This past weekend, the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race was run, marking NASCAR’s return to in-person, humans-in-cars racing after the coronavirus pandemic, or at least what may be the first part of the pandemic. Who the hell knows. Anyway, one curious-looking thing happened before the race that’s probably worth talking about, a bit: something that looked like a really, really heavy brick had to be removed from the track.
Now, our in-the-know readers are likely already aware that not only are NASCAR cars not made from brick, conventional bricks don’t appear to be quite that heavy. That’s because, of course, it’s not a conventional brick; it’s a brick of tungsten used as ballast on racecars, and this one dropped off of Denny Hamlin’s number 11 Toyota, resulting in the car getting impounded.
Everyone’s favourite walking, eating parts catalogue, Bozi Tatarevic, expanded on the ballast a bit in a tweet:
That looks to be roughly a 2x3x5 inch piece of Tungsten.
That would make it 30 cubic inches which means it weighs roughly 21 pounds or around 50 iPhones.
Stainless steel of the same volume would weigh around 8 pounds.
Aluminum of the same volume would weigh roughly 3 pounds. https://t.co/18gjlAfu74
— Bozi Tatarevic (@hoonable) May 24, 2020
Bozi suggested I peek at Brian Murphy’s tweets on the subject, as he “works with it.”
— Brian Murphy (@Brian_Murphy_) May 24, 2020
Look at those dimensions and weight; the size of a block of tungsten much smaller than the sandwich you’re likely to eat for lunch weighs as much as a chonky toddler and costs nearly two grand, which is probably cheaper than a chonky toddler but still remarkably expensive for an inert block of something.
This incident made me realise what remarkable stuff tungsten is, and I had to tell someone. Tungsten has the highest melting point of any metal, and at temperatures over 3,002°F (1,650°C) it has the highest tensile strength. This is according to the Midwest Tungsten Service, which is probably a bit biased, but since this is just science, I think we can believe them.
Tungsten is 1.74 times heavier than lead, given the same volume, and as such tungsten makes a fantastic material for ballast in a race car, since it doesn’t take up much room for the weight, and can be placed very strategically.
Of course, that also means that if a bit of it falls off, as it did from Hamlin’s car, that can be very bad. Something that heavy and dense bouncing loose on the track can cause all kinds of damage, an example from a few years’ back seen here:
This is why the penalty for losing tungsten is so severe.
— Chris Knight ツ (@Knighter01) May 24, 2020
NASCAR’s penalties for lost ballast are, as a result, harsh, including a four-race suspension for the crew and car chiefs, and the engineer. According to NASCAR rule 18.104.22.168.4.d:
Minimum safety penalty options — “Loss or separation of added ballast from the vehicle will result in a four Race suspension of the crew chief, car chief, and head engineer. If NASCAR cannot identify which series or vehicle the lost ballast originated from, all vehicles entered for that Event from and associated with the team organisation identified on the lost ballast may receive the suspensions.”
So, that’s why the number 11 car should really have checked to make sure those heavy bricks were really secure. Maybe next time add a second zip-tie, or something.
If all of this has made you decide that you really need 16 kg of tungsten for your daily driver, I should warn you that even used ballast blocks aren’t cheap: this one on eBay is almost $1,200.
Just paint a brick dull silver. No one will notice.