Science on the fast track

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.”

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