If it’s a Friday night or an occasional Saturday evening between the months of May to October chances are you will find me at the race track. My husband drives a four cylinder S-10 pickup truck in stock car races each weekend. I am his pit crew, video photographer, and number one fan all rolled into one.
When we were at the races last evening and I was sitting in the grandstand my mind started making comparisons between racing and flying and how they are similar in many ways. One of the first things I thought of as I was sitting there was communication. Both airplanes and race cars require some form of communication for a smooth flow in the operations at an airport or a race track. It helps if everyone is on the same page and knows what everyone else is doing. In most airplanes there are radios for communication with the control tower. At most racetracks they use race receivers which allow the racecar drivers to tune into a frequency that the flag man broadcasts his instructions to the drivers.
In the event in an airplane a radio doesn’t work or it doesn’t have a radio they can receive light gun signals from the tower which tell them what to do. For example if the control tower is sending a steady beam of green light to you and you are on the ground it means you are cleared for take-off. If you are in flight approaching the airport and you get the same steady green light it means you are cleared to land. If however, you see a steady red light when you are on the ground it means STOP. If you are in flight and receive a steady red light it means give way to others and continue circling the airport.
Much like the light gun signals at the airport, the race track uses color in the form of flags to let the drivers what to do. Every one is familiar with the checked flag. It means that if you go past that flag first you have won the race. If you see a yellow flag from the flag man it means caution, there is a problem that requires attention on the track. Either an accident or debris on the track that must be removed before the race can continue. Just as at the airport if you see a red flag it means STOP immediately. This is usually because there has been a crash on the track and emergency vehicles need to be able to move quickly to the scene. If you see a white flag from the flag man it does not mean surrender, it means only one lap to go to the checked flag. At the racetrack if you see a black flag waved at you it means you have behaved badly and to go to the back of the pack or sometimes take your car to the pits. You are done racing.
Another similarity I noticed between racing and flying is the importance of weight and balance. Every airplane has a specific useful load weight. This is the amount of fuel, passengers, and luggage weight you can carry on the plane. This is a very important figure because if you exceed it you can encounter handling difficulties to say the least. It affects your take off and landings as well as maneuvering abilities. The plane will fly differently if all the weight is put aft the center of gravity than it will if all the weight is forward the CG. It may not even be able to lift off the ground if it is loaded excessively or improperly. So if a pilot asks your weight prior to loading a small aircraft, don’t be offended and tell the truth. That number is important to the safety of all those aboard.
A racecar weight is important as well, although not life threatening as in an overloaded airplane. Every class of racecars has a specific weight that they are not allowed to exceed or they will be disqualified. An important part of setting up a racecar is putting it on a set of scales to see how the weight is distributed over the four wheels of the car. You put more or less weight in specific locations to get the desired handling on the track. There are different setups depending on whether you are racing on dirt or asphalt. Drivers also adjust their setups according to the weather. The tires will act one way on a cold track and another on a hot track.
Fuel management is important to both racecar drivers as well as pilots. Both want to move their plane or racecar as efficiently as possible from point A to point B. In the class of cars we race they actually use the same airplane fuel as we do in the Cessna that I fly, 100LL. Both the racecar driver and the pilot do not want to run out of fuel so it is important for both to make the proper calculations of how much fuel they will need and build a reserve into that number to allow for unforseen circumstances that will require you to fly or drive longer that expected. The big difference is for the pilot who doesn’t manage their fuel properly is that they can be forced into an emergency landing whereas the racecar driver just won’t be able to finish this race. He will still be around for the next race when the pilot may not be there for the next flight.
In preparing for a race or a pilot for a flight both need to “preflight” their car or plane. This involves checking everything over to make sure it looks and sounds as it should. Either on the track or in the air is not the time to discover that something is not as it should be. In both cases it is better to be found before the race or flight begins. This begins with a general walk around the car or plane. How does it look? Does anything look out-of-place or different? The Cessna that I fly had a problem with the front strut. It would collapse so there was no dampening effect for the front wheel on landing. This was due to a bad seal. If it was collapsed, I could readily see the difference as I approached the plane and I knew before I could fly that some nitrogen would need to be added or the seal would have to be replaced.
Both racecars and airplanes have safety equipment. The racecar has a roll cage and a 5 point harness system and a racing seat that is attached to the frame. The driver wears a fire suit and helmet while racing. There are many requirements for a safe racecar. The airplane also has safety equipment. There are seatbelts and shoulder harnesses for the pilot and passengers. Some airplanes now come with airbags installed. Some require you as the pilot to wear a parachute depending on the type of flying. If you travel commercial airlines we have all sat through all the safety information for the plane we are flying on at the beginning of the flight. As a private pilot you need to inform your passengers of the safety requirements for your plane.
There are basic racecars and airplanes and there are expensive racecars and airplanes. Whether your passion is racing or flying there is one that will fit your budget. It’s just a matter of choosing whether you like your circles on the ground or 10, 000 feet above. I prefer the bird’s eye view best.