Who has the fastest balls in the land? Part 1:

When researching topics for lectures and public talks I often find myself on youtube, clicking through an endless parade of videos in search of interesting stories and useful information. It was while looking into the history of the golf ball (a fascinating topic in itself!) that I stumbled across the following clip.

In the video, five time world golf-drive champion Jason Zuback attempts to smash the current ‘world ball speed record’ of 188 mph. This record was reputedly held by the Basque sport Jai-Alai although a small amount of digging reveals that badminton is arguably faster with speeds reaching over 200 mph, but why let small facts get in the way of big bangs and smashes? In Jai Alai, players use curved hand-woven baskets on the hand to propel a hard rubber ball against one end of a large walled court, usually over 170 feet long. Although the sport originated in Northern Spain/Southern France it spread to the Americas with the discovery of the new world and is a popular sport in Florida to this day.

There are numerous things that I find interesting about the golfing video, the most peculiar of which is the way in which the speed of the golf drive is verified.

“To find out how fast the ball is travelling in flight, we have Jason hit into panes of tempered glass.”

Pardon me? Glass? Is this really the best method they could think of? It sounds like the kind of experiment that a primary school child would design after a sugar binge and triple bill of Die Hard. To be fair they do back this up with a radar speed gun, but still maintain the validity of having the glass there in the first place.

“In order to break a single pane of glass, Jason’s drive will have to exceed 100 miles per hour… smashing through the glass reduces the ball speed by 50%, therefore in order to maintain the 100 miles per hour necessary to break the second pane of glass, Jason’s drive will have to leave the club face at 200 miles per hour.”

At least the maths is easy to follow, but why is the glass even there? Was it cheaper than a net? Is it more accurate than the speed gun? Perhaps this is an elaborate form of error checking? I realise that as an academic I don’t need smashes to get excited about science, I perversely believe that science has an inherent interest value and as such doesn’t need sexing up in order to garner interest. I’m clearly out on a limb here, the video contains more breaking glass than a primary school science lesson.

As you may have guessed Jason manages to smash both panes of glass, reaching an impressive 204 mph and claiming a position at, or near the top of the ball-speed tree of supremacy.

The approach to breaking this record was formidable. Jason Zuback is an imposing individual, the golf club in his hands looks like a cotton-bud clasped between two finely hewn ingots of granite. As he swings the club you get the impression that time is bending slightly, I imagine that Zuback could cause considerable damage pouring cereal, especially if his bowl was made from tempered glass.

Aside from being sturdier than Portland cement, there are other advantages Zuback may have used in order to drive a ball over 200 mph. He might have used a driver longer than regulation length. The increased length results in a higher club head speed, providing you can overcome the increased inertia (lets face it, Zuback needn’t worry about this). Then of course there’s golf itself, played by millions and generating billions of dollars, golf is one of the most technologically developed sports on earth. As I mentioned in my first post, companies and regulatory bodies are in a constant battle between progress and tradition. There is no doubt that a modern driver can be swung faster and hit a modern ball much more efficiently than the early wood and feather efforts used in Scotland centuries ago.

Can Jai-Alai ever hope to reclaim the fastest-balls crown? There are a few technological advances a player might adopt if they wanted to give it a go. Abandon the woven straw and use a mathematically optimised carbon fibre ‘basket’ instead. The stiffer, smoother material will ensure that more energy ends up in ball and an optimal curve will make the most out of a players available power. If that available power is maximal due to hulking swathes of muscle tissue, then all the better.

In the second part of this blog I’ll look at the battle for the fastest balls in a little more detail and see who I think deserves to come out on top.

Si C

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About wiredchop

Simon Choppin Simon’s sports engineering career began at the age of six when he loosened the wheels of his skateboard in order to make it go faster. While the experiment was chalked up as his first failure, his resulting dimpled skull has provided an aerodynamic advantage in more recent sporting pursuits. Academically, Simon completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering with Mathematics at Nottingham University before joining the Sports Engineering Research Group at Sheffield to start his PhD. His main interests include work with high speed video, mathematical modelling of various sorts and experimental work involving machines with big buttons. As a sportsman, Simon has an unfortunate lack of talent for anything requiring skill, tactical awareness or the ability to learn from mistakes. He does however seem to posess the ability to move his legs around for a long time until other people get tired, for this reason you’re most likely to see him on a bike of some sort or running up a hill in offensively small shorts. Simon was fortunate enough to have a stint at the Guardian newspaper as part of the BSA’s media fellowship, which gave him the idea for this blog. Other than this, his writing experience includes his PhD thesis and various postcards to his Mum.

2 Responses

  1. Do also look at cricket and baseball, where you don’t have “tools” to hit balls with. Speed of the ball entirely depends on your throwing arm, to me that’s the purest of human power at its most elemental. This was a good video, but like you say “sexed up”. I think as academics, it is repelling, but then again, the show goes on TV and has to garner viewer interest. Hence, sexed up 🙂

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