In the last two articles, we plunged right into some relatively complex issues, namely weight transfer
and tyre adhesion
. This month,
we regroup and review some of the basic units and dimensions needed to do dynamical calculations. Eventually, we can work up to
equations sufficient for a full-blown computer simulation of car dynamics. The equations can then be 'doctored' so that the computer
simulation will run fast enough to be the core of an autocross computer game. Eventually, we might direct this series of articles to
show how to build such a game in a typical microcomputer programming language such as C or BASIC, or perhaps even my personal
favourite, LISP. All of this is in keeping with the spirit of the series, the Physics of Racing, because so much of physics today
involves computing. Software design and programming are essential skills of the modern physicist, so much so that many of us become
involved in computing full time.
Physics is the science of measurement. Perhaps you have heard of highly abstract branches of physics such as quantum mechanics and
relativity, in which exotic mathematics is in the forefront. But when theories are taken to the laboratory (or the race course) for
testing, all the mathematics must boil down to quantities that can be measured. In racing, the fundamental quantities are distance,
time, and mass. This month, we will review basic equations that will enable you to do quick calculations in your head while cooling
off between runs. It is very valuable to develop a skill for estimating quantities quickly, and I will show you how.
Equations that don't involve mass are called kinematic. The first kinematic equation relates speed, time, and distance. If a car is
moving at a constant speed or velocity, v, then the distance d it travels in time t is d = vt or velocity times time. This equation
really expresses nothing more than the definition of velocity.
If we are to do mental calculations, the first hurdle we must jump comes from the fact that we usually measure speed in miles per
hour (mph), but distance in feet and time in seconds. So, we must modify our equation with a conversion factor, like this
If you "cancel out" the units parts of this equation, you will see that you get feet on both the left and right hand sides, as is
appropriate, since equality is required of any equation. The conversion factor is 5280/3600, which happens to equal 22/15. Let's do a
few quick examples. How far does a car go in one second (remember, say, "one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand," etc. to yourself to
count off seconds)? At fifteen mph, we can see that we go
d = 15 mph times 1 sec times 22/15 = 22 feet
or about 1 and a half car lengths for a 14 and 2/3 foot car like a late-model Corvette. So, at 30 mph, a second is three car lengths
and at 60 mph it is six. If you lose an autocross by 1 second (and you'll be pretty good if you can do that with all the good drivers
in our region), you're losing by somewhere between 3 and 6 car lengths! This is because the average speed in an autocross is between
30 and 60 mph.
Every time you plough a little or get a little sideways, just visualize your competition overtaking you by a car length or so. One of
the reasons autocross is such a difficult sport, but also such a pure sport, from the driver's standpoint, is that you can't make up
this time. If you blow a corner in a road race, you may have a few laps in which to make it up. But to win an autocross against good
competition, you must drive nearly perfectly. The driver who makes the fewest mistakes usually wins!
The next kinematic equation involves acceleration. It so happens that the distance covered by a car at constant acceleration from a
standing start is given by d = ½ at2 or 1/2 times the acceleration times the time, squared. What conversions will help us do mental
calculations with this equation? Usually, we like to measure acceleration in Gs. One G happens to be 32.1 feet per second squared.
Fortunately, we don't have to deal with miles and hours here, so our equation becomes,
d (feet) = 16a (Gs) t (seconds)2
roughly. So, a car accelerating from a standing start at ½G, which is a typical number for a good, stock sports car, will go 8 feet
in 1 second. Not very far! However, this picks up rapidly. In two seconds, the car will go 32 feet, or over two car lengths.
Just to prove to you that this isn't crazy, let's answer the question "How long will it take a car accelerating at ½G to do the
quarter mile?" We invert the equation above (recall your high school algebra), to get
and we plug in the numbers: the quarter mile equals 1320 feet, a = ½G, and we get
which is about 13 seconds. Not too unreasonable! A real car will not be able to keep up full ½G acceleration for a quarter mile due
to air resistance and reduced torque in the higher gears. This explains why real (stock) sports cars do the quarter mile in 14 or 15
The more interesting result is the fact that it takes a full second to go the first 8 feet. So, we can see that the launch is
critical in an autocross. With excessive wheel spin, which robs you of acceleration, you can lose a whole second right at the start.
Just visualize your competition pulling 8 feet ahead instantly, and that margin grows because they are 'hooked up' better.
For doing these mental calculations, it is helpful to memorize a few squares. 8 squared is 64, 10 squared is 100, 11 squared is 121,
12 squared is 144, 13 squared is 169, and so on. You can then estimate square roots in your head with acceptable precision.
Finally, let's examine how engine torque becomes force at the drive wheels and finally acceleration. For this examination, we will
need to know the mass of the car. Any equation in physics that involves mass is called dynamic, as opposed to kinematic. Let's say
we have a Corvette that weighs 3200 pounds and produces 330 foot-pounds of torque at the crankshaft. The Corvette's automatic
transmission has a first gear ratio of 3.06 (the auto is the trick set up for 'vettes-just ask Roger Johnson or Mark Thornton). A
transmission is nothing but a set of circular, rotating levers, and the gear ratio is the leverage, multiplying the torque of the
engine. So, at the output of the transmission, we have 3.06 x 330 = 1010 foot-pounds of torque. The differential is a further
lever-multiplier, in the case of the Corvette by a factor of 3.07, yielding 3100 foot pounds at the centre of the rear wheels
(this is a lot of torque!). The distance from the centre of the wheel to the ground is about 13 inches, or 1.08 feet, so the
maximum force that the engine can put to the ground in a rearward direction (causing the ground to push back forward-remember part
1 of this series!) in first gear is 3100 foot-pounds / 1.08 feet = 2870 Now, at rest, the car has about 50/50 weight distribution, so
there is about 1600 pounds of load on the rear tyres. You will remember from last month's article on tyre adhesion that the tyres
cannot respond with a forward force much greater than the weight that is on them, so they simply will spin if you stomp on the
throttle, asking them to give you 2870 pounds of force.
We can now see why it is important to squeeeeeeeze the throttle gently when launching. In the very first instant of a launch, your
goal as a driver is to get the engine up to where it is pushing on the tyre contact patch at about 1600 pounds. The tyres will
squeal or hiss just a little when you get this right. Not so coincidentally, this will give you a forward force of about 1600 pounds,
for an F = ma (part 1) acceleration of about ½G, or half the weight of the car. The main reason a car will accelerate with only ½G to
start with is that half of the weight is on the front wheels and is unavailable to increase the stiction of the rear, driving tyres.
Immediately, however, there will be some weight transfer to the rear. Remembering part 1 of this series again (weight transfer
), you can estimate that
about 320 pounds will be transferred to the rear immediately. You can now ask the tyres to give you a little more, and you can gently
push on the throttle. Within a second or so, you can be at full throttle, putting all that torque to work for a beautiful hole
In a rear drive car, weight transfer acts to make the driving wheels capable of withstanding greater forward loads. In a front drive
car, weight transfer works against acceleration, so you have to be even more gentle on the throttle if you have a lot of power. An
all-wheel drive car puts all the wheels to work delivering force to the ground and is theoretically the best.
Technical people call this style of calculating "back of the envelope," which is a somewhat picturesque reference to the habit we
have of writing equations and numbers on any piece of paper that happens to be handy. You do it without calculators or slide rules
or abacuses. You do it in the garage or the pits. It is not exactly precise, but gives you a rough idea, say within 10 or 20 percent,
of the forces and accelerations at work. And now you know how to do back-of-the-envelope calculations, too.