Social science at 190 MPH on NASCAR's biggest superspeedways

David Ronfeldt

Abstract


In aerodynamically intense stock-car races like the Daytona 500, the drivers form into multi-car draft lines to gain extra speed. A driver who does not enter a draft line (slipstream) will lose. Once in a line, a driver must attract a drafting partner in order to break out and try to get further ahead. Thus the effort to win leads to ever-shifting patterns of cooperation and competition among rivals. This provides a curious laboratory for several social science theories: (1) complexity theory, since the racers self-organize into structures that oscillate between order and chaos; (2) social network analysis, since draft lines are line networks whose organization depends on a driver's social capital as well as his human capital; and (3) game theory, since racers face a "prisoner's dilemma" in seeking drafting partners who will not defect and leave them stranded. Perhaps draft lines and related "bump and run" tactics amount to a little-recognized dynamic of everyday life, including in structures evolving on the Internet.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v5i2.727



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