Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Physics of NASCAR

With the exception of the characters in Frasier, America doesn't do sophistication. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the nature of its premier motorsport category, NASCAR, a form of stock-car racing. Simply put, the most popular form of motorsport in the USA is the type of thing which, in the 1970s, World of Sport and Dickie Davis would have spurned in favour of a demolition derby from Wimbledon.

Whilst Formula 1 cars are manufactured from carbon-fibre, NASCAR vehicles are made from sheet metal welded to steel tubing; the engine block has to be made of cast-iron; the valves in the engines must be operated by pushrods rather than overhead camshafts; and the air and fuel must be mixed by carburetors rather than fuel injection!

However, partly because of the ancient and alien nature of the technology employed in NASCAR, and also because its author, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, is a brilliant scientific expositor, this is a fantastic book, and one which, I predict, will win awards within the 'popular science' genre.
Diandra covers unfashionable topics such as the physical chemistry of steel and paint and fuel, with elan and panache, and I found myself learning new things, like this, on virtually every page:

Water-based paint, like latex house paint, has a polymer binder and pigment suspended in water. You brush or roll the paint on the wall, and when the water evaporates, the polymers hold the pigment to the surface like bungee cords hold down a load in a pickup truck...Cars...use acrylic urethane paints...Unlike latex paint, acrylic urethane paint comes in two parts. The first part is an acrylic-based resin that contains the pigment and a polymer, and the second part is a hardener or catalyst. Neither part is paint by itself-they don't become paint until they are mixed and a chemical reaction occurs...Acrylic-urethane paint dries in two stages. First the [volatile organic compounds] in which the pigment and binder were dispersed start to evaporate. The second step is crosslinking, where the acrylic-urethane polymers form chemical bonds with each other. The resulting polymer network has a hard, glossy finish.

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