How to Make a Winning Racecar -- Engineer

(See index at Car Tec/engineer.html

"V-Angles" Editorial Column from Racecar Engineering magazine Vol. 6 No. 3


Dear Mr. VanValkenburgh,
I've studied every issue of Racecar Magazine, and I've read your book and Carroll Smith's books, and I think I've got what it takes. Now how do I get a job with a professional racing team? Can you tell me who to call?

Dear Hopeful,

This is the most common type of mail I get. As you can imagine, the demand for race car engineers is pretty low, so there's no easy answer. There probably aren't a hundred teams or companies in the world that can justify and afford a full-time racing engineer, so not more than a few hopefuls "make it" or "break in" each year. But I can offer a few tips.

Both the right education and racing experience are necessary, but neither alone is sufficient. These days you must go to an engineering school, although a degree in "race car engineering" is neither offered nor necessary. But you also have to pay your dues in hands-on racing experience.

It may sound like a "Catch-22" to say you must have experience before you can get a job, but it's not, because most who have made it to the top got their first experience on their own initiative. I've talked with many of the world's best, and most of them started at the bottom, working on their own kart, or sedan, or amateur sports car. Many of them have done nothing else, all their lives.

Some have gotten in through racing subsidiarities in large corporations, like tire or accessory or auto makers, but these are "gravy" positions that are promoted into from within. Either you are a favored insider, or just in the right place at the right time.

Probably your best option is to get more recognizable experience. Find a local potential winner -- with high visibility -- who will let you contribute your talents for free at first. If you can demonstrate your value, your next contact may be willing to pay to steal you away.

But success -- not to mention the actual work -- is excruciatingly laborious. For more ideas, see my web pages at or read my next column, titled .....


Raw Materials: Start with good genes, probably from a long line of mechanics, tinkerers, or inventors. Someone with extraordinary spatial visualization, who is able to mentally iterate dozens of designs or solution options simultaneously, possibly subconciously, and reduce them to the optimum almost intuitively. The kind of a mind that goes to sleep mulling over an impossible problem, and wakes up in the middle of the night with the answer. Someone driven to search out and solve problems just for the fun of it.

Training (formal): Just about any engineering university will do. It's what you make of it. After the basics, instead of focusing on good grades in textbook classes, concentrate on labs and "special projects." Go in saying, "How can this apply to racing?" or "On my own, I want to find out ....." Then apply that philosophy to classes such as: computers (how they can be used for chassis design, simulations of vehicles, analysing track data), materials (properties of aerospace composites, stiffness, failure analysis), thermodynamics (optimizing combustion and heat dissipation), fluid dynamics (properties of airflow in engines and over wings, wind tunnel procedures), electronics (protecting circuitry in the racing environment and the design of control systems), chemical engineering (tire compounds and fuel characteristics), ergonomics (the man-machine interface and optimizing feedbacks, psychology), management (logistics, critical paths, etc).

Training (experience): One of the most cost-effective experiences is to always drive a beat-up clunker, in which failures have to be constantly anticipated and corrected on the spot, with whatever is at hand. Actual race driving experience is also strongly recommended -- not an expensive race-proven factory car, but something like a "do-it-yourself" class such as Formula SAE, or solar/electric vehicle competitions at the university level. Know all the hand tools intimately -- study tool catalogs and know the right tool for the job. Get your hands dirty. Be the generalist. Learn to be a passable machinist, and do some composite layup. Test tires -- even spec tires -- to learn how to optimize them. Make sure the university you select has a wind tunnel of some sort, and an engine dyno, and find out how many ways there are to make mistakes in development

Specialize: Contrary to the above, to break into professional racing these days, it's good to have a unique talent, or rare and valuable experience. Not many teams can start you out as an overall manager. Recent sought-out positions have included data acquisition specialists, suspension dynamics engineers, and computational fluid dynamicists. It's hard to say what the next hot area might be, but if you can become a foremost expert in it, it could help. Once you get in the door, then you should generalize again (in your spare time) by observing what all the other specialists are doing. To rise above your position, you need a working knowledge of all areas, since it all has to go together and fit tight and light.

Generalizing also means understanding the three categories of race car engineering: design, development, and trackside. If you haven't already realized this, and preselected your goal, consider that it may depend a lot on your personal traits. For example, if you are drawn to the glamour, have a lot of hands-on experience, and are a quick problem-solver, you would probably prefer trackside. But if you are slow but methodological, pensive, take time to optimize everything, and read a lot about technology, you are probably a better designer.

Tie-breaker traits: If just a fraction of a percent of the hopefuls make it to the bigtime, these might be the deciding factors:

Street smarts, or the ability know a weak part by looking at it, or when something "just doesn't look right." Common sense ability to see what is most important at any instant, and focus on that, instead of what is more fun or more interesting. Yet empathetic toward people too, with a natural gift for understanding people as well as machines, and can manage them without obvious MBA techniques.

A team player: After he's done his own job, he looks for other things that should be done, and does them. He can say, "I may have made a mistake -- but I'll never make it again." "I don't know -- but I know how to find out." "What's your opinion? " and "Maybe you're right." He has lots of friends and contacts in the game and interacts with them a lot. Never makes an enemy and never forgets a friend.

Questions everything! Especially the rule book, especialy the conventional wisdom, especially "because we've always done it that way," and sometimes even the data, the driver (tactfully), and even this advice.

A high level of confidence, that stops just short of arrogance. Driven, organized, high-energy, curious, almost obsessive -- essentially, just what it takes to be successful in any field.

I have three sons. So can you guess what they're interested in? Music, computers, art, politics, film-making, etc. But this too, was by design. It's redundant for them to know what I know. I'd like them to know everything else.