A Weighty Matter

Robby Gordon, NASCAR driver and erstwhile IRL wannabe, said the other day that Danica Patrick has an unfair advantage in an Indy car because she weighs only 100 pounds compared with Gordon’s 205.

Patrick does make up a smaller percentage of her car’s total load. Patrick accounts for only a bit over 6% of her unfueled car’s total weight, compared with 8.1-9.8% for the other active IRL drivers this season. And apparently this does affect her car’s mileage, since it was mentioned on the Indianapolis 500 broadcast that she gets better mileage than the other Rahal Letterman Racing drivers, which could be due, at least in part, to her car carrying a touch less weight. But it also could be due to the fact that Patrick is very efficient on the pedal, riding at 100% (pedal to the metal) through all gears.

Patrick’s better fuel mileage would allow her to go further between pit stops, which could have a dramatic effect on a race. So perhaps she does have a slight advantage due to her weight. But Gordon suggested that her lighter car would go faster. And although the car does have a bit less weight to carry, thus getting more push from the same horsepower than would a heavier car, it also would be more difficult to handle, since there would be less downward force and thus less traction.

What effect does weight really have on drivers’ results? Sadly for Gordon’s theory, in fact, the most successful racer in IRL history (short as it is) is Sam Hornish, Jr., the heaviest driver active in the series. At 165 pounds, Hornish accounts for nearly 10% of his car’s total load, and that hasn’t prevented him from winning nearly 18% of the races he’s run. This year’s Indy 500 winner, Dan Wheldon, has won nearly 20% of his races, but he’s been driving in the IRL only half as long as Hornish. Wheldon, at 157 pounds, accounts for a bit over 9% of his car’s load. Danica Patrick, tiny though she is, has not yet won (she is only five races into her IRL career, though. Give her time.)

The most amazing thing I discovered in my unscientific review, however, is the effect of weight on NASCAR drivers’ results. The 3400 pound minimum weight for a NASCAR Nextel Cup car includes the weight of the driver. You therefore wouldn’t expect driver weight to have any effect on results.

Funny thing, though. In NASCAR, the lightest racers, a group of 130-159 pound men, including the diminutive Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, has outperformed all other driver weight classes, having won 6.8% of their career starts. On the far end of the spectrum, drivers over 200 pounds, including Robby Gordon, have won the smallest percentage of their starts, only 1.9%.

Of course, I’m not saying weight has anything to do with NASCAR driver performance. In the middle weight classes, drivers at 160-180 pounds have won 2.7% of their career starts. But the light heavyweights, at 185-195 pounds have won 3.5%.

What does this all show? Not a thing. There’s no apparent correlation between a driver’s weight and his performance in NASCAR. And so far, there’s no correlation between weight and performance for IRL drivers, either.

I’m concluding, however, that Robby Gordon’s inordinately large percentage of head fat leaves him ill suited to compete with the whippet thin drivers of the Indy Racing League. As some IRL wags were saying today at Indy, if Robby is concerned about lighter drivers having an advantage over him, he should eat some salad before he ventures back into open wheel racing.

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