Teachers' Domain is moving soon to its new and improved home — PBS LearningMedia!          Learn More

To Survive at High Velocity

Media Type:
Video

Running Time: 6m 28s
Size: 19.3 MB

or

Source: NOVA: "Fast Cars"

Collection Developed by:

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

Racecar teams look to reduce the time it takes their cars to complete a circuit. They focus most of their efforts on improving what's called cornering speed, because it's in the corners, where cars must reduce speed, that precious time is lost. Using a mix of practice lap and actual race footage, this video segment, adapted from NOVA, highlights the forces at work on a racecar as it travels around a track.

Background Essay

Speed is the rate at which something moves. Fast-moving objects have high speeds, slow-moving ones have low speeds, and objects with no movement have zero speed. Velocity, on the other hand, is speed in a particular direction. Velocity is what's called a vector quantity, which is any quantity -- velocity, force, acceleration, torque -- that has both magnitude and direction. Racecar teams are most interested in improving average speed around a track. Because all cars can move quickly along the straight sections of a track, racecar designers modify a car so that it performs best especially when cornering.

Designers take into account the forces that act upon the car as it moves around the track. Downforce keeps a car stuck to the road by increasing friction and stability, while drag is the air resistance that slows a car. Maximizing downforce and minimizing drag are the primary goals of most design modifications. An airplane wing is shaped so that air pressure under the wing is greater than that above the wing, and lift force is generated. Attaching wings upside-down to the front and rear of a racecar, then, is one way to generate additional downforce. Increasing downforce inevitably results in increased drag, however. Because drag is proportional to the square of the speed a car is moving, drag reduction is crucial. So just as aeronautical engineers design airplane wings to maximize lift-to-drag ratios, racecar designers seek to modify wing attachments to maximize downforce-to-drag ratios.

According to Newton's law of inertia, an object already in motion will continue to move in a straight line at a constant speed unless acted on by an outside force. Centripetal force is the force that pushes or pulls a car inward so that it moves around the corners. For this force to be applied to the tires by the road, sufficient friction must be generated by tires pushing down on its surface. Race teams make adjustments to front or rear wings to alter the grip of the tires and improve overall balance.

Design helicopters that fall as slowly as possible in this NOVA classroom activity.

Discussion Questions

• What is the difference between speed and velocity? Explain the difference between the speed and velocity of an everyday object such as a yo-yo or a person rollerblading.
• Why is negotiating corners difficult in racecar driving?
• Describe the velocity vector of a car turning a corner.
• Why do you think the wheels on a racecar are much wider than the wheels on ordinary automobiles?
• How do you think the design features of a racecar might result in a fast car?

• Standards

to: