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Engineers, Start Your Careers

Accelerate your career in auto racing technology

By Anne Baye Ericksen

Pick a weekend, any weekend, between February and November and you'll undoubtedly find millions of television sets tuned to an automobile race of one sort or another. It could be a Formula One grand prix televised from Sao Paulo, Brazil; a CART event in Elkhart Lake, Wis.; or a NASCAR race from one of its more than 1,000 tracks in 38 states.

Formula SAE competition

Surprised? Probably not, because racing has become big business throughout the past decade (the dollar figures reach into the billions) with the top spot firmly occupied by NASCAR. Indeed, NASCAR is the second-most-watched sport on television, just behind professional football, and its ratings have increased by more than 50% in the past five years. Millions of people now count themselves as loyal race fans.

So what does a weekend sporting event have to do with a technical career? As it turns out, plenty because more and more professional racing teams are relying on the expertise of engineers and computer scientists. In fact, some industry experts might go so far as to say there's a new specialty emerging-that of the race engineer.

The Starting Line

More than 60 years ago, a bunch of car enthusiasts got together informally to test their street cars to see which one could go the fastest. Over time, the popularity of these events grew, and by the 1950s it was a full-fledged sport-NASCAR came into being and a phenomenan was in the works.

It was also around this time that the overseeing body began to regulate the vehicles so all drivers would be competing on an equal footing, including issuing a basic V-8 engine requirement. For the next several decades, not much changed about the cars and their designs. Of course, teams tweaked things here and there to give drivers a winning edge, but there weren't many notable engineering coups.

Then, during the 1990s when much of the world was focused on the Internet and its myriad opportunities, engineers began to tiptoe their way into the realm of racing. "Before, crew chiefs controlled the race strategy and engineering jobs on race teams were few and far between," says Bob Sechler, manager of educational relations for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International, located in Troy, Mich. "But at the same time, engineers were developing their skills."

Suddenly teams were showing up at the track with an engineer or two who worked right alongside the traditional pit crew. It was an odd sight at first, but it didn't take long for the sport to recognize the value of traditionally educated engineers or computer scientists. In fact, every major team by this time had its own office park with an engine shop and even a research and development center where technical professionals put their skill sets to the test.

"In 1994, there were not too many teams using data acquisition, and now, you can't go to test a racecar without it," states Alba Colon, NASCAR Nextel program manager for General Motors Racing in Detroit.

Revving Up

Penske Racing South Inc., based in Mooresville, N.C., was one of the first organizations to openly embrace the marriage of engineering and racing. It was a belief in the pairing offered that attracted Michael Nelson to the company. "Engineering was starting to become more of a part of stock car racing, and I knew Penske had a reputation as a leading-edge team in technology," he says.

Formula SAE competition

Officials prepare a car for testing at the Formula SAE competition held May 18-22 in Pontiac, MI

Nelson, however, is not what one might call a lifelong NASCAR fan. Rather, he grew up participating in and watching motocross events. It wasn't until an injury sidelined him that he started paying attention to auto races. "I just started watching it on TV," he says.

When Nelson was wrapping up his master's degree in mechanical engineering, he set his sights on a career at the track. "I'd hoped at some point to use my degree in racing, but I thought my chances were slim," he notes. "There were manufacturing engineering positions in my area, and I had talked with some people for a few research and development jobs. But if I hadn't gotten into racing, I really don't know where I would have ended up."

Nelson's road to NASCAR actually began with some work he'd done with Ford's racing teams during his master's program. That experience introduced him to the engineering possibilities and in 1998 he joined the Penske organization. Nelson started off in a data acquisition position, and he has since worked his way up to race engineer. What's truly unique about his career, however, is that he's not the only engineer on the team. "Both our crew chief and driver, Ryan Newman, are engineers as well, which is a unique situation," he explains. "In the beginning, some people noticed that we spoke differently on the radio. We use different terms than others, but that has helped us in our communication skills. We think alike and approach problems and tasks in the same way."

It's a team approach that seems to work: Newman finished sixth in the 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series competition.

Maintaining a Lead

Of course, combining engineering and racing to produce results on the track is more involved than simply speaking a familiar language between driver, crew chief and engineering staff. It comes down to applying technology in a way that makes the vehicle outperform all others. "Technology is going into all aspects of motor sports today, from aerodynamics to engine development, and that's all because of the computer tie-in," explains Sechler. "However, NASCAR regulates it so you can't use exotic materials or high-tech equipment. It's more in the way we analyze the data and use the tires, bodies or chassis," says Nelson. "Our testing processes and how we analyze the data have been more engineering-based than in the past.

Indeed, the governing body has tried to maintain a firm hold on the uniformity of the vehicles, which has resulted in a litany of regulations. Some say this tight oversight has actually led to further engineering scrutiny.

"Although there aren't any major innovations on the horizon, we're working on refinements," says John S. Probst, vehicle dynamics/electronics supervisor at Ford Racing Technology in Dearborn, Mich. "We've done things like switching the dampers into a grip control. We're still using parts common to the damper, but they're put together in a different way to get the shocks to react the way we prefer.

"Not all drivers use the same setup," he continues. "Some like things looser than others and some like to push. The consequence is that the engineering role keeps getting bigger and bigger, and the margin for error is less."

"Many people say NASCAR is not as advanced as other racing categories, but we're always looking to apply the latest and greatest [technology]," comments Colon.

Passing a Technological Marker

Among the biggest challenges race engineers face is analyzing the copious amounts of data collected both on the track and in the shop. In fact, one of the earliest jobs for the majority of technical professionals is in data acquisition. But this is a critical role because it's the starting line for most engineering modifications.

Although data is collected from a variety of sources, one of the more prevalent tools employed is computer simulation, and it's one that continues to evolve. "With the data systems we ran 10 years ago, you just had to be familiar with the computer and able to run them. Today, in terms of what the systems are able to do, it is very complex and it goes into everything you build," says Probst. "You have to be able to utilize the software."

One of the reasons behind engineers' reliance on the computer comes down to time pressures-there are only so many hours available between races. "There is limited time on the track and more engineers are simulating situations on the computer," comments Colon. "You can notice more on the computer and then have the crew adjust the car appropriately."

She also points to the use of wind tunnels as a method to artificially create conditions drivers may face on the track and a means to gather data. "Unfortunately wind tunnel resources are not too available, and those that are, are usually full. So there are scale models being built to test scale-sized vehicles and then we use that information to create real-size parts."

"There is also software that looks at the ride and handling, such as springs, tire pressure and shocks-everything that's needed to run the car and get the maximum grip out of tires to maintain balance," adds Probst.

Time, however, really can throw a wrench into race engineers' efforts. Because there are events every weekend-including traveling time between tracks-teams often have to work at a frantic pace in order to make enhancements from week to week. This pushes teams to produce results in an extremely short turnaround. Notes Nelson, "You have to use your time wisely and optimize your testing and perform them as quickly as possible."

The upside, though, is that technical professionals see the fruits of their labors much sooner than many other automotive specialists. "In production," explains Probst, "you don't how well you've done until the car is released and has had six months of sales. Sometimes that takes a year or more. With racing, it's like being graded every weekend on how well you did."

"If you do the job right, you see it. What other job do you get such quick results?" notes Colon.

Logging Training Laps

Despite the fact that race engineering is a relatively new specialty, one of the best training grounds is already 25 years old. In 1979, the SAE established the Formula SAE (FSAE), a student competition through which undergraduates apply theory to reality by building and racing Formula One cars. The annual event pits school teams against each other in several static and dynamic categories: technical inspection, cost, presentation, engineering design, solo performance trials and high performance track endurance.

"Before we got involved with the competition, I would hear [from employers] that graduates were strong in theory, but weak in practical skills and designing new products," explains Sechler "What the FSAE affords students is a multidiscipline experience. We have teams with electrical and computer engineers working with mechanical engineers. There are even marketing people on teams today." The participants go from sketching out the vehicle's specs to construction and testing. "They test and see failure first-hand," says Sechler.

As the competition gained popularity and status, universities and colleges began attaching more prestige to participation. Now some schools offer class credits or even help with fundraising. But the key is that FSAE enables students the opportunity to experience a hands-on project management endeavor that incorporates both their technical and soft skills sets against time and financial limitations.

"You have to appear before the judges and industry experts and take questions. Teams are selling their prototypes and if they don't know how to present it, they'll fail on that. They have to justify their designs," notes Sechler.

That experience, say experts, is invaluable. Not only does one get to fine tune both skills, but also network with industry people-original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), team representatives and several others. Even though it is a Formula One-based event, other racing categories have taken note and attend as either judges or seriously interested parties because they recognize the fact that the skills being exhibited cross over venues.

"FSAE is the best place [for networking] short of knowing someone working in the series. You have to be involved and ready to take questions," states Probst.

Sechler says recruiters have noticed a marked difference between FSAE alum and graduates who haven't gone through the competition. "It's making a big difference. Engineers come out of FASAE about two years ahead of a typical hire in terms of project development."

Take Colon as an example: As an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, she volunteered as an extra set of hands for a team of students who were participating in the solar car competition. She enjoyed the experience enough to ask, "What's next?" afterward. The answer soon came in the form of the FSAE. She explains, "By that time I was a member of the SAE student chapter and had been receiving publications about the various activities. I thought why not get involved. I was the first team captain and worked with five guys. We spent a whole year building the vehicle. We didn't do great that first time, but the university has entered the competition every year since."

That was 1991. By 1994, Colon was acting in an advisory role for the school's team while studying for her master's degree. While at the international competition, Colon noticed a number of GM representatives were spending a lot of time interacting with her and the team. "At the end, one of the representatives identified himself as an engineer for GM, saying he had seen my work and asked if I wanted to come to work for the company," she says. "I was not really looking to get into GM Racing, but I'm still working here, so you just never know."

Eleven years later Colon says she still relies on the competencies she gained during those years in FSAE. "I applied everything I learned in school on that project, including teamwork, leadership and making it work with a limited budget, and I use those skills on the job today. Students who have gone with that project are well-grounded. It's key."

The Winner's Circle

Although there are limited numbers of teams in any of the racing venues, there aren't necessarily limited positions available. Rather, many organizations are expanding their engineering and computer science roles. "This is a place where engineering is growing as a profession," asserts Nelson. "When I started at Penske, we had five engineers and we've increased that number every year."

Probst also says Ford, like other OEMs, has been in a hiring mode throughout the past several years, but that it takes a certain personality to turn an opportunity into a career as a race engineer. "When I hear someone say they are a race fan in an interview, I think that's a bad answer. Yeah, it's a cool job, but once you do it, is it just a job or a lifestyle?"

He and others agree that a winning combination includes a dedication to team spirit, which means working well in a multidisciplinary environment, the ability to push the technological envelope and possessing experience with pertinent applications.

"There are different ways engineers can work for a team. There are people who go to the racetrack and there are some who stay at the shop and do tests. Regardless, you have to have a strong background in computer skills and coursework in vehicle dynamics. Spend some of your time in school working on simulations and computer modeling," advises Nelson.

So the next time you catch a NASCAR race on TV, don't simply watch it as a race fan, but view it as a moving display of how engineering ingenuity can make a winning difference to a professional sporting organization-and your career.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a free-lance writer based in Southern California.

automotive engineering

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