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America’s Motorsports Engineering Pool

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.”

 

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.

kestweet

 

 

But that didn’t make it into any of the stories, of course.

14 thoughts on “America’s Motorsports Engineering Pool

  1. Not a big Brad K fan but he hit this one out of the park. Motor Racing Outreach chaplain told me NASCAR places one of the highest negative forces on a marriage of all professions. Also Brad isn’t afraid to point out the bias of the media.

  2. Gary: Yep, I can’t see how any job that requires that much out of you wouldn’t have a negative impact on the rest of your life. When we hear crew chiefs talking about “having to get off the road”, that’s a big reason why.

  3. Hi Diandra. Kinda on subject kinda not. However, I’d like your opinion. Saw Mike Helton interview regarding reducing horsepower. As he admitted, this would be most expensive for all. Seems adjusting downforce could be just as effective, much less expensive, and testing results more quickly evaluated. Been my observation over many years as NASCAR and NHRA fan, given a few years, or less, the geniuses in the garages will find a way back. Primary example, NHRA reducing Top Fuel and Funny Cars distance to 1,000 ft. Very shortly, they were back to 320+ mph, turning same rpms.

  4. I have a bachelors in mechanical engineering and I have sent my resume to a lot of race shops (everyone from thorsport to Penske) and have never gotten a call back. Everyone wants experience but no one wants to give an opportunity to gain experience.

    1. Ken: This is a off-the-cuff idea, but maybe tweet Keselowski and ask for his advice? This is an issue he’s indicated interest in. Ask him the same question and see what advice he gives. It might also be worth tweeting some of the more visible-on-twitter NASCAR crew chiefs and ask them for advice. I would personally ask Keith Rodden (@keithrodden) and Rodney Childers (@rodneychilders4) just because they are stand-up guys and might actually reply. But I think I would wait until Monday because I suspect they’re just a little busy during the weekend.

  5. Thank you for the advice. It just irks me when I see these kinds of articles and a guy like me is trying to get in. Roush Fenway had an opening earlier this year and I saw 1500 people apply through linkedin alone. I know I’m not the only one.

  6. So…what are the necessary qualifications? Anyone know the minimum experience you need before any NASCAR team will even begin to consider you?

    Regarding what Ken has written above, I wonder if it really is a case that teams (and companies in general) want trained people but don’t want to have to be the ones to train them. Most anyone who has an engineering degree but has struggled to break into a particular field has felt that way at one time or other, myself included. I have no actual evidence to support this notion, beyond personal experience, however. It’s just a gut feeling, for what it’s worth. But it’s easy to think that race teams that are seemingly working flat out all year long would prefer that a new hire, be they from the US, Europe, Canada, etc. be able to ….please forgive this stupid phrase….”hit the ground running” rather than have to stop and invest limited time and resources to complete a proper training period.

    Was it a more organic hiring process in the past, when someone really could start by sweeping shop floors, or is that just warm, fuzzy and false nostalgia?

    1. Hiring was definitely more organic in the past – in part because bringing in engineers is a relatively new thing in NASCAR.

      One thing I hear from people who work with race teams all the time is that they get a slew of applications from people with solid engineering credentials, but no evidence of racing experience. Not necessarily a degree in motorsports, but evidence of time spent at a race track working with crews and drivers, even if you were just turning wrenches. Very little of what you are expected do in NASCAR is part of the average mechanical engineering curriculum. One suggestion I heard was to find out what programs the team uses (or whether they write their own and, if so, in what language) and learn those programs enough to be able to mention them on your application. One person who is in charge of hiring told me that they wouldn’t consider any application that didn’t show that the person had worked on a race team – but he also said that something as simple as volunteering with a late model or modified team for a year at a local track would be enough because so many of the people who submit applications have zero evidence that they understand motorsports and/or the culture. And motorsports does have its own fairly unique culture.

      Dave is right that they want people who are ready to go. The job performance evaluation for every employee at a race team is basically “Are we running good?”. Mentoring/training is way down the list of items for which one gets bonuses and promotions. They really can’t afford to bring someone on and three months later, realize the person doesn’t have the skills or desire.

  7. Speaking to my son (just graduated with PhD in MechE and Materials Science) about this subject and he stated that many of his friends, who have an interest in motorsports, don’t view NASCAR as something to aspire to – they are looking at F1 because of the advanced technology.

    1. Cheryl: Congrats to your son on his degree! I think the public perception of the level of technology in NASCAR is a little skewed. Yes, the cars are not very technologically advanced, but the techniques used to develop and test the cars are. Understanding second order harmonics on a seven-post rig is not straight foward. Who would’ve thought there was a place in motorsports for Fourier Series??. The simulation software they’re using is pretty complicated as well. People who don’t know the behind-the-scenes story probably have no idea that there are some very interesting/rewarding problems to be solved. Thanks for the comment.

  8. It’s bad out there. I applied to 200 race teams, everything from IMSA to Indycar to NASCAR to World of Outlaws and had no luck with race teams. This even having the IMSA technical director as a reference on my resume and a B.S in Motorsports Engineering, which had classes taught by the current IMSA technical director and an F1 aerodynamicist. I finally did find an engineering job, but I plan on getting a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering and try again.

  9. In 2004 Mike Calinoff (then spotter for Matt Kenseth) presented a “Jobs in NASCAR” seminar. He strongly advised against saying you’d sweep floors, mow lawn, etc. (As did Steve Letarte) Advised be prepared to articulate short and long term professional goals. Also, how many team engineers are from the auto manufacturers?

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