News & Media

Caraviello: NASCAR, NASA have more in common than letters

April 07, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Retired astronaut acknowledges forces, technologies similar to those in space

During a qualifying lap at Charlotte Motor Speedway, drivers in NASCAR's top series will fly around the 1.5-mile oval at speeds of more than 192 mph. Next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, one of the fastest unrestricted tracks on the Sprint Cup tour, those speeds could edge even higher.

To Joan Higginbotham, it all seems rather slow.

Of course, it's hard to top making laps around the earth at 17,500 mph, so fast that days and nights go by in 45 minutes, all of it propelled off the starting line by solid rocket boosters that generate seven million pounds of thrust. And yet, a former NASA astronaut like Higginbotham can probably relate to NASCAR drivers, given the commonalities between the two professions -- such as the forces felt on the body, the drag on their machines, the advanced materials and technologies that built their respective vehicles, and the suits that keep them safe.

"It's like when you're driving your car. You are with the car, you are one with it, so you don't realize the motion. The first time I really realized the sensation was when I looked outside and we were crossing over land. We travel at five miles every second, so we're trucking."


That was the message delivered this week to 65 math and science students from a nearby middle school, who convened on the Charlotte Motor Speedway complex to meet a real astronaut and hear a panel of experts explain how drivers zooming down the race track are related to their distant -- literally and figuratively -- cousins flying through space. And indeed the comparisons are accurate, given they both deal with G-forces and heat management, they both use materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber, and they both require a team of aerodynamic scientists to make them go.

"Aerodynamics for automobiles all started with aerodynamics for aerospace," said panel member Jeff Bordner, site manager at Windshear, a rolling-road wind tunnel located in Concord, N.C., that gets about 65 percent of its business from NASCAR teams. "The people, the facilities, they all grew out of the space program's knowledge to develop the best capabilities for automobiles."

And indeed, those ties are very evident today. Bordner came from Chrysler, where one of his mentors was involved in the early days of the space program working out of NASA's facility in Huntsville, Ala. The Windshear facility was built by a parent company, Jacobs Technology, which has constructed similar installations for NASA, including a wind tunnel at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Eric Warren, technical director at Richard Petty Motorsports, was a graduate research engineer at Langley while studying for his Ph.D. at North Carolina State University.

NASCAR and NASA have been connected since the earliest days of the space agency, when General Electric engineers assembling parts for rockets to be launched at Cape Canaveral set up shop along Volusia Avenue -- now International Speedway Boulevard -- in Daytona Beach, Fla., near where Big Bill France was building his new speedway. According to NASCAR Hall of Fame curator Buz McKim, early astronauts like Pete Conrad and Gus Grissom were big race fans, and driver Jim Rathmann used to supply astronauts with Corvettes from his dealership in Melbourne, Fla.

The relationship has continued in more recent years. Jim Lovell, captain of the Apollo 13 mission, served as grand marshal for a NASCAR event at Kansas in 2007. Astronaut Dominic Antonelli, pilot of two space shuttle missions who lists NASCAR as one of his interests on his official NASA bio, was honorary starter for a Daytona race last year, when the track also aired a video tribute to the retiring space shuttle program. In 2008, Ryan Newman visited the Kennedy Space Center, and that same year the green flag for the 50th anniversary of the Daytona 500 flew aboard the shuttle Atlantis prior to the race.

Then there's Doug Hurley, a pilot on two shuttle missions whose cousin is married to Stewart-Haas competition director Greg Zipadelli, and is also a season ticket holder at Texas. In 2009, Hurley presented the track with mission patches as well as a Texas notepad that flew into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour. Hurley grew to become friends with track president Eddie Gossage and the speedway's staff, and carried a Texas Motor Speedway flag with him when he piloted the space shuttle program's final mission, aboard Atlantis last summer.

The real connections, though, lie in the physical realm. Speed, acceleration, thermal concerns, potential disorientation, extreme conditions -- at different levels, they're all faced by astronauts and race car drivers alike. First-time space shuttle astronauts, Higginbotham said, are subject to a centrifuge test in which they're spun around in full gear, and have to turn their head in a helmet and activate small switches while wearing bulky gloves, all of it while feeling their body compressed by 5 Gs. NASCAR drivers feel G-forces in the turns, and while they're not as strong or as consistent, they're subjected to them over and over again for three or four hours.

"You're trying to keep things under control, and the speed alone is intimidating," said panel member Pat Moyer, a professor of sports science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "And then you add the acceleration, which can be disorientating. You have to be mentally and physically very, very strong. There's just no two ways about it. I don't think people appreciate that. They just think you're going fast."

In extreme cases, those forces can be life-threatening. That was the case during an open-wheel race weekend at Texas in 2001, when drivers at the high-banked facility experienced G-force loads so severe, they risked blacking out behind the wheel at 230 mph. The event was ultimately cancelled for safety reasons. While an incident like that hasn't occurred in NASCAR, it was a reminder of just how powerful forces on a race car driver can be.

"It's three seconds here, then you go down the straightaway for five seconds, then the turn, then the straightaway. You keep doing that lap after lap, it can really disorient you," Moyer said. "Even though you're going at a relatively constant speed, you're going around a corner and experiencing Gs, and it's disorientating."

The sensation of speed in a race car, with its dramatic stops and accelerations, can sometimes be stronger than what astronauts feel in spaceflight. Higginbotham, who flew aboard the shuttle Discovery during a 12-day mission in 2006, said liftoff is like "a kick in the pants," and that the first two and half minutes of launch are a rumbling ride akin to being pulled up a hill on a roller coaster. But once the booster rockets drop off, the ride smoothes out, and the shuttle seems to glide for the next six minutes until it begins to float in the zero gravity of space.

That's where the real speed -- the 17,500 mph speed -- begins. But the astronauts hardly feel like they're moving at all. "You really don't feel it," Higginbotham said. "It's like when you're driving your car. You are with the car, you are one with it, so you don't realize the motion. The first time I really realized the sensation was when I looked outside and we were crossing over land. We travel at five miles every second, so we're trucking. ... That's when it dawns on you how quickly you're moving in space."

Which is about as fast as a human being can go. That 215 mph turned in testing on the resurfaced Michigan International Speedway this week? It seems downright plodding by comparison.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.