ASEE Prism Magazine - May/June 2003
The Graduate
Engineers, Start Your Engines
Magnetic Fields
All The President's Friends
ASEE 2003 Annual Conference - HItting a High Note in Nashville
ASEE Today
Professional Opportunities - Classifieds
Last Word
Back Issues

Engineers - Start your engines!

- By Dan McGraw   

NASCAR drivers used to rely on self-taught mechanics to supe up their engines, but now that NASCAR is really big business, they are turning to engineers for that winning edge.

Technological innovation has never been the driving force behind the huge growth of stock car racing among motorsports fans. In fact, NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), the sport's sanctioning body, has always worked in the opposite direction. The cars have always been designed to be made from parts readily available to the public, worked on by self-taught mechanics, and driven by good old boys who talked about the cars' "feel" instead of wind-tunnel computer data.

But as NASCAR's TV contracts have tripled and purses rise accordingly, race teams are looking for every advantage they can find. More and more teams are turning to degreed engineers to find that one-thousandth of a second of speed that can bring a car from the middle of the pack to the winner's circle. And several engineering schools are responding to the trend by offering mechanical engineering degrees with specialties in motorsports engineering. "Without an engineering degree, five years from now, you probably won't be a crew chief," NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd says.

It is quite a change for NASCAR. The other motorsports leagues—most notably the open wheel circuits of Formula One, the Indy Racing League (IRL), and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART)—have long used engineers to enhance performance. One of the reasons NASCAR has resisted has been ensconced in the racing body's marketing emphasis that fans come to see drivers first and their machines second. To that end, NASCAR has strict rules that body types must match prescribed templates—engines must conform to certain performance criteria and chassis need to be interchangeable. In that sense, stock cars are basically aluminum shells surrounding high-powered engines.

So why are engineers now so prized in what was once a cookie-cutter racing circuit? It all started when Roger Penske, the legendary race team owner in open-wheel racing started a stock car operation in the 1990s. Penske had long used engineers in open-wheel racing and started reading the strict NASCAR rule book the same way a tax attorney goes over the IRS code. Penske's teams began finding ways they could improve their cars: Finding loopholes in body designs, new ways to manufacture parts that technically conformed to the rules, and using computer data to manage fuel economy and tire tread. Penske also found that race engineers could be used in the crucial "set-up" of the car, the reconfig-uring of the race car to conform to the peculiarities of each track.

" It's not about designing from scratch," says Jim Wall, who has a master's degree in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University and is the engineering group manager for Hendrick Motorsports—the racing company that manages four stock car teams, including four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "It's about applying technology to a given set of constraints to optimize the vehicle. (NASCAR) tells you how you can build the car, but we as engineers make the car better and faster. It's what engineers have always done."

But the real change in NASCAR is that the engineers are now moving out of the garage and onto the track. Winston Cup driver Ryan Newman graduated from Purdue University recently with a degree in mechanical engineering to greater enhance his ability to understand the dynamics of his car. Ashton Lewis, a driver on the Busch Grand National Series, recently graduated from Old Dominion University with a mechanical engineering degree. Jasper Motorsports crew chief Robert "Bootie" Barker is also an ODU graduate.

The lesson being learned is that teams that have big engineering staffs are beginning to win and win big on the circuit. Part of this had to do with the fact that the teams with the most money are hiring staffs with 8 to 12 engineers to work on all aspects of the cars. But the trend has created some friction between old-school drivers, who historically have relied upon a car's feel, intuition, and track knowledge, and the newer drivers and their teams, who rely on computer data to find the optimum lines on a track. The friction comes when engineers might be perceived as telling a driver how to drive his race car.

Former Winston Cup star and TV commentator Benny Parsons isn't thrilled with the trend. "If you have money, you can hire four or five engineers to work your program," Parsons said in a recent interview. "If you don't, you fall behind. Winning a race, winning a championship, is as much about good engineering as it is a good race team. I don't particularly like where it's headed. I couldn't get out of a car and have (an engineer) tell me how to drive a car. That would be difficult."

Lewis, the Busch Series driver, began his quest for his mechanical engineering degree long after he started racing. He says he understands the old school versus new school component to the argument but says his engineering degree has helped him understand all aspects of his car's performance. "I've been driving race cars since I was 16," says Lewis, 31. "But I can now understand what the car is doing, from a mechanical sense and a loading sense. I understand why the tires might have better grips at certain points of the track, when to use the brakes on certain lines of the course, when to ease up on the throttle. Yes, there is a lot of feel to what we do, but with the engineering education, we do things because we have proved they work, not just because things have always been done a certain way."


Teaching Speed

Universities are seeing the trend and responding to it. Bob Johnson, dean of the Lee College of Engineering at University of North Carolina– Charlotte, began seeing the need for a program in motorsports engineering when he was the chair of the mechanical engineering department in the mid-1990s. Charlotte is where many of the race teams have headquarters, and Johnson says he began seeing students who came to the school with the hopes of being hired on the race teams. "In all the other engineering departments, we got kids from the area, mostly," he says. "But in ME, I was bumping into kids from all over the country. When I asked why they were going to UNC– Charlotte, almost all of them told me they wanted to launch a career in motor racing."

Five years ago, UNC–Charlotte started their motorsports racing program within the mechanical engineering department. About 100 students are now part of the program, which teaches aerodynamics of race cars, suspension, engine design—just about all aspects of racing and its technological applications. Johnson says the program is about serving students' needs, but also serving a dominant industry in the Charlotte area.

" This a huge regional industry in our area," Johnson says. "But it is also about giving students a chance to act upon their dreams. We contacted people within the race industry and found this program would be useful to them and our students. And the racing structure of the program has all the right elements for studying mechanical engineering. It's not only good for the technical aspects of learning, but the program is also heavy on teaching project manage-ment skills and teamwork."

Drew Landman, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., plans to help launch a similar motorsports engineering program at ODU next year. Landman is the assistant manager of the Langley Full Scale Tunnel in Hampton,

Va.—an old NASA wind tunnel mothballed by NASA in 1995 and now run as a research facility by the university. Many of the wind-tunnel clients are NASCAR teams (some 35 contract with Langley for research on their race cars), and Landman says he began seeing the curious trend that Johnson was seeing at UNC– Charlotte. "We were getting students enrolled within the engineering department with hopes they could work at the wind tunnel and network jobs with the race teams."

" We see the need for this program in a career sense, but we also see that race cars are a perfect engineering teaching device," Landman says. "Almost all the classes the students will be taking—thermodynamics of the engine, aerodynamics of body shape, statics, and understanding loads, strength of materials—are all part of mechanical engineering principles. The car is a great engineering teaching tool."

Both UNC–Charlotte and ODU offer the motorsports program as a minor in mechanical engineering, giving students more options when they graduate. This is done because of the realties of the marketplace: As much interest as there is in NASCAR and other racing leagues, jobs are few and difficult to get.

But more and more engineers are moving into the heretofore low-tech world of NASCAR. Steve Boyer, the engineering group leader for racer Sterling Marlin, says the biggest challenge right now is one of communication. Boyer, 31, with bachelor's (University of Nebraska) and master's (Case-Western Reserve University) degrees in mechanical engineering, says the relationship between the race engineer and the driver can be essential in winning races.

" There can be some head-butting," Boyer says. "The driver uses gut feel. We use physics and weight transfer and fluid dynamics. Sterling doesn't always understand what I am doing, but he knows what he wants and is willing to try different things. And he sees the results. But the one thing all the engineers have learned is that we speak a different language from a lot of the drivers and crews who have been in this business a long time."

Boyer adds, "Right now, good communication is just as important as good science in NASCAR racing."


Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Tex.
He can be reached at