Ok, let me be honest right up front, I haven't raced at the Daytona 500 yet and therefore I haven't won it yet. However, I have a pretty good record on the super speedways of NASCAR, including a win in the Truck Series at Talladega, so I'm sure that I can explain to you how drafting works and, in doing so, how a race car driver like me attempts to win one of the world's most famous races. Also, if I do win the Daytona 500 this year this column will seem that much more impressive.
If you're watching the 56th running of the Daytona 500 this year reading this should make the race that much more enjoyable. Or if, by some miracle, you do find yourself on the last lap in a NASCAR stockcar trying to win the Daytona 500 you will have the necessary tools to do so.
Let's start with the word “drafting” or the “draft.” While many of you may associate this with a picture of Marilyn Monroe over a subway grate, it's going to be the most widely used term in the coming weeks leading up to NASCAR’s biggest race. Daytona is one of the four ‘drafting” races (as my mom is fond of saying) that we have in the schedule of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series — the reason being is that the track is so BIG and so highly banked we restrict our cars to a completely pedestrian 200+MPH to reduce the possibility of 3400-lb stock car-shaped missiles launching into the grandstands at 240 mph. That would be bad for the fans and not so great for those of us inside the missiles.
Now shaking that gruesome image from your mind, back to the “draft.” It is what we refer to in NASCAR when one car follows another car and therefore has a speed advantage because the following car has less wind resistance. Now some of you are sitting there, thinking about coefficients and drag as an aerodynamic principle in flight et cetera, but put the science aside and understand what exactly a “draft” is in terms we can all understand.
Think about your own car. It's probably not a 900 horsepower race car but just hang with me a second. We all know the classic American road trip image of a man with a beautiful woman in the passenger seat in a 67’ Camaro, top down on Route 66 and the woman will have her hand out the window going up and down in the wind.
As many of you know, that beautiful woman letting her hand lift and fall as the wind allows is modeling an airplane wing. Now imagine your own hand and suddenly get it as close to the mirror of your vehicle as you’re driven along (Health and Safety warning, please do this as the passenger) suddenly you will notice, a complete lack of wind. Right there, in that little pocket of space behind your car's side mirror, is the “draft.”
Now take that same principle and imagine yourself at 200+MPH full throttle behind another car at Daytona. When close enough and perfectly aligned you will feel that same lack of wind, the wind noise will lower. Suddenly your car will move forward faster, almost as if it’s being pulled. The lack of wind resistance is like adding 400 (estimation) horsepower to your engine, depending on the magnitude of the draft.
Great, now that you're able to draft with one car, we're going to add 41 more cars and get into the nitty-gritty. The basic principle doesn’t change in this instance, what does change is where you are in “the pack" — the 43-car-deep pack of cars all jockeying for position at 200 MPH.
Where you are located within this massive pack can vastly affect the handling of your vehicle. As it is buffeted by air from every direction, the engine is struggling for air and, too top it off, your spotter is trying to map out each and every cars' position and speed around you from a mile away, adding in the appropriate obscenity or two... or 100. When you are amongst this pack (depending on where you are in the race lap wise and on what your plan is.) your number one objective for 199 of the 200 laps is to save your car and avoid the wrecks.
There are many theories on what the best position is inside the draft, but for the sake of knowing, and assuming no other NASCAR drivers will be reading this column (if you are, please stop), I’ll let you in on a little secret: The best place to be in a “drafting” race is: FIRST. In first you control your destiny, your engine has all the clean air it can take, the cars handling will be the best it can possibly be. The pack is in your rearview mirror and half the world is hoping to see you make a mistake and cause a four wide pass for the lead. Unless you’re a not well-liked driver, of course, in which case that would be the ENTIRE world.
Now you may be asking but “wait, how do I get from in the middle of the pack to the lead?” Well I can’t possibly go through every single scenario. That’s like trying to tell you every single way a chess game could be played — chess at 200 MPH.
Let's say in our fictional Daytona 500, we are stuck in the 15th place, on the top line. There is another line of cars on the bottom line, so effectively; you are just hoping your line gains more speed then the line below you. But in the effort of trying to get the lead, you realize there are two cars behind you who say “they will go with you no matter what.” So you drop to the middle line, hoping they come with. Suddenly they do, and behind them three to five more cars follow them. Now your middle line has more cars then the top lane. With in half a lap you are now ahead of the top line but those pesky bastards in the bottom line, are not slowing up enough for you to take the lead.
This is where we implore the “side-draft.” Simply put the “side-draft” is a pocket of air along the side of the cars. Not only is the car punching a hole in the air behind it, but just like a boat, that pushes the water to the side as well, creating that flow of water off the side of the boat.
The car has a very small pocket of air behind the front bumper to the rear that when you get close enough can be used to relieve the resistance of air on your car. This will also force the air off your car onto their rear spoiler and slow their car down. Basically you’re getting a two-for-one deal in the effort to pass. Now there is a catch, you can only let your car get so far up on the side of a car, before the engine cowl of your car and your rival to your left start to rob each other’s engines of power. No air to the engine = no power.
So this is why, as you come down to this other persons car, putting your left front as close to their door as possible, you wait until you’ve gained enough that your left front is just past their A-post and suddenly turn right to get away from their car. Therefore using the speed you gained from the “side-draft” but not allowing your engine cowls to match up and effectively take away each other’s horsepower. So with all this done right, you are now leading the Daytona 500.
Your sponsors, your mom, and your significant other are now super happy with you.
Now all you have to do is keep 42 other cars behind you until the checkered flag. Should be easy right? In that case I hope you have your belts tight and a lot of mirrors. These guys and Danica wont be playing nice, and they certainly wont let you win this thing easily. They will be trying to use those same techniques above and about 1,000 others.
Now did I leave a lot out above? Yes. Why? Because, otherwise this would be a 1000 page column that no one would read — and for the sake of keeping my secrets to myself — I will leave the rest of winning the Daytona 500 up to you. Good luck!
Lastly, I guess you're going to say, but wait, “How do we win the Daytona 500?”
Well hell if I know, call Jimmie Johnson at 704-048-4848, he’s won the damn thing twice!
Parker Kligerman is a professional race car driver competing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. He's also won nine ARCA races, one for each time 50 Cent's been shot.