When Materials Fail...

One day about two months ago I came in to work and was told, "We think we might want to have David Pogue and a materials scientist ride in the back seat of a car at a demolition derby. The idea is to demonstrate how materials fail, but in an interesting setting. Find us a derby." I spent roughly the next two weeks calling up every racetrack, arena and state fair across the nation that was holding a derby before the end of the season. Some of the responses I received were...

Cage.jpg"We're going to pass on this, it would be too high a liability on our part...."

"You wanna put a guy in the back of a derby car?! I dunno man, them's some hard hittin'!!..."

"I hope you have some serious life insurance on this feller..."

and simply,
"No Way!"

Out of over a dozen events, three got back to me with a "yes," and only one told me right off the bat, "Absolutely! We'll give you whatever you need!" That open invitation came from Outlaw Motor Speedway in Muskogee Oklahoma. With that, David and our crew were off to see first hand just how drastically ordinary materials can fail...


DPandME.jpgAt the derby we met up with Mark Eberhart, professor of chemistry and geochemistry at the Colorado School of Mines and author of the book "Why Things Break." Mark would be our expert on the strength of materials, sitting alongside David as they braved the backseat of a 1980's Lincoln Town Car, emblazoned with the "NOVA" and "PBS" logos.

Like the NOVA Lincoln, the rest of the cars in the derby were very old. Mark explained the reason for this was that newer cars are built with crumple zones; areas of the car that break on purpose to lesson the impact on passengers during a crash. Crumple zones are fantastic to have, but not for a demolition derby. A crumple zone car would be useless after one hard hit. Danny Womack, co-owner of the Outlaw and our driver for the event, would later tell us the ideal car for a derby is the biggest, heaviest pre crumple-zone-era car you can find.  Associate Producer Alex McHale noted that, while Danny wasn't an expert in material failure like Mark, they both knew  from experience exactly how the cars would fail.


CarCamera.jpgAnd so it came time for the derby. There were two events: first an endurance race where cars bump and slam each other as they take one hundred laps around the track, and then a demolition derby where about ten cars crank around the muddy center of the track with the goal of disabling one another other. With three cameramen, including one inside the car, David, Mark and Danny started tearing up the track. Danny would aim for the engine, drive train and axles of the other cars because they are made of stiff materials that don't absorb the energy of impacts well. He would aim for these parts with the rear end of the NOVA car because that section is composed of tough materials that could absorb the impact. In the end, the NOVA car survived both the "enduro" and the derby, surprisingly with minimal damage.

With our car only slightly banged up, our appetite for destruction had not yet been satisfied. Once again, the Outlaw staff was there to our rescue. "We could always just jack up the car, bungee-cord the gas pedal down, drop her and send her into the wall" Danny Womack suggested.

                                                   Now THAT'S material failure!

MaterialFailure.jpgPublicist's Note: MAKING STUFF: Stronger, Smaller, Cleaner, Smarter will premiere Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9pm ET/PT on PBS

User Comments:

Sounds amazing!
Can't wait to see it!

Racers (and fans) all over Oklahoma are excited to see this program! Any idea when it will air? Thanks.... Driver, #27 Factory Stock, Oklahoma Sports Park, Ada, Oklahoma.

"Stuff" will air in the Fall of 2010

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