Social Science at 190 MPH on NASCAR's Biggest Speedways

Summary of: Social Science at 190 MPH on NASCAR's Biggest Speedways

Author(s) / Editor(s)

NASCAR race draft line formations and dissolutions can serve as an example for cooperation and competition in other social domains.

Disciplines

Publication Reference

Published in/by
First Monday, Volume 5, Number 2
Date
February 2000

Findings

  • NASCAR drivers form and re-form into draft lines to take advantage of aerodynamic phenomena to gain an edge in competitions with other drivers who have basically equivalent automotive equipment. 'Draft partnerships' are necessary to get ahead; however, they must be abandoned strategically to win. Within a race, at high speeds, there is an ever-shifting pattern of cooperation and competition among rivals. This is a reflection of an important, desirable American trait: how to compete by doing a good job of cooperating.
  • If you don't cooperate (i.e., enter into draft lines) you will lose. However, if you don't 'defect' from deals at the right times (e.g., 'bump and run'), dissolving opportunistic partnerships, you will lose as well.
  • Reputations and trust are earned over time. Veterans rarely want to partner with rookies.

NASCAR race draft line formations and dissolutions can serve as an example for cooperation and competition in other social domains.

NASCAR drivers form and re-form into draft lines to take advantage of aerodynamic phenomena to gain an edge in competitions with other drivers who have basically equivalent automotive equipment. 'Draft partnerships' are necessary to get ahead; however, they must be abandoned strategically to win. Within a race, at high speeds, there is an ever-shifting pattern of cooperation and competition among rivals. This is a reflection of an important, desirable American trait: how to compete by doing a good job of cooperating. Essential to success in drafting are trust, acquired over time, and an effective communication support structure through networks of representatives (spotters). Complexity theory, social network analysis, and game theory are used to analyze the behaviors. The lessons are applied in other social domains.

Communication via radio with intermediaries acting as agents (i.e., spotters) who negotiate with the intermediaries for other drivers is essential. Negotiations and deals need to be made rapidly. While deals may be cut before the race, most partnering emerges on the fly in consultation with spotters who have a larger picture of what's happening in the race. Interpersonal communication, dealmaking, and diplomatic skills may be as important as driving technique.

Partnerships are formed with trusted collaborators/competitors. Reputations are gained over time. Betrayals are remembered for years.

Veterans rarely want to partner with 'rookies'. Newcomers need to earn the confidence of the more experienced competitors.

Social science theories can be used to analyze the draft line behaviors:

  • Complexity theory: racers self-organize into structures that oscillate between order and chaos.
  • Social network analysis: draft lines are networks whose organization depends on drivers' social (interpersonal and relational properties) and human (personal properties) capital.
  • Game theory: drafting is a 'prisoner's dilemma' problem with incentives for cooperation and betrayal.

NASCAR drafting may be used as a metaphor in other domains. Examples cited include:

  • Career advancement in corporate circles: executives take along selected staff and lower-ranking executives as he or she advances, but defections from these draft lines are also common at strategic times.
  • International diplomatic and military alliances.
  • The Internet, in both its technical and social structures. Communication techniques allow the formation and re-formation of cooperating coalitions.