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Fuel & Tires: Can flying race cars be grounded?

By Dave von Falkenstein
July 8, 2015

When Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to 2015 in the 1989 movie “Back to the Future II,” one of the main things we see is everybody piloting flying cars. Seeing as though we're only about three months away from the date of Oct. 21, which is featured in the movie, it's safe to say flying cars will not be a typical sight.

However, if you're an auto racing fan and have been paying attention the last few months, you'll know that flying cars actually have become quite common. And that's not a good thing.

The latest incident happened early Monday on the last lap of NASCAR Sprint Cup's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Coming to the checkered flag in the usual manic Sprint Cup restrictor plate style, Austin Dillon found himself upside down in his No. 3 Chevrolet, flying towards the catch fence. The catch fence did its job by keeping the 3,500-pound car out of the stands.

Once the car came to a stop on the track, on its roof, everybody feared the worst. The engine and transmission had been torn away from the car in the collision with the catch fence, which sported a giant hole where the car hit.

Dillon was treated and released for a bruised tailbone and forearm. Five fans were treated for injuries. This is not the first time something like this has happened at Daytona, and it likely won't be the last.

Earlier this year, during practice for the Indianapolis 500, there were three incidents where the race cars flipped after making contact with the wall. While each incident may have had a different root cause behind it (though all three were Chevrolets), no drivers were injured.

It did make the series nervous enough to scrap its original qualifying plans. Teams had to qualify in race trim, thus killing any chance of excitement in the session. Qualifying speeds ended up being about five miles per hour slower than the previous year.

The biggest reason for the incidents in practice was that the cars were using new aerodynamic bodykits that had not yet been tested at the track (or at any oval track, for that matter). There's only so much that can be simulated in a wind tunnel, so there were bound to be issues that had not yet been realized. In the race itself, there were no accidents in which the cars flipped or got upside down.

Just a week ago there was an incident during a CCR Forza Tifosi Challenge race at Road America in Elkhart Lake where a Ferrari 458 Speciale made contact with a car on the back straight and climbed into the catch fence. As with the previous incidents, nobody was seriously hurt.

I don't know enough to get into the physics of why and how this happens and what could theoretically be done to lessen the chances of it from happening. About the only conclusion I can draw from these incidents, which involve three drastically different styles of cars, is that racing incidents will happen no matter how safe you make the cars and the tracks. With the speeds that these cars reach, getting any air underneath them will cause them to launch. I just don't see how that can be avoided.

The drivers in Sprint Cup, just like the drivers in IndyCar or any other form of racing, know what they're signing up for. They know it is dangerous, but it shouldn't have the same level of danger for the fans. Luckily, both these series and tracks employ top people to make sure the drivers and fans are as safe as possible and we have to place our trust in them.

Imagine if the catch fence had not done its job in Monday's crash and the car had ended up in the stands. That would likely be the end of racing as we know it.


— There was no racing last weekend at Madison International Speedway, but this Friday will see round two of the Super Late Model Triple Crown Challenge as well as the Sportsman, Bandits and 6Shooters divisions. Gates open at 6 p.m. with racing action starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $17 adults, $14 seniors, $10 students ages 12-17 and $5 kids ages 5 and younger. Get tickets here.

— In results from last Saturday's races at Rockford Speedway, Kelly Evink won the American Short Trackers 25-lap feature, Nick Letsinger took the Sportsman 25-lap feature win, Charlie Frisch won the 20-lap Bandit feature and Chad Lounsbury won the 20-lap Roadrunner feature. The track will host racing at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday this week. Gates open at 5 p.m. Tickets for Wednesday are $9 adults, $4 kids ages 6-11 and are available here. Tickets for Saturday are $12 adults, $8 students ages 12-17 and free for kids age 11 and younger and are available here.

—Racing at Jefferson Speedway will start at 7 p.m. Friday with gates opening at 3 p.m. and time trials at 5 p.m. Tickets are $12 adults, $8 seniors age 65 and older and students ages 12-15 and $4 kids ages 8-11.