Brad Keselowski, that never ending source of material on slow news days, had a few words about the state of American Motorsports Engineering. These quotes are from an article by Mike Pryson in Autoweek.com.
“It’s probably a larger story in itself that the American engineering pool is very shallow right now,” said Keselowski after he qualified sixth at Michigan International Speedway on Friday for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. “Penske is moving to any other country [to find them]. We’ve hired multiple engineers from Europe over the last three or four years and we’re pilfering everyone we can in the great country of Canada, so if you know any of them, send them our way.
“It’s just very hard to get engineers with the educational background and commitment that we need to be successful at this level from the United States. There’s certainly a shortage, not just at Penske, but throughout the garage.”
His comments (here and in the last few days) have to be interpreted in the context of their being responses to questions about why Ford (and Penske) were struggling compared to Chevy (and Hendrick in particular). The mainstream motorsports media (try saying that fast five times) tend to want a simple answer, like “They have more horsepower”. As we know, racing is a holistic enterprise and often it’s the interplay of things and not just the things that is most critical. And people want to reduce answers to more provocative things like “Keselowski hates American Engineers”.
I know a lot of racing engineers who found his comments derogatory. It reminded me of being in grad school and always hearing the professors complain that they needed “More and better graduate students”. When I finally called on on this and told him it bothered us, he looked at me blankly. “We don’t mean you guys. You guys are great. It’s our applicant pool…”
Sometimes a little clarification makes a huge difference to the people involved. The big thing I got out of it after reading all the media reports I could find about Keselowski’s comments was that he said that Penske got a very small number of applications from highly qualified American engineers.
Let’s look at the numbers. In 2012, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, 88,176 bachelor’s level and 49,372 masters level engineering degrees were handed out. There were 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees in all fields, which means that engineering degrees make up only 5% of all bachelor’s level degrees. Compare that with Japan and Chine where engineering degrees are 50% of the degrees granted. That’s for all fields of engineering. Most people working in motorsports have degrees in mechanical engineering (few schools offer a dedicated motorsports engineering degree), which is somewhere around 20,000 degrees at the bachelor’s level and 6,o00 master’s level degrees. (85- 90% of mechanical engineering degrees are earned by men, incidentally).
The schools that offer motorsports engineering degrees are schools like Indiana University – Purdue University at Indiana (IUPUI), UNC-Charlotte and the University of Northern Ohio. In fact, UNC-Charlotte boasts that 10% of NASCAR engineers come from UNC-Charlotte. Other schools, like the University of Colorado – Denver offer motorsports specializations within mechanical engineering. Nothing against these schools. But if I look at the engineers I know who are successful in NASCAR, they’ve got degrees from places like Northwestern, Duke, Penn State, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon. Newman went to Purdue. Those universities attract a different level of student. Nothing against folks who went to a small state school. I did. But if you want the best and the brightest, you’ve got a higher likelihood of finding them at the elite engineering schools.
Europe, in particular, has a well-established stream of motorsports engineering because of the high technical level of F1. I was at Oxford On Brookes in England a few years ago and their facilities and program are amazing. Well ahead of most of what we have in the States.
The numbers are small to start with, and I think three factors narrow the pool: Money, work environment, and personal goals.
The mean annual wage for mechanical engineers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor is $85,930 – and it’s much higher (over $100,ooo) in select field like energy. I started off thinking salary wasn’t an issue because teams like Hendrick and Gibbs have very deep pockets and understand how important it is to have strong engineering. On second though, few people get to start with the big teams. So salaries may be a contributing factor to there being a smaller application pool. If someone’s faced with a starting salary from an auto manufacturer or a Nationwide-only team, the production car job might look a lot better.
Even if the salary is high, you have to consider the job responsibilities relative to the salary. NASCAR engineers work in an extremely high-stress, rapid output environment. They have to work with a broad range of people, from mechanics to public relations people (to drivers, some of whom are not shy about throwing their teams under the bus when they don’t finish well). Failure in motorsports is extremely visible. If you are slow, the whole world sees it. Many engineers spend a significant amount of time on the road, away from family. Even those that don’t travel as part of the raceday team are involved in testing. A lot of people don’t want an eighty-hour-a-week, high stress job.
Finally, there’s the question of what you want out of your career. People I know who have worked in motorsports and left are working in everything from production car development to trying to make the country less dependent on foreign energy sources. A number of them enjoyed motorsports, but there are bigger and more significant problems in the world than making cars go fast. People want different things out of life. You have to really like racing to make a career of it.
Keselowski pointed out as much in a tweet.
But that didn’t make it into any of the stories, of course.