A group of math and science students recently gathered at Charlotte Motor Speedway to hear a panel of experts, including an astronaut, explain a number of similarities between auto racing and space travel. Both astronauts and NASCAR or Formula 1 drivers rely on a team of aerodynamic scientists to maximize their speed while complying with safety measures. Both are subject to G-forces and extreme heat, and both are familiar with, and reliant upon, materials such as carbon fiber and Kevlar – an incredibly strong composite para-aramid synthetic fiber used in various applications.
While astronauts travel around the earth at approximately 17,500 miles per hour, seeing an entire day and night pass by in around 45 minutes, following the initial launch astronauts are no longer under tremendous physical stress. Traveling at high-speed, racing drivers have corners, gradients and camber to deal with, all of which can put tremendous strain on the human body – and while this G-force effect is not constant and not as strong as an astronaut experiences during a launch, it is repeated many times during a three or four hour race. The effort of intense concentration also takes its toll on a driver, requiring physical and mental fitness.
Site manager of Windshear Inc. and panel member at the Charlotte event, Jeff Bordner, noted that the principle of aerodynamics for automobiles was a spin-off of the aerodynamics and technology developed for aerospace. Windshear runs a 180 mph rolling-road wind tunnel used for testing vehicles, with NASCAR providing up to 65 percent of the company’s business. NASA and NASCAR have long been connected, going back to the time when General Electric engineers established facilities along Volusia Avenue in Daytona Beach, Florida – a street which is now known as International Speedway Boulevard – where it assembled rocket parts to be used at Cape Canaveral. Early astronauts, such as Gus Grissom and Pete Conrad, were reportedly big auto racing fans, and this fascination with speed among astronauts has continued over the years. Captain of the Apollo 13 mission, Jim Lovell, has served as a NASCAR grand marshal, and astronaut Dominic Antonelli lists NASCAR as one of his interests in his NASA biography page. In 2008 the green flag for the Daytona 500 50th anniversary, flew on the shuttle Atlantis prior to the historic event.
What can you do with an automotive degree in NASCAR? The answer is simple: work with a racing team and aim to become a member of the pit stop team. The NASCAR Nation explains that only six crew members have the opportunity to work on pit stops during a Sprint Cup series race. A seventh crew member remains on stand-by; if he is allowed to join the crew during a stop, he has the job of swiftly cleaning the windshield.
The more common tasks performed during these hurried stops include the change of all four racing tires and a fuel tank top-off. How much time is allotted for these tasks? No more than 13 to 15 seconds; any NASCAR pit stop that goes beyond this time frame is considered to be a problem. In extreme cases, an inexpertly conducted pit stop can cost a team the race.
So how does an automotive degree figure into the equation? Considering that the maintenance tasks are not particularly involved, it would make sense that anyone trained in basic car care could serve as a pit stop crew member. Then again, remember that the automotive degree enables the crew member to make split-second decisions – based on professional training – that can turn a good pit stop into a great one. In fact, NASCAR history shows that there are a couple of amazing stops along the way – even if they only took up seconds.
Case in point is Sterling Marlin’s 2002 UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400 pit stop. Speeding in the pit lane, although not by choice, should have led to a 15-second penalty. Because of an error on the part of the racing officials, the driver never received the penalty and instead won the race by 1.163 seconds. The quick work of the pit crew, which may have prevented the officials from quickly realizing their errors, undoubtedly factored into this memorable NASCAR pit stop.
In fact, 2002 was the history-making year for the pit stop. At the Sprint All-Star Race XVIII, a final pit stop strategically planned by Jeff Burton’s racing team might not have been enough for Victory Lane, but it led to a change in NASCAR rules. The final pit stop, just 100 yards away from the finish line, propelled Burton into an advantageous position and earned him an extremely short time in the pit. Recognizing the unfair advantage that this stop represented to other drivers, current NASCAR rules now stipulate a target lap for each pit stop.