National Science Teaching Association: How Can Air Make a Race Car Faster?

After a new speed record and a dramatic crash at Talladega Motor Speedway in 1985, NASCAR needed to limit the speed of cars to race more safely the next season.

Students are shown one solution to the problem: restrictor plates. Students question how restrictor plates keep cars from reaching speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, which creates the need to investigate how a heat engine works. (Lesson provides teacher directions for constructing a simple heat engine using everyday materials.) Students create and use models to predict how changing variables affect the heat engine. They develop and apply ideas about chemical reactions and energy to explain how the restrictor plates introduced in the 1986 season reduced speeds of NASCAR race car engines at Talladega and other superspeedways.


Heat engine materials

  • Birthday candle
  • Large paper clip
  • 3”x5” index card or card stock
  • Scissors
  • Single-hole punch
  • Ruler
  • Utility knife
  • Push button from disassembled retractable pen
  • Transparent tape
  • Candle lighter
  • Clear plastic tube (approx. 1.5” dia. x 12” len.), similar to packages for vinyl rolls at the craft store, with removable cap
  • Making the Heat Engine directions (teacher only)
  • Heat Engine Demonstration video (teacher only)

Science Topics
Chemistry, Physics, Sports
Engineering Topics
Middle School, Educator
6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade
Descriptions of PDFs

Download PDF

What are you looking for?


National Science Teaching Association

Website URL

Type of Resource

Lesson Plan
PDF File

Assigned Categories