Exhibit, movie focus on the science of speed Vroom!: Buckle up and hold tight for IMAX film and exhibit, opening today

Up Front

January 22, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Driving cars at 150 or 200 miles an hour, with some hope of living to tell about it, is one hellaciously dangerous, complex and expensive way to earn a living.

That's made abundantly clear in the Maryland Science Center's newest home-grown exhibit, "Racecar: The Science of Speed," which opens today and continues into May.

The most amazing thing may be that anybody races at all.

Every mile and every minute you're on the track, the forces of physics are working to throw you into a body cast, while the power of chemistry is waiting to combine your flesh with oxygen and blow you away as heat and smoke. Only precision engineering, your pit crew and skilled driving keep you from disaster.

The 4,000-square-foot exhibit is a companion piece to the new IMAX film "Super Speedway."

It's a savvy move by the Science Center. Racing, especially the NASCAR circuit, is a multimedia, multibillion-dollar industry. It's one of America's hottest spectator sports and an advertising gold mine for its sponsors.

The IMAX film straps you in the cockpit of a real Indy car for a white-knuckle ride that makes the fast lane of I-95 seem like a hike and bike trail.

Oh, there's a bunch of stuff about racing legend Mario Andretti and his son Michael. They schmooze with the Newman-Hass Racing Team as they struggle to get a new car ready for the racing circuit. There are designers, engineers and fabricators, and a pit crew, all of them busy tweaking car and driver into a winning duo.

Blabbidy blah. The real thrills in the movie are the racing scenes. The IMAX folks bolted their big-format camera to the roll bar of a 2-year-old Indy car, under the rear spoiler, and up front on the nose cone, then floored it.

There are front, rear and side views as Mario Andretti cranks the car to well over 200 mph. It's a view only a handful of highly skilled drivers have ever seen. And by all accounts, screaming across the asphalt amid a swarm of competing cars at three times Interstate speeds is one loud, scary and chest-pounding IMAX experience.

After all the noise and the drama, in the accompanying exhibit, the Science Center hopes to ambush visitors with some of the science behind the races. With such speed and power, "what can't you teach?" asked Bob Finton, the science center's manager of public programs.

Racing's first priority is staying on the track. But at every turn, the laws of Newtonian physics are trying to keep car and driver zipping along in a straight line. On an oval track or a winding road course, straight would mean zipping into a wall, an embankment or a crowd of spectators.

To hold back inertial forces that can exceed four times that of gravity, race cars are equipped with tires designed to keep the wheels hugging -- and following -- the track. That requires plenty of friction.

The exhibit will have a pile of 36 tires used by a single car in a single race in Delaware. They wore out, at temperatures up to 230 degrees, because they're made softer than the tires on your Chevy Cavalier. That's to increase their friction in contact with the pavement. As they near the starting line, drivers will often swerve or spin their tires to heat them up and gain that extra tire tackiness that might be the winning edge.

The Science Center also sports a mock-up of a racetrack, banked a gravity-defying 36 degrees from the horizontal -- matching a real stock car track in Bristol, Tenn. The point is to use the same Newtonian force that presses your passengers into the right-hand doors when you take a left turn too fast, to press the race car into the tilted track and keep it there.

Even Baltimore's Jones Falls Expressway, and I-395 over Middle Branch, are banked gently to help hold Mario Commuter on the road.

Video arcade games in the exhibit will give visitors a chance to get the feel of wrestling race cars around a banked track -- "forces a driver has to come to understand and manipulate," Finton said.

(Your skateboarder kids have already figured out the physics. Instead, challenge their reaction times against yours at the "Christmas tree" -- drag strip starter lights.)

Racing engineers also try to keep their cars on the road by giving them wings. Not the sort that lifts planes into the air, but inverted wings that use the rush of air to press downward and keep the car on the ground.

Visitors will get a look at $40,000 worth of real race car wings, and a chance to adjust a model racer's wings in a wind tunnel to get the optimum "downforce" out of them. They can even build their own model and race it on a ramped drag strip.

But nobody's perfect, and some cars and drivers are inevitably swamped by the laws of physics. They soar into each other or off the track in spectacular eruptions of metal parts, tires and flame. It's part of what makes auto racing so exciting to fans who don't have to do it for a living.

Drivers and designers have to plan and design meticulously so that such risks are minimized, and the inevitable is survivable.

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