If you’ve ever watched an auto race from NASCAR, Formula 1, or any other head-to-head lap race, you’ve likely noticed cars chasing each other while driving right on the tail of their opponent. This practice is known as “drafting,” and may seem strange to someone not familiar with the practice. Why would you not drive in a spot where you can pull ahead and pass your opponent, or stay in a spot where you won’t rear-end them if they suddenly change speeds? To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at how drafting works in order to discover the benefits.
THE PHYSICS OF DRAFTING
Every car has forces acting on it while driving, but perhaps none is more powerful than that of friction. If friction didn’t exist, cars could easily reach their maximum speed, but would also not be able to drive because their tires would not stick to the road. So drivers both rely on friction and work to fight against it simultaneously in different ways during a race.
One type of friction they fight against is called “air resistance.” When a car (or kart) is driving, it is using the power of its motor to propel itself and the driver forward, but it faces resistance from the air in front of it, which it must push out of the way in order to travel through. It’s this same concept that makes you feel a gust of wind when a car travels past you at high-speed, or causes your hand to fly backward when you stick it out of the window while driving.
A kart’s ability to push through air is known as its “aerodynamics.” However, no matter how aerodynamic you make yourself or your kart, you will always face some sort of wind resistance when driving. That is, unless you have something push the air out of the way in front of you, such as another driver. When an opponent is in front of you, they are pushing the majority of the air out of the way for you, allowing your kart to use its power to propel you forward without the loss of speed created by having to push through the air.
So now that we know how drafting works, how can you put it to use? For starters, the reduced air resistance on a kart that is drafting an opponent actually helps them to drive slightly faster. So drafting an opponent well can give you a small but immensely important speed boost. Skilled drivers can use this boost to gain an advantage over their opponents by traveling faster down a straightaway, pulling into a more advantageous position for the next corner, then completing their pass as they exit the curve. It takes some skill to pull off this maneuver successfully, as well as good instincts to know when to execute a pass in this way, but experienced drivers on all levels use it frequently to win races.
For cars that rely on fuel mileage during longer races (such as NASCAR and Formula 1), drafting also can help preserve power, meaning a driver who lives in a drafting position will use less gasoline to go the same speed as their opponent. It’s not uncommon to see drivers use drafting as a fuel-saving technique to help them ensure they have enough left in the tank to go all-out for the win at the end of a race.
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