Growing up, Chris Long ’06 never gave a lot of thought to the inner workings of race cars while watching his father, an amateur road racer, race tracks along the east coast. But now, Long, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UNC Charlotte and has worked for 12 years in motorsports, says engineering has taught him how to be a better problem solver.
An engineer with Chip Ganassi Racing, Long has had a hand in improving the ergonomics of the team’s cars, helping to mold their shape to make them faster. As a member of the simulation team, he uses computer simulations to measure vehicles’ input and output. And as leader of the quality control team, Long verifies that parts built in-house meet design specifications and ensures that parts from outside vendors meet the proper tolerances.
“I don’t know if I’d be able to do what I do without an engineering degree,” Long said.
As the pace of competition has increased, so has the number of engineers working in NASCAR. It’s a trend that can be traced to the late Alan Kulwicki, NASCAR’s first driver to hold a degree in engineering -- and who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Feb. 2.
Kulwicki’s NASCAR success was sown in independence. Bucking the tradition of the Southern-bred driver, Kulwicki, a Wisconsin native, earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Choosing to race independently, he shunned big-name sponsorships throughout his career. Tragically, a year after winning the 1992 Winston Cup Series, Kulwicki died in a plane crash near Blountville, Tenn., at age 38.
Kulwicki’s dedication to his sport is celebrated at UNC Charlotte, where the Alan D. Kulwicki Motorsports Laboratory trains engineering students interested in motorsports to design, build and race their own cars. Ryan Zeck ’99 started a petition to implement the motorsports program, and Bob Johnson, now dean of the William States Lee College of Engineering, proposed the program during his tenure as head of the mechanical engineering department.
A renewable scholarship in Kulwicki’s name is funded through the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and given to a UNC Charlotte freshman majoring in mechanical engineering.
‘Bull in a china shop’
Memories of Kulwicki flow freely from his friend Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, many of them referencing Kulwicki’s characteristic frugality -- as well as his generosity.
Kulwicki owned his cars, but would rent transmissions, gears and other parts for them. “He won with almost no money.” Sabates said. “He had to be tight with his resources because he didn’t have any.”
Sabates recalled that he had to almost force Kulwicki to buy a house after his Winston Cup victory. Yet, he said Kulwicki would write a big check annually to a Boys and Girls Club in Florida, an organization with which Sabates was heavily involved.
Money was not something that motivated Kulwicki. Winning races did. And he did what it took to do so.
“He was like a bull in a china shop,” Sabates said. “When he made up his mind to do something, he got it done.”
As an engineer, Kulwicki understood mechanics and aerodynamics, and performed work on his car by hand that today machines complete. Driven by his analytical mind, he remained grounded through his faith, attending Mass no matter where he was. Even if that meant driving hours to find a Catholic church.
Sabates underscored Kulwicki’s playful side, sharing the time he bet Sabates about how fast he could drive through a McDonald’s parking lot at 1 a.m. He described Kulwicki’s legacy as giving hope to talented young drivers “who come from nowhere.”
Picking up the pace
When Chris Long joined Chip Ganassi Racing, he was one of 10 engineers; a number that has expanded to nearly 30 who work on just the NASCAR side of the operation. (The team also has cars competing in the IndyCar Series.) These engineers work in every area of the team’s operations, including simulation, design and quality control.
“Definitely quite a transition over the past 10 to 15 years for a sport that’s been around for 50 to 60 years,” Long said.
UNC Charlotte’s engineering programs reflect the industry’s growth. As recently as 2012, the University’s motorsports engineering program enrolled fewer than 80 students. Today, more than 160 students are enrolled across programs.
According to Mesbah Uddin, director of the University’s North Carolina Motorsports and Automotive Research Center, in the 1980s, despite Kulwicki’s groundbreaking credentials, it was unlikely that NASCAR teams included any engineers with a degree from an accredited university. “Team members performing engineering work learned primarily while working on their dads’ cars,” he said. “They’re extremely talented people.”
But cars were simpler then and the pace of competition was slower. In the absence of sophisticated computer systems and qualified engineers to process vast amounts of information--such as how the various components of race cars interact with one another on different tracks and under different racing conditions--racers and teams relied mostly on trial-and-error-based designs.
Uddin said as NASCAR rules became stricter in the 1990s and design freedoms narrowed, racing teams realized the limits of the trial-and-error approach. They began hiring more engineers to design cars that, to a great extent, eliminated the guesswork from design and development. Today it’s not unusual for a race team to include between 20 and 40 engineers.
“We see that making quicker changes is necessary because the competition is becoming more fierce,” Uddin said. “The quicker that changes can be made, the more races can be won.”
Long said the increase of engineering professionals in NASCAR has led to safer and more efficient cars on the track.
“Knock on wood, we haven’t had any major injuries in the sport in quite a few years," he said.
Long described the number of UNC Charlotte alumni in the industry as “impressive.” He said the University has a “top-level, state-of-the-art” racing shop, which familiarized him with the equipment he uses on his job.
“I love that UNC Charlotte offers a designated motorsports concentration,” Long said. “Students work on real cars on which you can apply textbook knowledge and gain real-world application and theory.”