Because the difference between first, second and third place during a NASCAR race can often come down to thousandths of seconds, every tiny advantage a driver can develop counts. Maintaining control over the car's handling is one of the better ways to increase the likelihood a driver will win the race. This can be difficult, however, since the laws of physics are working against him.
When a NASCAR driver's on a straightaway, he can push the gas as much as he pleases. The wheels -- all pointing forward -- keep the car from drifting from side to side. This is called lateral stability. Once the car comes to a corner, it meets centrifugal force, which builds up in a turn and works to push the car to the outside of the curve. This is why it steering becomes a chore in a curve: You're fighting centrifugal force with the steering wheel.
If the centrifugal force exceeds the lateral stability, the front or the rear of the car will be pushed out of the curve. Depending on whether the car oversteers or understeers, the rear or front tires will lose their grip and the car will slide, possibly hitting the wall. This is good for bloodthirsty fans, but bad for the driver.
In NASCAR lingo, a car that tends to oversteer on the track is considered loose. The rear tires overcome the friction from the track's surface and lose their traction. The rear of the car slides out, and precious seconds are lost. If the front tires of the car tend to lose traction due to understeering in a curve, the car's considered tight.
But why would a car tend to be either loose or tight? Why not both? The answer lies in the special suspensions that NASCAR cars feature. The suspensions are built with springs that absorb the energy from tires that vibrate as they skid in a turn. This energy is taken away from the wheels and distributed elsewhere with dampers. As a result, the tires discontinue their bounce and regain traction more quickly. The suspension springs can be adjusted to compensate for tightness or looseness in the car during turns (called wedge adjustment, which you can read about here). You can use a ratchet a turn that long jackscrew attached to the suspension in either direction to make a car looser or tighter.
Each NASCAR track has its own unique characteristics that can affect a car's handling. The corners at Dover are concrete, while the rest of the track is asphalt. Even more challenging, a track's surface undergoes physical changes during the course of a race. As a result, NASCAR crews make frequent wedge adjustments during a race. A driver uses his wireless communication equipment to alert his crew whether the car is tight or loose, so adjustments can be made in mere seconds during a stop. Crews and drivers ultimately seek balance in the handling -- the absence of tightness or looseness during turns. A balanced car, in other words, wins a race.
Of course, there's another, much less sophisticated way to ensure a car doesn't succumb to centrifugal force during a turn -- slowing down. But, as any NASCAR driver can tell you, taking your foot off the gas isn't an option, unless you're interested in being left in the dust.
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More Great Links
- Ronfeldt, David. "Social science at 190 mph on NASCAR's biggest superspeedways." First Monday. February 2000. http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_2/ronfeldt/
- Siska, Ellen. "Getting a handle on 'tight' and 'loose.'" ESPN. May 15, 2007. http://sports.espn.go.com/rpm/news/story?series=2&id=2867982
- "Driving physics." BMW Group. 2006. http://www.bmwgroup.com/e/0_0_www_bmwgroup_com/unternehmen/publikationen/aktuelles_lexikon/_pdf/fahrphysik_e.pdf
- "NASCAR glossary." NASCAR. February 5, 2004. http://www.nascar.com/2002/kyn/nascar_101/02/02/glossary/