The UNC System Drives NASCAR in More Ways Than One

Memorial Day weekend is in the rearview. NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 has crossed the finish line. After 400 laps, the checkered flag has waved, and the cars are now still. The roar has grown silent … for the time being.

The fumes have dissipated and the ringing in the ears will eventually subside, but something significant will linger: fuel for North Carolina’s economy. Several UNC System institutions are delivering the innovation that helps steer this fast-moving economic sector to the inside lane.

According to the North Carolina Motorsports Association, the racing industry contributes more than $6 billion annually to the North Carolina economy. More than 90 percent of NASCAR’s teams call North Carolina home, but this money isn’t just going to the drivers and pit crews. Motorsports help generate more than 25,000 jobs in manufacturing, supplies, technology services, management, retail, public relations, tourism, and hospitality. 

Four UNC System institutions play a significant role keeping the garages, management offices, and promotional teams supplied with talent and know-how: NC State, N.C. A&T, UNC Charlotte, and Winston-Salem State University.

Engineering the future in UNC Charlotte’s Motorsports Research Lab

Engineered for Speed … and More

A NASCAR team without engineers is like a car without pistons: it’s not going anywhere.

Once a casual sport for whiskey bootleggers, stock car racing was, at the beginning, simply a platform for competitors to show off backroads-driving skills and tricked out automobiles. Cars were simpler then, and the pace of competition was slower. There were no sophisticated computer systems tracking how changes in racing conditions affect the interactions between and among mechanical components. There were no engineering teams dedicated to processing vast amounts of data. Racers and teams relied mostly on trial-and-error-based designs.

 “Team members performing engineering work learned primarily while working on their dads’ cars,” according to Mesbah Uddin, director of UNC Charlotte’s North Carolina Motorsports and Automotive Research Center.

Today, NASCAR is high tech. A stock car is anything but stock; it is meticulously designed and engineered for efficiency, speed, and durability. Winning requires the ability to engineer a car—and to reengineer a car—to suit the day’s track conditions.

“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.”

Safety is also more critical. In the 1990s, NASCAR established more strict rules to promote safety. This limited the design freedom that had defined the sport early on. As a result, ad hoc approaches to strategy were no longer viable. Racing teams realized that the trial-and-error approach that had worked so well in the past was losing power. They began hiring more engineers to design cars. To a great extent, this eliminated the guesswork from design and development.

Today, it’s not unusual for a race team to include between 20 and 40 engineers, many of whom are UNC System alumni.

Driver Matt Tifft has shown his support for UNC Charlotte throughout his career

Putting NASCAR Into High Gear

UNC Charlotte’s motorsports engineering program is located in the heart of the region affectionately known as “NASCAR Valley.”  The university sits a stone’s throw from 90 percent of the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams and five miles from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Not surprisingly then, 15 percent of all NASCAR engineers hail from the Niner Nation.

Growing up, Chris Long never gave a lot of thought to the inner workings of race cars while he watched his father compete in amateur races up and down the east coast. But after earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UNC Charlotte in 2006, Long has worked in motorsports.

Now an engineer with Chip Ganassi Racing, Long has had a hand in improving the design 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.

“I don’t know if I’d be able to do what I do without an engineering degree,” Long said.

Engineers aren’t just critical in getting the cars over the line faster. They also help ensure that the drivers get there in one piece. A significant component of Long’s work is to verify that parts built in-house meet design specifications and that parts from outside vendors meet the proper tolerances.

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.

Another former UNCC student even enjoyed a top 20 finish behind the wheel in Monday’s race. Matt Tifft drove the number 36 Ford Mustang for Front Row Motorsports. As he has climbed up the NASCAR ladder, the former business student has proudly flown the university’s colors. In the weeks following the April 30, 2019, shooting on UNCC’s campus, Tifft emblazoned his car with a “Charlotte Strong” medallion in a show of support.

“The motorsports concentration at UNC Charlotte is very rare…it’s very special,” said Dr. Charles Jenckes, an adjunct professor in the program who is both an NC State alumnus and an engineer for the Haas Formula 1 team. “There are very few universities in the country that offer this specific concentration. In fact, the university is developing such a strong curriculum that it may rival some of the major universities in the world for this type of education. There are universities in the UK that attract students from all over the world who are interested in motorsports, but going forward UNC Charlotte’s program will be recognized as being at their level.”

UNC Charlotte’s location is virtually trackside, but it’s not the only UNC System producing the engineering talent for NASCAR. 

When engineers entered the race, NC State was gunning engines at the starting line. The university’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering has a long history of graduating talent that has brought durable innovation to motorsports.

In the 1960s, Chevrolet more or less did not compete in the sport. NC State alum Herb Fishel was pivotal in steering the company back into the race, eventually creating what is now known as GM Motorsports, perhaps the most successful racing technology company in the country. NC State graduate Bobby Hutchens was NASCAR’s first college-educated engineer, hired in 1982. More recently, NC State alum Daniel Knost, who earned graduate degrees at Virginia Tech, became the first crew chief with a Ph.D. in engineering. Knost worked on Danica Patrick’s groundbreaking team.

N.C. A&T’s motorsports technology program, housed within the Department of Applied Engineering Technology, takes a unique interdisciplinary approach to the field. Curriculum focuses on the sport as an intersection where technology, engineering, history, management, marketing communications, and graphic design all converge. By the time students complete their degrees, they have the skills necessary to perform rapid fire, high-stakes pit crew activities. But they’re also primed to work in design and development, mechanics, driving simulation, and general operations.

WSSU motorsports management students are on the move: 2018 graduate Sidney Pritchett (left) and rising senior Walter Thomas III (right) stand with National Hot Rod Association champion driver Antron Brown (center)

Driving the Business

Loud, fast, and fun … motorsport is actually serious business.

Winston-Salem State University’s motorsports management program goes beyond the garage and takes students to the front office of the teams, tracks, sponsors, suppliers, and companies driving the sport.

WSSU is one of only two universities in the nation – and the only public university – to offer a motorsports management bachelor’s degree program. The program is part of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Sport Studies.

With numerous opportunities throughout the curriculum for hands-on experience and collaborative learning, students graduate in pole position to win jobs in motorsports operations, motorsports marketing, sponsorship, and event planning. WSSU students have interned in media relations for Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR; in general management and marketing for Don Schumacher Racing in the NHRA; and in marketing at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Virginia International Raceway.

“I tell students that this is the most fun major you can have in school,” said Dr. Clay Harshaw, the program’s coordinator. “Where else are you required to attend races as part of your schoolwork? With that fun, though, comes a lot of hard work – with field experiences at the events and in the classroom.”

Harshaw’s work as editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal International Motorsport Management underscores this commitment to treating the sport with intellectual rigor and professionalism.

At first glance, the pairing of one of the System’s HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) with a sport that has historically appealed more to White fans might seem counterintuitive. But in fact, one of NASCAR’s legendary tracks is at actually nestled near  WSSU’s campus. In the fall, Bowman Gray Stadium is where the Rams football team butts helmets. In the spring, it is “NASCAR’s first and longest running weekly track,” where drivers compete for every square inch of surface on the short track.  This year marks the stadium’s 71st season as a NASCAR track.

“What’s interesting about Winston-Salem State and NASCAR [is that] it is hard to separate the two because of Bowman Gray Stadium,” WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson told Higher Ed Works.

As a testament to NASCAR’s significance to Winston-Salem and the university, in April, 2019, the city council voted to fund $9 million for renovations to the historic stadium. The money will support improvements to both turf and tarmac. In addition, restrooms, the press box, and concession stands will all be modernized.

UNC Charlotte student Tucker Bisel explains what makes the university’s Motorsports and Mechanical Engineering programs so rewarding.

(V)room for Diversity

WSSU and N.C. A&T both stand to play a critical role in helping the sport expand its audience. In recent years, crowds have thinned and viewership has slipped. In response, NASCAR has made a concerted push to broaden the sport’s appeal.

As the only HBCU in the nation to offer a degree in motorsports management, WSSU shares close ties with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity youth program, which offers internships in the business aspects of NASCAR trains aspiring drivers from diverse backgrounds to enter the profession. Former WSSU student Gregory Carty participated in the program and is now a licensing assistant with NASCAR in Charlotte.

“Drive for Diversity played a significant role in the development of our program at WSSU from the start,” Harshaw said. “NASCAR has given us tremendous support in the career development of our students. We are blessed to be so close to the epicenter of the NASCAR world and to several tracks.”

Beyond offering academic coursework, WSSU also hosts a summer youth program called Diversity in Motion, which gets kids excited about career opportunities in the sport long before they’ve even gotten their learners permits.

As Chancellor Robinson told Higher Ed Works, “It’s a strange marriage when you look at it, but it works and it makes sense … And it speaks so much to what is happening in 2020. It is so 2020-ish, right? To be able to have these two institutions come together to do something special like that.”

Last year, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.’s debut at the Coca-Cola 600 grabbed national attention, and he returned in 2019 for a second run.  As a participant in the Drive to Diversity program and the first full-time African-American driver in NASCAR’s elite series since 1971, Wallace has been embraced as the changing the face of NASCAR.

“With Bubba here now, it’s like, ‘Wow, we have someone that looks like us out there competing at a highly competitive level,’ ” says Walter Thomas III, a rising senior in the motorsports management program who participated in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Combine as a freshman in 2016. “Even though NASCAR has always been looked at as a predominantly White sport, you can look around at any of the races and see African-Americans at the track. For me personally, I feel this will help me in the pursuit of one day racing in the NASCAR Cup Series.”

UNC Charlotte’s state of the art Motorsports Research Lab

A Mighty Engine

Memorial Day Weekend officially kicked off the summer driving season. Some North Carolinians were driving to the beach. Others to the mountains. In Charlotte, NASCAR drivers were going nowhere in particular … but they were getting there a whole lot faster than the rest of us.

UNC System talent was behind the engineering, the technology, the design, and the marketing that roared past onlookers at 200 miles an hour. Tens of thousands of fans spent the better part of an evening cheering the 60th run of the Coca Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race. The end result wasn’t just a victory for driver Martin Truex Jr.  The hefty sum of tourism dollars generated by just a single NASCAR event will deliver a healthy jolt to North Carolina’s economy.

The economy is not the only place where this motorized spectacle intersects with everyday life. Racing engineering and technology doesn’t just impact the few select drivers who have earned the privilege of driving more than three times faster than the typical U.S. highway speed limit.

“Structural integrity has improved because of NASCAR. Of course passenger cars don’t have safety cages, but NASCAR engineering has shaped the industry’s understanding of how to make a car’s structure safer and how to utilize energy-absorbing materials,” said Dr. Jenckes.

NASCAR’s influence on the cars the rest of us drive also extends to improvements in braking, tire technology, lubricants, engine durability, and ignition systems, to name a few.

In these ways, the UNC System plays critical role not just in making our entertainment louder and faster … but our everyday experience more comfortable, convenient, and safe.