Drafting: Dodging the Air
Seasoned racecar drivers can see holes in the air. While the leading edge of a car encounters speed-reducing drag—that is, friction between a moving surface and the air around it—the space directly behind it opens up, producing a temporary area of low pressure. By maneuvering into this space, another driver can take advantage of a vacuum effect, maintaining a higher speed while burning less fuel. That’s drafting.
The air displaced by a moving object depends on its velocity, so at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, stock cars stand to gain considerably by drafting. But how and whether they do so depends on their cars, the racing rules, and the number of stop signs on the track.
Slingshot pass: This move was invented by driver and former moonshiner Junior Johnson, who hit upon it as a way to make his 1959 Chevrolet competitive with more powerful cars. On a banked track, a driver trails a leading car closely down a straightaway to build momentum, then makes a precisely timed breakaway while entering a downhill turn. Because the lead car is also turning, its wake produces less drag toward the inside of the track; meanwhile, the downward incline increases speed.
Tandem draft: In a race where required engine restrictor plates set a limit on speed, the slingshot pass may fail—the drafting car often can’t summon the power to slice through the drag produced by the edges of the leading car’s wake when breaking away. In response, racing teams developed a new, cooperative drafting strategy. When two cars stay locked bumper to bumper, they share a smoothed-out airspace that also benefits the lead car, since it’s less buffeted by the turbulent air that would normally rush into its wake. While this tactic is widely allowed in small doses, a duo spending the entire race in this formation may be disqualified.
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