Richard Childress Racing

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Science on the Fast Track

Author: Rachel Kaufmann
Date: Jan. 11, 2013

Along a racetrack's "pit road," crew chiefs and race engineers for various NASCAR teams await their drivers' inevitable pit stop. The souped-up racers need fresh tires and to top off their fuel. Every 30-second lap, the ground shakes as 43 cars whip past at 200 miles per hour.

Stock car racing isn't rocket science—and yet the track is usually crawling with people who are, in effect, rocket scientists. You might not expect it from a sport that evolved out of bootleggers racing their moonshine down twisty Appalachian roads, but modern racing teams use computational fluid dynamics simulations, wind tunnels, and the highly technical know-how of engineers to eke milliseconds out of each driver's lap time.

"If you go to these race shops, you think you walked into a hospital operating room. It's absolutely spotless," says Robert Johnson, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Charlotte, and co-founder of the college's motorsports program. "These are not shade-tree mechanics having some fun."

Instead, these are highly skilled engineers pushing automobiles to their limits, sometimes using that experience as a springboard to advance their careers.
Engineered for speed

When Eric Warren began working in motorsports, he didn't know of any other Ph.D.-level scientists or engineers in NASCAR. "Now, on my team alone, there are four different Ph.D.s.," he says. Warren, whose degree is in aerospace engineering, oversees engineering and also "the whole racing effort" for Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, North Carolina.

As a graduate student in the mid-1990s, Warren bumped into the owner of Kranefuss-Haas Racing (now Penske Racing) when visiting a friend at the team’s North Carolina headquarters. "He said, 'Call me, we need somebody like you,' " Warren says. "He convinced me to get into racing, which was very difficult to comprehend at the time. At the time, NASCAR wasn't seen as a technical thing. It was like, 'OK, I've been working on research in aerodynamics, working with NASA Langley [Research Center].' [NASCAR] was probably not seen as a good use of education."

Yet, Warren was eventually drawn in by the technical engineering challenges offered by the sport. Racing is a surprisingly complex field, he says. Cars driving near the track's edge will handle differently than they will if a driver takes a tight corner. The presence of other vehicles on the track can also cause the car to handle differently. Even the fuel in the gas tank affects a car's center of gravity, so each lap is different as the car burns through and then is refilled with gas. Also, each track has its own personality. At Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, for example, the tracks are banked so steeply that cars would reach speeds of 220 miles per hour if not for mandatory restrictor plates, which limit the amount of oxygen entering the engine and, thus, the cars’ top speed.

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