One of my fondest memories of elementary school was when our science teacher was out for the day and the substitute would wheel in a tube television strapped to a metal cart and stick in one of my school’s few VHS tapes of NOVA, PBS’s long-running science program. I never thought I’d be that excited for an episode of NOVA again—and then the show featured IndyCar.
Or, more specifically, IndyCar’s Firestone tires. This episode, which aired on February 10, 2021 and is available to watch here (with the Firestone content starting at 17:00), is all about the indestructible. In this case, host David Pogue is talking about rubber.
According to NOVA, about half of the world’s rubber ends up being used in tires, and the ability to race at hundreds of miles an hour on that rubber is an art refined by scientists, engineers, and drivers for decades. It’s a story of accidents, intentional mistakes, and tons of scientific knowledge.
Pogue then delves into the chemical makeup of natural rubber and how the modern tire was developed by accident when Charles Goodyear spilled rubber into sulfur. That process creates a harder rubber made of tons of interconnected strands that can stretch but don’t easily fall apart.
And, of course, there are tons of neat science experiments that show just why modern tires work the way they do—including covering a pumpkin in LINE-X, a protective spray-on coating—to see what happens and how the chemical structure creates a flexible but protective material.
It’s a great episode that features both the iconic Mario Andretti and Cara Adams, a Firestone tire engineer who is a familiar face to everyone in the IndyCar paddock. Here’s to hoping the next generation gets to watch this episode of NOVA during their substituted science classes.