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nascar…robotics. Nascar!…Robotics! NASCAR!!…ROBOTICS!!

Time out, halt, stop, red flag. What does NASCAR have to do with Robotics, and what does Robotics have to do with NASCAR? Nothing — yet everything! You may think these two organizations are a world apart, but if you look real close you will see just how similar they really are.

First, there are the acronyms. No, seriously. I really mean FIRST, as in the international youth organization, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Founded in 1989, the mission of FIRST “is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills that inspire innovation and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.” In 2016, more than 3,100 teams competed from more than 24 countries. Robotics is considered the varsity “Sport for the Mind.”

Sounds a lot like the foundations of a successful NASCAR team. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, founded in 1948, sanctions more than 1,200 races in more than 30 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Competing at this level, it is critical for team leaders to have solid math, science, engineering, and technology skills. Teams are constantly searching for innovations that will make their cars faster and better than the rest of the field.

A side-by-side comparison of these two organizations shows the following similarities:

FIRST has three major programs — the FIRST Lego League, the FIRST Tech Challenge, and the FIRST Robotics Competition. NASCAR has three national series — the Camping World Truck Series, the Xfinity Series, and the Sprint Cup Series.

FIRST teams compete in qualifying matches then form alliances of three or four teams. NASCAR teams are comprised of as many as four drivers who must qualify for each race.

FIRST teams have corporate sponsors with logos plastered on every trailer, robot, t-shirt, and banner. NASCAR — well NASCAR has logos plastered on everything!

FIRST robots arrive at their competitions in trailers. NASCAR cars arrive in haulers.

FIRST drivers arrive in school buses and minivans. NASCAR drivers arrive in helicopters and limos. Oh, bad example, but you get the gist.

Speaking of drivers, both organizations have drive teams and pit crews and scouts searching for talent.

I just realized I’ve been putting FIRST first in this article, so in fairness…

NASCAR drivers wear fire suits while FIRST drivers wear suits of armor (depending on the mood and competition theme).

NASCAR has owners and crew chiefs while FIRST has coaches and mentors.

NASCAR car bodies have similar aerodynamic properties, motor specifications, and interior features to promote a level playing field. FIRST robots must start with a Kit of Parts and adhere to strict build rules and specifications in order to compete.

NASCAR inspects each car before every race. FIRST inspects each robot before every competition.

Some of the best NASCAR drivers spent (or still spend) countless hours playing video games. The best FIRST drivers do the same. Google Dale Earnhardt Jr. and iRacing. You will find that virtual racing and video games are used as tools to improve on-track performance. Ditto for FIRST drivers, but they compete on fields.

So the next time you tell your kid to put down that “DS Thing” or scold them for pecking away at that keyboard or hear them yelling, “It’s robot fighting time” (BattleBots anyone?), remember that they’re just training hard, improving their hand/eye coordination and sharpening their minds in the hopes of one day hearing the most famous words in MathCAR: “Robots, start your drivetrains!”


Andy Sciarabba, P.E., is a principal with T.G. Miller, P.C., Engineers and Surveyors in Ithaca, N.Y. T.G. Miller, P.C. (www.tgmillerpc.com) is a consulting civil engineering and surveying firm that serves municipal, commercial, institutional, and private clients throughout central New York. He would like to know how you like “Diversions;” Please send him a note at ajs@tgmillerpc.com.

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