Weather Research At The Races

Weather Research At The Races

By Curtis Walker, SOARS Protégé

Let me start off by saying the places that scientific research may take you are sometimes pretty amazing, though the journey there could be more of an adventure than you'd think…

On Friday, June 1, 2012, I joined my research mentors for a meeting to discuss the details of my SOARS 2012 Project. They mentioned that this summer I would be working with NASCAR, but they didn’t tell me that I would have the opportunity to go to my first race!

NASCAR race
The air and racetrack pavement temperature affects the amount of tire grip or traction. Cars along pit row waiting for the FEDEX 400 Sprint Cup Series to begin. Centered is Toyota Racing's Number 18 car driven by Kyle Busch.(Photo: Curtis Walker)
Sheldon Drobot, Curtis Walker, Paul Kucera and Michael Chapman
No victory is accomplished without a team. For my SOARS summer research, this is only a small yet integral part of my mentoring team. From left to right we have: Sheldon Drobot, me, Paul Kucera and Michael Chapman.

I had no idea that the car racing community’s interest in weather applications went beyond a simple rain or shine forecast. The air and racetrack pavement temperature affects the amount of tire grip or traction. As temperature increases, tire grip decreases because the rubber tires expand vertically. This expansion reduces the amount of tire area that makes contact with the pavement. If you want to know the full story, you can read my paper in August.

Let me start with the flight… On Friday, June 1, 2012, we were surprised that our flight departed at all (much less on-time!) given a severe weather outbreak occurring in the Northeast. Baltimore-Washington International was shut down due to a tornado warning! As we approached Philadelphia, we could still see the ground and remained hopeful that perhaps the worst of the weather had passed. These hopes were dashed as the Captain came on the overhead, "Ladies and gentlemen, flight attendants, please strap yourselves in real tight we're going to be flying through some weather…"

Five minutes later, I looked out my window and saw a blinding, sideways rain-there was literally 0 miles visibility, Limited Instrumental Flight Rules for you aviation buffs out there! Then, there was a blue light right outside the plane that flickered and changed to the color purple like a transformer exploding in the sky! I’m a meteorology student, but I had never seen lightning from a plane before. The next minute the plane dropped hard as the engines began screeching. Slight panic. The engines roared full throttle and the plane jolted back up and swung from side to side.

Once we were on the ground at the terminal in Philadelphia, we all stared in amazement at the rain and hail slamming into the windows.

"We landed in this," I thought. I can only imagine what it must be like for the researchers aboard the NCAR Gulfstream or NOAA Hurricane Hunters who fly into storms on purpose to study weather.

Once safely on the ground, we headed to the races! Right behind the drag race cars we could smell the nitro-methane, a compound used as fuel for drag racing instead of gasoline. It's highly volatile and burns quickly in an engine, giving the race cars their power. The sonic boom that those cars produced was unreal!

On Sunday, we went to a NASCAR race and seeing it on TV is nothing compared to being there. The noise is incredible (don't forget your earplugs!), the pit crews are intense (I wish my mechanic was that quick!), and the crashes were dangerous. At one point we were taking track temperature measurements and a race car slammed into the wall across from us and regained control.

Science and research can be dramatic - it's not all happening in a lab or at a computer.

Stay tuned for the next adventure!

Curtis WalkerCurtis Walker is a third year SOARS Protégé. He recently graduated from the State University of New York College at Oneonta with his B.S. in Meteorology and will soon be starting graduate school in Atmospheric Science at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

Find out more about Curtis Walker's research and the SOARS Program.