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What Are Race Car Aerodynamics?

Gerelyn Terzo
Updated May 23, 2024
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Aerodynamics is about controlling the flow of air that surrounds an object, including a race car. Downforce in race car aerodynamics is akin to lift in an airplane — it makes the object do what it was designed to do. In the case of a race car, downforce is the component of aerodynamics that makes the vehicle efficient. This vital component of race car aerodynamics is what ultimately allows the vehicle to reach and keep excessively high speeds while making tight and narrow turns. Even with the same amount of thrust, or power, a car that is more aerodynamic will move more quickly than one with hindrances in its shape.

Driving a race car, of course, is all about speed. Designing these cars is a similarly competitive process where speed is of the essence. Car makers use wind tunnels and track surfaces to test race car aerodynamics. The faster that a car is designed to go, the greater impact that aerodynamics has on the performance of that vehicle.

In designing one of these competitive vehicles, developers need to strike a balance between the forces that govern aerodynamics, and those factors include downforce and drag. While downforce is the component that keeps a car moving at top speeds, excessive drag, which is a component of downforce, can slow the race car down. Race car aerodynamics is about building a vehicle that limits the effect of drag while still applying the appropriate downforce.

Getting this right becomes increasingly important when a car accelerates, because the faster the car, the more downforce is applied. The less aerodynamically sound that a race car is, the more wear and tear on the brakes will occur. Certain characteristics that help race car aerodynamics include the use of a grille near the front bumper and headlights that are small in size, a short amount of space between the grille and the ground, and a steep windshield.

Vehicle designers can apply certain techniques that will help race car aerodynamics to work in a racer's favor. Race cars are often designed with inverted wings, a technology that works to press the car lower and trigger traction between the vehicle and the track. This helps vehicles to gain speed more readily and allows the brakes to work faster. Also, a scoop for the hood of the car can improve engine performance due to the flow of air that can be harnessed by the vehicle.

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Gerelyn Terzo
By Gerelyn Terzo
Gerelyn Terzo, a journalist with over 20 years of experience, brings her expertise to her writing. With a background in Mass Communication/Media Studies, she crafts compelling content for multiple publications, showcasing her deep understanding of various industries and her ability to effectively communicate complex topics to target audiences.
Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Nov 28, 2011

@stl156 - Yes it is possible to max out race car aerodynamics, but I doubt that we will ever see this happen with a driver in the car.

And to answer your question I would have to say that there are many scientists and mathematicians that can do calculations to figure out the maximum speed of the race car without having to do a simulation.

Granted I do agree with you once you take safety out of the equation it is entirely possible for the car to go ridiculously fast and I do wonder what the speed could be before it would go airborne.

On the other hand the cars as they are designed now are designed with both safety in mind and maximum speed. I cannot imagine the cars going a whole lot faster before the race car aerodynamics max out and they simply become airborne because they are going too fast.

The cars are designed to go a maximum speed now and in order for them to go faster, even with safety taken out of the equation, they probably have to redesign the cars in order to make them go a whole lot faster.

By stl156 — On Nov 27, 2011

@Emilski - I have to wonder how fast a car can go if they make race car aerodynamics as good as they possibly can. I have to think that because of all the safety checks they make that they could make the car go even faster if they were to put the driver at risk.

I am not saying that they need to do this with a person in the car, but I am sure that they could come up with some type of simulation in which they can show how fast these race cars can go if they were allowed to put drivers at risk.

This could also show the maximum speed in which a car can be allowed to go before there is a risk in the car becoming air borne simply due to the race car aerodynamics maxing out.

For those of you wondering, yes it is possible to max out race car aerodynamics and by showing a simulation they could easily figure this out and know how fast a car can possibly go.

By Emilski — On Nov 27, 2011

You are absolutely correct. I have seen race car drives in NASCAR go airborne in the past and it is always a scary sight to see. However, what is even worse is when open wheel racers go airborne as there is a high probability of death when this occurs.

You do not see race cars usually go airborne, especially open wheel cars for one reason. These cars are designed not to. The open wheel car are very low to the ground and are designed to go extremely high speeds of up to two hundred and twenty miles per hour. If this car were to become airborne at a speed such as this it will almost certainly kill the driver who has their head exposed as opposed to NASCAR drivers.

This is why the single most important safety check in professional driving concerns the racecar aerodynamics in which they make sure the car does not go airborne, but still find a way for it to get maximum speed.

By Izzy78 — On Nov 26, 2011

Some people do not realize how important race car aerodynamics are even in regards to race cars themselves.

Think for a minute and realize the speed at which race cars travel. NASCAR stock cars drive up to two hundred miles per hour on straightaways at their tracks and if there is any part of the car that can catch the wind it can turn the car into a sail at that speed.

I am only a novice fan of car racing but I can say that it doe snot take a genius to see that these cars are designed to limit wind resistance and cut into the wind as well as they can in order to make sure that the car goes as fast as it possibly can, allows as much control as possible for the driver, and most importantly makes sure that the car stays on the ground and does not become airborne.

Gerelyn Terzo
Gerelyn Terzo
Gerelyn Terzo, a journalist with over 20 years of experience, brings her expertise to her writing. With a background in...
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