Science on the Fast Track

Along a racetrack’s “pit road,” crew chiefs and race engineers for various NASCAR teams await their drivers’ inevitable pit stop. The souped-up racers need fresh tires and to top off their fuel. Every 30-second lap, the ground shakes as 43 cars whip past at 200 miles per hour.

Stock car racing isn’t rocket science—and yet the track is usually crawling with people who are, in effect, rocket scientists. You might not expect it from a sport that evolved out of bootleggers racing their moonshine down twisty Appalachian roads, but modern racing teams use computational fluid dynamics simulations, wind tunnels, and the highly technical know-how of engineers to eke milliseconds out of each driver’s lap time.

“A lot of research-oriented Ph.D.s get focused in one area, but a racecar has a little of everything. … [Racing] teaches you to think broad, and people who are used to working in intense environments are valued members of the team.” —Eric Warren

“If you go to these race shops, you think you walked into a hospital operating room. It’s absolutely spotless,” says Robert Johnson, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Charlotte, and co-founder of the college’s motorsports program. “These are not shade-tree mechanics having some fun.”

Instead, these are highly skilled engineers pushing automobiles to their limits, sometimes using that experience as a springboard to advance their careers.

Engineered for speed

When Eric Warren began working in motorsports, he didn’t know of any other Ph.D.-level scientists or engineers in NASCAR. “Now, on my team alone, there are four different Ph.D.s.,” he says. Warren, whose degree is in aerospace engineering, oversees engineering and also “the whole racing effort” for Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, North Carolina.

As a graduate student in the mid-1990s, Warren bumped into the owner of Kranefuss-Haas Racing (now Penske Racing) when visiting a friend at the team’s North Carolina headquarters. “He said, ‘Call me, we need somebody like you,’ ” Warren says. “He convinced me to get into racing, which was very difficult to comprehend at the time. At the time, NASCAR wasn’t seen as a technical thing. It was like, ‘OK, I’ve been working on research in aerodynamics, working with NASA Langley [Research Center].’ [NASCAR] was probably not seen as a good use of education.”

Yet, Warren was eventually drawn in by the technical engineering challenges offered by the sport. Racing is a surprisingly complex field, he says. Cars driving near the track’s edge will handle differently than they will if a driver takes a tight corner. The presence of other vehicles on the track can also cause the car to handle differently. Even the fuel in the gas tank affects a car’s center of gravity, so each lap is different as the car burns through and then is refilled with gas. Also, each track has its own personality. At Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, for example, the tracks are banked so steeply that cars would reach speeds of 220 miles per hour if not for mandatory restrictor plates, which limit the amount of oxygen entering the engine and, thus, the cars’ top speed.

Every engineering tweak is tiny but significant. “In the old days, if you could, you might be able to improve your lap time by a second,” says Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a nanotechnologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown who also writes about the science of motorsports (including the book The Physics of NASCAR). “Nowadays it’s tenths of seconds, hundredths of seconds.”

Money to be made

For a dedicated engineer, “there is money to be made” in NASCAR, Warren says. But it’s not easy money: Due to the intense and time-intensive nature of the sport, with races almost every week, “the dollars per hour worked is probably not any higher” than in lower-speed, more traditional engineering jobs, he says.

“These people work phenomenal hours,” UNC Charlotte’s Johnson says. “It’s not as glamorous as the general public thinks. When you see a racecar driver being interviewed [on TV], you’re the engineer down in Florida, testing, and there’s no cameras on you.”

Johnson says that UNC Charlotte’s motorsports program, a concentration within the school’s mechanical engineering department, is purposely intense to weed out those who aren’t going to stick with it. But most of the program’s graduates go into some kind of racing career after graduating. Indeed, the program’s Web site claims that about 10% of all NASCAR engineers are UNC Charlotte grads.

The program launched in 1997 when Johnson and fellow professor Jerre Hill noticed that racing teams were increasingly hiring employees with more technical training. Charlotte is “NASCAR country,” so even before the racing concentration came into existence, students from all over the United States flocked to UNC Charlotte’s mechanical engineering program to pursue their high-octane dreams. Today, about 70 students are enrolled in the program, the majority of whom are undergraduates. Most of the program’s students terminate their education at the bachelor’s degree, which is considered a realistic entry point for a job with a racing team, but the program does offer master’s degrees, Ph.D.s, and even an M.B.A. degree for students who wish to continue their studies.

There is a demand for master’s-level and Ph.D.-level engineers, Warren says. NASCAR has again and again tightened regulations on what alterations can legally be made to a car, and as a result, well-educated engineers have become vital assets on a team. “Before, you could just trial-and-error a lot of these big sweeping changes and see gains,” he says. “Now, the accuracy of your test method becomes much more important … [and] resources are limited. You can’t test 10 different things.” So being able to create and refine a computational fluid dynamics model—and interpret the results—has become very important to NASCAR teams.

Attracted to the track

One reason engineers seek racing-team jobs is that success is so quantifiable, says Patrick Canupp, director of aerodynamics at Joe Gibbs Racing in Huntersville, North Carolina, a city of not quite 50,000 people near Charlotte. “The challenge of it is what’s attractive,” he adds. “Pretty much every weekend you go out and get judged on how well you’re doing. Every team has access to a system called ‘timing and scoring’ that shows you every lap. So if you go to a mile-and-a-half track, every 30 seconds you’re getting an update on your performance. And that happens for 500 miles.”

Engineers are also earning respect from their fellow teammates—which hasn’t always been true. Twenty years ago, NASCAR teams were reluctant to have too many highly educated people on their side. “They find that threatening,” Leslie-Pelecky says.

Today, teams have largely embraced their engineers, although some lingering biases persist: Canupp says some teams think of their scientists as a “necessary evil.” “The technology that engineers have brought to the table has matured, and in this business the one sure way to gain acceptance is to bring something that gives you a competitive edge,” he says.

Similarly, in the past, engineers with Ph.D.s and master’s degrees thought of racing as a dead-end job that would pigeonhole them for life, Warren says. But increasingly, people outside of NASCAR are realizing that the skills gained working in a racing environment are also useful in other contexts, and as a result, NASCAR engineers are finding their careers advancing after they’ve spent a few years with a racing team. Some have left NASCAR to work at SpaceX, while others have gone on to jobs in the defense or energy industries. Many join automobile manufacturers to design production vehicles.

“Racing’s kind of broad,” Warren says. “A lot of research-oriented Ph.D.s get focused in one area, but a racecar has a little of everything. … [Racing] teaches you to think broad, and people who are used to working in intense environments are valued members of the team.”

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