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.