metal slag) held together with a binder.  The binder historically has been bitumen, a sticky tarlike substance that comes out of petroleum refining.

The American Chemical Society recently had their annual meeting in Indianapolis and they had some of the folks who developed the Indy race surface speak.  The Heritage Research Group was charged with researching asphalt for the 2004 repave.  They actually worked with Firestone Polymers to develop a superior binder, one that would make a smoother race track without losing any grip.  I also found a really cool presentation on the paving history of Indy.  Nowhere in any of those materials does anyone discuss the 2008 fiasco that was the Brickyard that year.

Gordon’s assertion that there must be roughness may not be true anymore because of all the games we can play with chemicals and making surfaces smooth but still sticky.  There are, however, a ton of variables that come into play.

Kansas was cold.  Very cold, even for Kansas this time of year.  Try this experiment.  Get two sticks of butter.  Put one in the freezer for a couple hours and one in the fridge.  Now get a cheese grater – one of those raspy things would be perfect – and try grating each one of the sticks of the butter.

What you will find is that the frozen butter gives you small powdery stuff and the fridge butter melts and leaves you with a layer of butter stuck on the grater.

That’s exactly what happens with laying down rubber on a race track.  At higher temperatures, you get a nice layer of rubber that comes off the tires.  When it’s cold – like Kansas was – you get powder.  In fact, that’s what drivers and crew chiefs were complaining about – the tires were powdering.

That had little to do with the track or the tires – it had to do with the unexpected temperatures.  Remember that the same tires were used in Atlanta and the drivers were raving about how good they were.

It’s a moving target.  You can’t predict the weather months in advance – the time you need to settle on a particular tire and start making it.  You can’t pave a track such that it will have grip in all possible weather situations.  And you can’t control the weather.

One of the issues, though, is that there are a good number of very smart scientists at Goodyear who know a lot about rubber for race tires.  The folks who research asphalt have their eyes firmly on the millions of miles of roads that you and I travel each day.  The ACS article mentioned that roughness in the asphalt we travel is responsible for 555 million gallons of fuel wasted each year on interstate highways.

If the asphalt isn’t stiff enough, the cars leave dings and dents.  That also takes energy, energy that could be used to move the cars.  They cite a figure of about 200 million gallons of fuel wasted due to destroying the road on interstate highways.

And interstate highways only make up two percent of the road surfaces in the country.

The point is that there aren’t really people who are researching asphalt for racetracks.  All of that research would have to be funded by racetracks.  As roads have gotten better for our cars, the technology that’s been developed might actually be less good for racetracks.





Oct 102013

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


Oct 042013

Kansas marks the second appearance of Goodyear’s “Multi-Zone Tread Tire”, which was first used at Atlanta Motor Speedway over Labor Day weekend.

Stop for a moment to appreciate the challenge Goodyear has to face each race.  They must design a fast, durable and safe tire for each track on the circuit – tracks with individual characters that change from year to year due to weathering and re-paving.

The new  Gen-6 car, which  is lighter and faster, adds an additional complication.  NASCAR really hoped that the Gen-6 car would help address the challenge of one-and-a-half mile tracks.  The importance of aerodynamics at these tracks makes it very difficult to pass and has led to a lot of criticism about ‘cookie cutter track’ racing.

Anatomy of a Tire

Race tires are surprisingly similar to  production car tires.  They’re built to be much sturdier because they have to handle much higher forces.  They’re wider to give them better bite.   The most noticeable difference to the eye, however, is the tread.

Most people think ‘tread’ means the grooves.  That’s the tread pattern and it’s there to make tires safe to use in the rain.  NASCAR tires don’t have a tread pattern – we have the good sense to go inside when it rains and wait for it to stop. Tire_Anatomy  (Yes, I’m still bitter about standing outside for eight hours during the Petit Le Mans one year where floods filled the track so deep with water than Porsches could be drowned.)

The tread is simply the outer layer of the tire – the part that comes into contract with the track.  On a NASCAR tire, it’s smooth and only about an eighth of an inch thick.

The tread is made from a tire compound, which is a mysterious (read: proprietary) mixture of rubber, small particles of carbon and other alloys and a laundry list of other chemicals. The particular make-up of a compound is the secret to its durability and grip.

Tire compounding is a complex engineering task because you have to balance two competing behaviors:  soft and grippy vs. hard and durable.

A soft tire compound gives you a lot of grip.  It gets sticky when it heats up, allowing the tire to grab the track and letting you turn a lot faster.  The downside is that softer compounds wear faster.

Underneath the tread are the belts, which are made of woven metal threads, often with a superstrong polymer like Kevlar added for durability.  Belts are made for strength, not generating grip.

When tires wear, they become weak and as soon as one spot becomes weak enough, they blow out.  You can make a really, really grippy tire — but that means you’re going to have to change it very frequently.

The other extreme is a harder compound, which won’t give you as much grip, but also won’t wear as quickly.  Hard tires don’t blow out as easily, but they also don’t let you race as hard.

Goodyear has a constant balancing act:  how to create a tire that’s grippy enough, but also durable enough.

Multi-Zone Tires: A Technology from the Street.

Anyone old enough and from a cold enough climate to remember when we had two sets of tires?  I remember having to walk around a set of ‘snow tires’ as a kid growing up in Wisconsin.  We didn’t mark the change of seasons on a calendar – we knew it was winter when the car slid around the road and Dad had to make an appointment to get the snow tires put on the car.The question of how you balance different qualities in a product is an essential feature of engineering.  Consumers want tires to behave at peak performance in all different conditions, whether they be dry, wet or icy.  The problem is that a tire that performs best in dry conditions rarely also performs best in wet or icy conditions.GoodyearTripleTred

You can change the tread pattern to optimize the tire behavior in different conditions.  The  Goodyear Assurance TripleTred All-Season passenger tire combined three distinct types of tread patterns.  According to Goodyear:

  • The water zone has a sweeping tread pattern that helps move water our from under the tire for better wet traction.  (Those grooves direct  water from the inside of the tire to the outside, getting it out from under the tire and giving the tire more contact with the road.)
  • The “ice zone” has lots of biting edges, which offer enhanced gripping traction on icy and slick roads.
  • The “dry zones” are the large tread blocks along the outer edges, which give you the best behavior when you don’t have to worry about ice or rain.

A tire like this won’t behave perfectly in any one of the three conditions, but it will behave well in all three.  That’s an example of the compromises you make in engineering.

Bringing Multi-Zone Technology to NASCAR

NASCAR tires don’t have tread patterns, but you can apply the same idea to the tire compound.  That’s what Goodyear did in the tires used at Atlanta and at Kansas this week.

GoodyearMultiZoneTireThe left-side tires this week are the ‘regular’ single-compound tires and are a little grippier than before.

The right-side tires, however, feature two different compounds, as shown in the diagram at left (from Goodyear).  The inside three inches (meaning the three inches closest to the car body) are made from a harder compound that is more durable and wears more slowly.  The outer nine inches (roughly) are made from a grippier compound that will provide additional traction.

When tire fail, Goodyear studies the specific location of the failure because it teaches them about how to build a better tire.  We’ve talked before about the fact that sometimes you don’t learn things except when an experiment fails.  Well, at 1.5-mile tracks, the inside shoulder of the right-side tire gets a lot of stress.

The old solution would have been to use a harder tire compound throughout the entire tire – but that makes for a less grippy tire.  Less grippy tires tend to lead to more grumpy drivers.  Goodyear came up with a solution that uses a harder compound on the part of the tire that needs to withstand the most stress, but still gives a grippier compound in the area that should be able to handle it.  You get the best of both worlds.

Let me remind you, however, that every step forward Goodyear takes is matched by the advances of the race teams.  It’s the teams’ job to push the limits of the equipment.   The older, single-compound tire limited how aggressive their setups could be.  Too much load on the tire would result in an early blowout, so teams had to back off their setup to preserve tires.

The new tires will take additional stress and I guarantee that at the testing session today, the teams will be experimenting with new setups, trying to eke out that last extra tenth of a second or hundredth of a second.

There is no such thing as “the perfect tire”.  There is always a tradeoff between grip and wear.  This new tire is a great example of the type of compromise engineering is designed to address.

Other tire stories:

Oct 032013

Another week?  Already?  Where does the time go?

  • Eric Chemi reviews his great picks for Dover and gives us some data to support the idea that it really is a three-man Chase.
  • @nascarnomics is looking into the NASCAR attendance issue.  The great thing about this blog is that he explains his analysis, instead of just saying “attendance is down”.  This is a great opportunity to learn something about the power of numbers and (for the teachers) using graphs and charts to communicate data.  And face it, “censored regression modeling” sounds like something that ought to be labeled NSFW.
  • @PitRho has their reflection on Dover as well as their predictions for Kansas
  • I chimed in with a little piece about how banking doesn’t actually appear in the equation that dictates turning force, but why it’s important in the , anyway.
  • Not cars, but my friend @asymptotia appears in FailLab Ep 3 where he explains how it’s possible to grab and electric fence.  Great fun.
  • Racecar Engineering is offering a free supplement issue on engines
  • Did you know NASCAR has a whole website for their Green Initiative?  In response to a facebook question, I learned this week that Goodyear recycles all the tires they take back from the track – lots of other info on the site.
  • NASCAR and the Department of Energy signed a Memorandum of Understanding that identifies several “transformative energy technologies that will benefit NASCAR and its fans”, including electric vehicle charging stations, solid-oxide fuel cells, advanced biofuels and emerging natural gas technologies.    Remember that NASCAR is a huge enterprise.  It isn’t just about the cars on track.  There are race shops, offices, haulers, individuals working in NASCAR… energy efficiency in those areas  has more of an impact than if they change the cars on the track.  Little things like getting hauler drivers to shut off their generators makes a huge difference in energy consumption and greenhouse gas generation.
  • If you’re in Vermont, I’ll be giving two talks (October 8 and 9) there and appearing on the Mark Johnson show on WDEV on October 8th with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott – a racecar driver!  More details here.
Sep 272013

Dover is a fascinating track – twenty-four degrees of banking, but only a mile in length.carturning  A student approached me with a question:  Higher-banked tracks generate higher centripetal forces – so why doesn’t the track banking appear in the equation for centripetal force?

I’ve talked about centripetal forces in detail before, but let’s have a quick reminder.   I tie a string to a tennis ball and swing it at constant speed in a horizontal circle around my head.  Assuming I am coordinated enough not to hit myself in the head with the tennis ball (don’t laugh – it happens), the reason the ball goes in a circle is because of the string.

The string exerts a force on the ball.   At every moment, the ball tries go straight and the string forces it to turn.  The direction of the force the string exerts on the ball is along the string – which means it is always toward the center of the circle.  Centripetal literally means “center seeking”.

Just like the tennis ball, a car needs a force to make it turn.  The amount of force depends on the mass (weight) of the car, the speed of the car and the turn radius of the track.


As my student pointed out, the degree of banking doesn’t even show up in this equation.  All this equation tells you is that you need more force:

  • to take a tighter turn
  • to turn a heavier car
  • to turn faster

The numbers are interesting, in part because they are so big!  Every track in the NASCAR circuit has different parameters, so we have to do a different calculation for every track.  Here’s the numbers for Dover


Teachers:  You can download metric and English unit version of this figure, along with some fun science facts about Miles the Monster.

The Numbers

Using a typical weight for a Gen-6 car (3300 lbs of car and 180 lbs of driver), we can figure out how much force it takes to make a car turn.  (Disclaimer: Parts of this table are from my previous blog.  But I did double check them and added this week’s track – Dover.)

Track Turn radius
Turning Force
Talladega 1000 180 6,848 1.97
200 8,456 2.43
Richmond 365 180 20,636 5.93
100 6,370 1.83
Bristol 242 100 9,606 2.76
Dover 500 130 7,858 2.26

We can see from this:

  • Even though Talladega is a higher speed track, the g-forces are comparable to smaller tracks – because Talladega has wide, sweeping turns.
  • Speed in the turns is limited at a small track like Richmond – the turns are very tight and you’d need a) an unrealistic amount of turning force and b) the g’s would be so high that the drivers would be likely to pass out.
  • Look at how much a 2o mph increase in speed increases the g’s experienced at the track.


The ‘G’ is quite possibly the most misunderstood unit in racing.  A ‘G’ measures acceleration, not force.   We use ‘G’ because the unit is equal to the acceleration of any object due to Earth’s gravity.

You are standing (or sitting) and the ground (or your chair) is exerting a force upward equal to your weight.  As a result, you do not accelerate up or down.  If the chair were to spontaneously disappear, you would accelerate toward the ground.

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.

Just for reference, most amusement park rides top out at about 3G; however, some roller coasters go up to 4G (SheiKra Rollercoaster at Tampa) or 4.5G (e.g. the Titan Rollercoaster in Texas).

Although Earth’s gravity pulls down (toward the center of the Earth), I can use the unit ‘G’ to measure acceleration in any direction:  up or down, back or forth, or sideways.  Drag racers experience accelerations of about 5G backward at take off.  When you’re turning at constant speed, the acceleration is sideways (which engineers call ‘lateral’).


Please don’t use the term “G-force”.   It’s wrong because a ‘G’ is a unit of acceleration, not force.  When you experience ’3Gs’ of acceleration, the force you experience is the number of G’s times your weight.

Compare Danica Patrick (who weighs about 100 lbs) with Ryan Newman  who (according to Yahoo! Sports) weighs 207 lbs.  They both experience 3 ‘G’ in a turn.  That means Danica experiences a force of 300 lbs, while Ryan experiences a force of 621 lbs.  (Their cars, which weigh the same, experience the same force.)

If they experience such different forces, why do we use ‘G’s?  Because the ‘G’-value doesn’t depends on who or what is accelerating. It’s the same number.  You may remember that force = mass x acceleration.  If you take the mass out of the equation above, you have the formula for centripetal acceleration.

But What About the Banking?

As I noted above, the equation for centripetal force doesn’t address banking.  Banking doesn’t directly enter into the equation;  it’s just mass, speed and turn radius.

BUT:  A banked track lets you go faster around the turns.  If Dover were flat, you would still experience 2.26 ‘G’ at 130 mph – but you wouldn’t be able to go 130 mph in the first place.  The greater the banking, the higher speeds around the corners and thus greater G-values; however, a high-banked track with very wide corners could conceivably have lower ‘G’-values than a relatively flat track with really, really tight turns.  It – like so much of racing – is a tradeoff.

Related Posts:

Why Concrete Races Differently than Asphalt

Why Turning is Hard


Sep 082013


So instead of talking about a couple great races this week, we’re focusing on restarts.  Again.  Everyone, from pundits to drivers, is questioning  NASCAR’s decisions to not call penalties on the critical restarts of both the Nationwide and the Sprint Cup races.

The rule is that the leader of the race controls the restarts.   Lines on the racetrack walls delineate a box.  The leader may choose to start the race (that is, accelerate) anywhere within the box.  If he/she has not by the time the cars reach the end of the box, then the flagperson starts the race.

NASCAR:  Balls and Strikes

The problem is that this creates subjectivity.   NASCAR has made exceptions when they’ve deemed that the leading car spun its wheels and thus it was okay that the leader didn’t cross the line first.  I’ve already written how, if one car spins its wheels, a car going at constant speed can look like it’s accelerating when it really isn’t.

Another problem is that the drivers  look at the lines on the wall from different perspectives since they are in either the inside or outside lanes – you could get a sort of parallax error.

Robin Pemberton addressed the restart issue in the driver’ meeting before the Richmond Sprint Cup race.  NASCAR’s position is that restarts wouldn’t be an issue if the drivers would just obey the spirit of the law and “do it right”.  In the absence of common sense from drivers, Pemberton warns, it leaves NASCAR with a subjective decision:

“As many of you may have some questions on restarts tonight, I would remind you there are a few things we still have to have a judgment call on, OK?” he said. “There are balls and there are strikes. Sometimes you don’t like the call; sometimes we don’t even like the call we have to make.”

HT to Nate Ryan at USA Today

Why Technology is a Bad Idea

There have been a number of suggestions on how to solve the restart problem, ranging from telling NASCAR to “do a better job” to using an in-car technology that would simultaneously tell all the drivers to ‘go’ at the same time.

In-car technology has been used in a number of other series – but not for restarts and there’s a good reason why.  Everyone accelerating at exactly the same time works perfectly – if everyone starts accelerating at the same time and accelerates at the same rate.

What if the guy behind you is quicker on the gas than you are?   The green light goes on and he accelerates right into the back of your car.

And do you really want a driver watching a light in the car instead of the car in front of them?

Add to that the potential for tech problems (It’s not that unusual for a driver to have a radio not work properly during a race) and you’ve got the makings for The Big One at every restart.

What Would Albert Do?

NASCAR could  turn for advice on this issue to Albert Einstein, who said, simply:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

In other words, don’t create a ton of fancy gadgets and dohickeys when a couple of gallons of paint would work.  Don’t make it a subjective call when it  doesn’t have to be.  There are no subjective calls about who exits Pit Road first, are there?

As a first attempt to solving the problem, let’s just paint a line across the track and make it the drivers’ problem.  The nose of the leader’s car has to pass the line first.   An overhead camera (or a side mounted camera similar to the one used to show the exit of pit road) would be a definitive arbiter of “strikes and balls”.  If the first car isn’t the first past the line, there’s a penalty in store for the second-place driver.

An overarching principle in NASCAR has been that intent doesn’t matter.  From speeding on pit road and fines for rules violation, NASCAR doesn’t car if there’s a legitimate reason why you broke the law.  You broke it.   Your tachometer wasn’t calibrated correctly?  Tough.  Your shock broke and your car was too low in post-race inspection?  Sorry.  We drew a line and you crossed it.  (Okay, we have to admit that sometimes NASCAR draws some pretty fuzzy lines sometimes – but this doesn’t have to be one of them.)

There’s nothing subjective to who gets off pit road first.  Yes, you could probably use  transponders to determine who reaches the finish line first – but fans can’t see it.  That just leads to people complaining that NASCAR is manipulating the race to ensure that (insert driver name here) wins.

A line and making the decision based on which car crosses the line first transfers the hassle from NASCAR to the drivers.  Sneaky drivers (you know who you are) will try to out-psych their competitors – but I guarantee you it is going to backfire on them sometimes.   Sometimes, you’re going to be stuck in second place next to someone who is horrible on restarts.  He/she spins their tires and you beat their car to the line.  You’re just going to have to be more careful when you’re next to someone who doesn’t restart well.

It was heartbreaking to see Brian Scott fail to win the Nationwide race Friday night – it would have been his first ever win and he had such a dominant car.  You never know when you’re going to get a car like that again.   On the positive side, I bet he pays a lot of attention to the physics and the psychology of restarts in the future.  When he gets to Cup, he’s going to be even more of a challenge.  You know he’s not going to forget this for a long time.

Jul 052013

Why Roof Flaps?

Roof flaps (the invention of which I detail in my book The Physics of NASCAR) help keep cars on the ground.  This is necessary because of Bernoulli’s law, which says basically that:

  • Faster-moving air exerts less pressure.
  • Slower-moving air exerts more pressure.

A wing develops lift because the air flowing under the wing moves slower than the air going over the wing. That creates more pressure under the wing than over the wing, which generates a net force upward.  That’s a good thing for an airplane.  Not so good for a race car.

A NASCAR race car is pretty stable when airflow goes from the nose to the tail.

The problems start when a car turns sideways because a sideways racecar looks a little like a wing.  Air flows easily over the roof of a sideways racecar. It stays attached to the car’s surface for a long time, and that creates a low pressure region on the top of the car. A little air gets under the car and all of a sudden, the car is flying.

If this happened all the time, you’d engineer the car to prevent it from happening – except whatever you engineered would slow down the car all the time.  Since this is only a problem when a car rotates(i.e. yaws),  you need a solution that only becomes active when the car is yawed.

The idea is to get the air to slow down when it goes over the roof, which increases the pressure on the top of the car and decreases the lift.   As shown at left, the roof flaps are flaps of metal that are normally flush with the roof. When the pressure on the roof gets low enough, the pressure differential between the underside of the flap and the top of the flap causes the roof flap to pop up.  The pop-ed up roof flap slows the air going over the top of the car, increasing the pressure and keeping the car on the ground.

Cars have two roof flaps(which are more appropriately called “hinged air deflectors”).  One runs along a line from left to right and one is angled at 45 degrees to the first, as shown in the figure  (which comes from the original patent #5374098) and is from the pre-Gen-6 car.

The detail of the roof flap is shown at right (again, from the pre-Gen-6 version).  It’s a one-piece assembly made of carbon fiber composite.  The tethers, which are the strings running through the bottom of the tray and through the flaps, are made of a superstrong polymer called Vectran that stops the flaps from relying entirely on their hinges to prevent being ripped off the car when they stand up at 190 mph.  It’s a purely mechanical, deceptively simple design that works pretty reliably and doesn’t have a lot of moving parts.

Gen-6 Roof Flaps

Roof flaps were re-designed for the Gen-6 car.  The old roof flaps were 8″ x 12″.  The new ones are closer to 10″ x 18″.  Larger roof flaps slow down more air molecules than smaller roof flaps.  They are lighter, deploy faster and they have little fabric parachutes to improve their ability to slow down the air running over the top of the car.   The photo below is from one of my favorite magazines, Circle Track - check out their article to learn about other details of the Gen-6 car.  Compare the first diagram and the photo below.  See how much further over to the side of the roof the roof flaps run?


What are Roof Flap Spacers?

Roof flap spacers are metal disks that sit in the tray and give the roof flaps something to rest on so that they remain level with the roof surface.  There are two spacers for each flap, making a total of eight spacers in the car.


Teams buy roof flap assemblies from Roush-Yates.  The picture below is again the COT assembly, and the picture is from the Roush-Yates catalog.  The assembly costs $1130.00.   The key word here is assembly.  They come assembled and the idea is that you  drop them into their hole in the roof of the car.  COTRoofFlapPicture

And you don’t mess with them in any way before you drop them into the car.

The whole ‘roof flap spacer-gate’ thing (see Dustin Long’s MRN article for a picture of the confiscated parts) appears to be a simple case of teams shaving down components to save weight at the top of the car.

I know!  Four small cylinders – how is that going to change anything?  Remember that teams are scrapping for any advantage they can find.   Here’s the physics:

  • The grip on each tire is proportional to how hard the tire is being pushed into the track.
  • The force pushing each tire into the track is a combination of mechanical downforce (i.e. the weight of the car) and aerodynamic  downforce (the force of the air pushing down on the car)
  • The force on each tire changes as the body rolls during turns.  Accelerating out of a left turn transfers the weight of the car toward the right rear, so you lose grip on your left front tire.
  • The amount of weight that shifts during a turn depends on the height of the car’s center of gravity.  The higher the center of gravity, the more weight shifts and the more change in grip you have on your tires.

Teams have been using carbon fiber for things like dashboards in an attempt to keep the center of gravity as low as possible.

Note:  @DGodfatherMoody reports that each of the spacers was lightened by about 3 oz.  There are 8 spacers on the two roof flaps, so you’ve got 24 oz or about a pound and a half lighter.  That’s significant!

What are the Penalties Going to Be?

This is a hard one to predict.

  • You can’t say that it didn’t given anyone a performance advantage because of the above argument.  Maybe not a huge performance advantage, but come on – if it wasn’t going to make the car faster, why would you try it?  No one seems to think that the modified spacers had anything to do with aerodynamics.
  • The rule book says “The hinged air deflectors must be NASCAR-approved and obtained only through NASCAR-approved sources. The hinged air deflectors must be installed as specified in the instruction sheet supplied with the hinged air deflector kit.”  …and I’m guessing the instruction sheet doesn’t tell you to shave weight off the spacers.  Or do anything with the spacers.  It’s going to be hard to argue that you were working in the grey area with this.
  • It’s a safety device.  NASCAR doesn’t take kindly to monkeying with safety devices — even when the modification doesn’t impact the function of the safety device.
  • NASCAR has been increasingly grumpy about people trying to skirt the rules.  Penalties have been escalating and what might have been tolerated at the start of the season might have the hammer come down at the midpoint.
  • NASCAR has had an unprecedented number of penalties reduced by the appeals panel this year.  The last couple appeals outcomes may impact their thinking on the magnitude of the penalties.

If it were me, it would be a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head and telling the crew chiefs that if we catch you doing it again, you’re going to be watching the next couple of races from in front of the television.

Move along folks… nothing here to see, I think.

Parts of this blog were adapted from a blog previously published on the now defunct stockcarscience.com on 4/26/2009.

May 282013

An overhead camera rope snapped and fell onto the track during the Coca Cola 600 Sunday evening.  FOX Sports released the following statement:

“Everyone at FOX Sports is relieved and thankful to know that the injuries to fans caused when CAMCAT malfunctioned Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway were minor, and those who received hospital treatment were released last night. As stated previously, we regret that the race was affected, and we apologize to the racers whose cars were damaged, to everyone at CMS, NASCAR, and NASCAR fans, especially those who were hurt. At this time, we still do not have a cause for what happened, but a full investigation is underway, and use of the camera is suspended indefinitely.
“The rope is made of Dyneema, an ultra-strong synthetic that has the same approximate strength of a steel wire with the same diameter, and is less than a year old. According to the company, it had been factory-tested by the manufacturer and its breaking strength is certified before shipment. It was also inspected by CAMCAT upon receipt last June. The rope was certified to have a breaking strength of over 9,300 pounds. The force exerted during last night’s race was less than 900 pounds

Dyneema is a member of a family of polymers called ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE).  Ethylene’s high school picture is shown at right:  Ethylene is also known as  C2H4 – because it has two carbons and four hydrogen atoms.  The parenthesis with the ‘n’ means that the unit is repeated ‘n’ times.  The words “ultra-high-molecular weight” can be translated simply as “lotsa”.  There may be a couple of million units in your typical UHMWPE fiber.  Lots of fibers are combined and you end up with something that is extremely strong, but lightweight.

Dyneema has some additional positive qualities relative to other types of UHMWPE.  Dyneema has extremely low friction (comparable to Teflon), which means it is good for allowing things to slide on it smoothly.  It also is resistant to abrasion, which means it should be durable.  UHWMPE has a strength-to-weight ratio of 8- 15 times more than steel (see this video).  This should give you an idea why the falling cable was able to damage race cars.  The reports I saw during the Television kept saying that the rope was “nylon”.   Nylon can certainly cause damage when it hits something at 180 mph, but something equivalent to a steel cable is definitely going to be dangerous at high speed.

The CAMCAT system (shown at left) is an aerial camera system used by many sports broadcasters.   The low friction, abrasion resistance of the Dyneema allows a camera to travel up to 80 mph over lengths of 700 yards.  FOX has suspended their use of the technology until they figure out what happened.

Dyneema does have a couple of issues.  Almost every polymer is sensitive to ultraviolet radiation – Materials like Nomex and Kevlar degrade when exposed to UV radiation from the Sun.  Dyneema builds up a UV-opaque sheath during its initial time in the Sun, so it is much more resistant to UV degradation than other similar polymers.  A Dyneema fiber should have  no problem supporting the 900 lbs of the camera – it ought to be able to support more than ten times that weight… if the fiber is ideal.

Dyneema doesn’t have very good high-temperature properties.  Although its melting point is upward of 250 degrees F, when you hang something heavy on a cable and leave it for a long time, the fiber is subject to creep.  “Creep” is the technical word for something stretching because you keep pulling on it.  You could also say “sag”, I guess.  I’d be curious about how much weight was left hanging on the line.  I’d also ask about whether there were any splices and if the break was near the splices.

I’ve never seen a piece of television equipment affect a race like this before.

May 242013

Listen to SiriusXM NASCAR radio, or peruse any of the racing websites and you will find a lot of theories about how races should be changed to make them ‘more exciting’.  To try to amp up the All-Star Race, NASCAR went with four 20-lap segments, followed by a realignment (the cars were ordered in rank of average finish over the first four segments) and a 10-lap shootout.  With no series points on the line, that should have made for an exciting evening of hard driving and competitive racing.

Or not.

First, let’s acknowledge a fundamental sports fact.  Sometimes, competitions just aren’t exciting.  The blowout between two unmatched football teams, for example, isn’t going to be interesting unless you introduce profoundly contrived gimmicks like loosing live lions on the field during timeouts.  So let’s just accept that sometimes we’re going to see races that just aren’t very exciting.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.

We want side-by-side racing with lots of passing.  We’re frustrated by long green-flag runs in which the car that starts out leading is never challenged for the lead.  The only chance to get track position is to take two tires, or no tires during a pitstop and hope that your lack of new rubber doesn’t hurt you too much when the cars that did take tires catch up to you.

We want to see changes in the running order during green flag runs.  So what naturally changes on the cars over that time?  The two most significant factors are:

  • The tires heat up and wear down.
  • The fuel burns off, making the car lighter.

A NASCAR car holds about 120 lbs of fuel, so as a green-flag run progresses, a car ought to get faster because it’s getting lighter.  But that’s not what happens.  Lap times increase over the course of a green-flag run because the tires wear down (which we call “tire fall-off”).

Grip is just another word for friction.  When tires run against a track, two types of friction are in play.  The first is abrasive friction, which is the same type of friction as a wood block rubbing against sandpaper.  This wears down the tread.  The second type of friction (which they never seem to teach in school) is called adhesive friction.  Imagine you have a piece of chewing gum on your shoe.  It’s a hot day and you’re walking down the sidewalk.  You walk over another piece of chewing gum.  The two pieces glom onto each other – that’s another type of friction.  As tires run on a track, they heat up and the first few atomic layers become very soft.  Those layers interact with the layers of rubber already on the track and increase adhesive friction.

The more friction, the faster the tires break down.  Those top layers of rubber are worn off – they get hot.  Tires can easily reach 250-325 degrees Fahrenheit.  The “marbles” — clumps of rubber, track dirt and dust show you how much rubber used to be on the tires.  The tires lose their tread, get warmer and thus lose their grip.

Consider a track like Atlanta Motor Speedway.  Tires last for about 40 laps and a typical lap time is around 30 seconds. At a 1.5 mile track like Atlanta, the typical lap time will be one second longer after the first 10-15 laps.  By the time you’ve completed 40 laps, you’ve added another second to your lap time.  That corresponds to decreasing your average speed by 10 mph over the course of the green flag run.

The problem is that tires wear pretty much the same for everyone.  If we all start with fresh tires, and we all run 20 laps, then (barring accidents and acts of stupidity), we all experience the same tire fall off and we’ll stay pretty much in the order we started in.  In cases where the tires really don’t fall off much, you’ll see teams stopping for fuel and not taking new tires because it doesn’t get them anything.

Back in the day, tires were a heck of a lot softer than they are now.  You might see lap times increase by a couple of seconds per lap.  That’s a situation in which strategy starts to become important.  It might make sense for me to pit and get new tires because the time I lose pitting could be made up on the track since my new tires make me significantly faster than the cars that didn’t pit.  A few extra laps on the tires made a huge difference in speed.

The problem is that very soft tires wear quickly (especially if teams use very aggressive setups) and can lead to tire failures.  Then you have, for example, Tony Stewart very publicly excoriating Goodyear for making “the worst tire I’ve ever been on”.  Goodyear has some pretty stiff challenges:  tracks are constantly being repaved and reconfigured, and there’s an entirely new car this year with different characteristics.

When a Goodyear tire fails, it damages the company’s reputation.  Goodyear is in the sport to get business.  When a driver announces that he or she doesn’t trust the tire, or that Goodyear is incompetent, it’s a major blow.  So Goodyear stays on the conservative side, producing harder tires that will withstand some level of abuse from overly aggressive setups and overly aggressive drivers.  Harder tires don’t fall off.  They also cause fewer accidents and less negative publicity.

If I ran Goodyear…

OK, scratch that.  If I ran Goodyear and had all the money in the world, here’s what I would develop:  Multilayered tires.

In the nano world, we make things like coatings using multiple layers of different materials.  In making a coating for, say, a drill bit, we may start with a material that sticks really well to steel, but isn’t superhard, and then follow that layer with a layer of a material that is superhard, but wouldn’t stick well to the steel.  The two layers together give you superior properties to either one.

You could do the same thing for tires, right?  Make the outer layer of the tread a soft, grippy, really fast rubber that wears down within the first quarter to third of a fuel run.   The tread layer below could be a harder layer that still gives reasonable grip, but is nowhere near as fast as the upper layer.  This would give the crew chiefs some serious options for strategy while still keeping the tires from being unsafe.  The disadvantages, of course, are that the tires would be more expensive and take a lot more time to develop.

Goodyear has a neat video up on how the NASCAR tires are made.  The video could stand to have some titles to tell you what’s happening at different spots – and it doesn’t really do justice to the fact that a significant portion of the work is done by hand.  Different tires are made for different tracks and Goodyear is constantly tweaking the recipe.  There’s also a nice article up on Autoweek talking about the NASCAR tire factory in Akron.

And here’s a re-run of a video in which some of the top crew chiefs and engineers from NASCAR argue for more tire fall off.

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