IndyCar racing

You can keep your hockey, your baseball, your lacrosse–this week, my favorite sport is in the spotlight, as 33 drivers contest the Indianapolis 500.

No other sport involves as much science and technology as automobile racing. Public fascination with technology first made it popular: at the first organized race in France 100 years ago, the attraction was as much the newfangled “horseless carriages” as the competition.

Today’s IndyCar is a far cry from a “horseless carriage.” Made out of carbon fiber materials, stronger and lighter than metal, its powered by an engine that revs at 13,000 RPM or more, twice as fast as most passenger cars.

Higher revs means more power. As well, the engine’s exhaust gases spin a turbine which pushes a compressed air/fuel mix into the cylinders, a process called turbocharging. This “boost” is limited by the rules to 22 pounds per square inch. (The limit is designed to keep top speeds down for safety reasons: without regulation, turbocharging can double horsepower.)

IndyCars burn methanol, refined methyl alcohol, instead of gasoline. Methanol burns slower and cleaner and has a higher octane rating (which means it is less likely to ignite prematurely, causing damaging “knocking”). Methanol also has a higher flash point, so it’s less likely to catch fire if spilled, and if it does, it can be extinguished with water. (Pouring water on a gasoline fire only spreads it around.) The down side is that methanol flames are almost invisible in daylight, which makes fire hard to detect.

An on-board computer system regulates and controls many engine functions, such as the amount of fuel being sprayed into each cylinder by the fuel injectors, based on information gathered from more than 50 sensors. This data is stored and downloaded to a track-side computer during each pit stop. The crew can then use it to make changes to the car’s setup at the next pit stop.

Among the IndyCar’s most noticeable features are its wings. Like airplane wings, they’re shaped so that air moving over one side has to move faster than air on the other side. Fast-moving air has a lower pressure than slow-moving air, so the wing is forced in the direction of the fast-moving air. But race-car wings are shaped push down instead of up: they can press the car to the track with a force equal to three or four times that of gravity. At the Indianapolis 500, however, they’ll be set to create far less downforce than that, in order to minimize drag.

Drag is the reluctance of air to move out of the way of something being thrust through it at more than 200 miles per hour. IndyCars actually create a lot more drag than most passenger cars, because their wheels are stuck out in the airstream. Drag can be minimized by running close behind another car in a maneuver called “slipstreaming.” The lead car literally punches a hole in the air, creating a partial vacuum behind it in which the trailing car runs. Since it suffers less drag, it can run faster. By timing it just right, the trailing driver can use the extra speed to “slingshot” past the lead car.

Downforce and drag are two of the important forces at work on an IndyCar: the third is friction, or “grip.” Every time an IndyCar enters a corner, inertia, the tendency of any moving object to keep moving in the same direction, tries to make it go straight. The only reason it turns is the friction between the tires and the road. To maximize friction, racing tires are smooth, so that as much rubber as possible is in contact with the road at all times.

Should grip be lost, an IndyCar driver is likely to get an unpleasantly close look at the wall. When an IndyCar crashes, it scatters pieces in spectacular fashion. It’s designed to do that: every piece that goes flying away carries with it some of the car’s total energy–energy that otherwise would be transmitted to the driver’s body. Safety is always a prime concern, and the success of the various safety measures instituted over the years is best demonstrated by the fact that more often than not drivers walk away from crashes.

Which is not to say that automobile racing is safe, any more than ski-jumping or many other sports. But it seems to be human nature to get a thrill out of experiencing danger, or watching others experience it. Automobile racing combines that thrill with speed, spectacle–and, as I’ve just shown, science.

What more could you ask for in a sport?

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