This story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of SportsCar magazine, the official member publication of the Sports Car Club of America. More information about the SCCA and the SportsCar magazine subscription you receive as a benefit of SCCA membership can be found here.
“Three graduates work for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in engineering, one of our first graduates works for Penske NASCAR, one of our most recent graduates works for Penske Racing, one is at Ed Carpenter Racing, one is at Rahal Letterman Racing, and one of our top graduates works for the Auto Research Center,” Chris Finch says when asked about success stories from the relatively new Motorsports Engineering program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
“Now, not all of our graduates go into motorsports. One of our students who wasn’t interested in motorsports went to work for Ford, one student took a job with a rocket company, and another student just got a job with Tesla.”
The list goes on and on, spanning companies from Ganassi Racing to Goodyear and Hoosier, but the crux is this: Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, IUPUI for short, has turned a fledgling program in Motorsports Engineering into the real deal. Finch is quick to point out that as with any university degree, there’s no guarantee a graduate will get a job in the industry, but the success stories are encouraging.
However, none of this happened overnight. This story starts in the mid 2000s with longtime SCCA member Peter Hylton. Hylton joined the IUPUI staff and, being an SCCA member, racer, and holding a mechanical engineering degree, saw potential for a motorsports program within the university.
“Peter Hylton and Terri Talbert-Hatch [now an Associate Dean at IUPUI] came up with the concept of a Motorsports Engineering program, and between Pete, Terri, and the Dean, they brought it to fruition,” Finch explains.
“Within the United States universities, there has been an attempt at Motorsports Engineering programs like at UNC Charlotte and even Purdue University, but they’re more like certificates – there’s not really an area of concentration within that topic,” Finch explains. “What Pete decided to do was create a curriculum of Motorsports Engineering with the ultimate goal of becoming an accredited engineering program within the United States.”
With that in mind, IUPUI worked with the accrediting agency ABET, which accredits engineering programs within the United States.
“[ABET] comes in and asks if you’re requiring all of the math and science courses that are required of all engineering programs within the United States,” he explains. “It’s a huge seal of approval on the program because now we can say we’re the only accredited Motorsports Engineering program in the nation. It’s not a certificate or just one course offering, it’s a true program.”
The program itself, which IUPUI officially launched in 2008, parallels closely with Mechanical Engineering. “We do offer a five-year program where you graduate not only with a Motorsports Engineering degree but also a Mechanical Engineering degree. It takes an extra year because [the Motorsports Engineering] program doesn’t require Heat and Mass Transfer while Mechanical Engineering does.”
Course requirements for the Motorsports Engineering degree are impressive, spanning vehicle dynamics, aerodynamics for road vehicles, motorsports design, data acquisition, and more. And, in addition, the instructors are not your average academics.
“It was very important to use people who were within the industry,” Finch notes. “I’ve only been [teaching] for three and a half years, but prior to that I had over 20 years as a professional engineer in IndyCar, ChampCar, and sports cars. The program director, Andy Borme, has the same level of accreditation with 20-plus years in IndyCar, ChampCar, and had several years in Formula 1 with Williams and Toyota. That really sets the program apart.”
The program itself, however, goes beyond the classroom – and this is where it gets really interesting. “One thing that was really important to Pete, and what sets our program apart, is that the students needed to have exposure to racing in some capacity,” Finch says. To jumpstart the program, Hylton acquired a 1968 MGB, built it for H Production, and went racing with the students. Around this time, Finch was hired to head up the SCCA side of the motorsports program (IUPUI also offers a Formula SAE program).
Finch came on board and, utilizing a student with an SCCA competition license, took the MGB racing at Mid-Ohio. “Afterward, I sat down with Pete and said we had a couple of decisions to make,” he says. Finch laid out his plan for the program, which included a new racecar, modern equipment, and a professional driver. This happened in 2015, and it was around this time that rumors began circulating about the [SCCA] National Championship Runoffs going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2017. With the Runoffs coming to IUPUI’s backyard, Finch needed to act fast.
“I said we needed a car that could compete, and [Pete] said OK,” Finch recalls. “He asked where I’d get the money from and I told him not to worry about it, I’d try to track the money down.
“I approached a gentleman I knew from the motorsports industry named Al Lewis for funding for the car,” he continues. “I told him I needed $25,000 to $30,000, and he said no problem. So, with that, I had a group of about five or six students survey the SCCA Runoffs in H, F, and E Production and come back and tell me what car we needed to buy based on performance, contingency, and what support the manufacturer could potentially supply. In the end, it basically came down to the Mazda Miata.”
Finch also lined up a driver. “On the top of my list was an individual I’d worked with for a lot of years – he’s a professional driver coach and runs a Formula F in the SCCA and tried his hand at professional motorsports back in 2000 or 2001 – Bob Perona.”
An F Production Mazda Miata was soon purchased and shipped to IUPUI, and thus started a new adventure of racing ups and downs for both Finch and the students.
“When we took delivery of [the car], we went through it, but probably not to the level we should have. We have a good relationship with Pete Cozzolino here in Indy who has a chassis dyno, and we found we had a dead number one cylinder.” Jim Stewart with Stewart Engines disassembled the motor to diagnose the problem, but the bottom line was the Miata needed a new race motor.
“At this point, we were at a crossroads,” Finch says of the dilemma that left the program scrambling for cash – but in motorsports, it’s often about who you know. “Bob Perona is friends with Briggs Cunningham, and Briggs supported the program with $10,000, which allowed us to get a new race engine for the car.” In addition, Lee Pope of Brown’s Oil Service stepped up his support from fuel to fuel and cash.
“With those two donations, that allowed us to get a race engine by Stewart and it allowed us to make the car a teaching platform,” Finch says. Soon, the Miata was outfitted with top-of-the-line equipment. A Motec M400 ECU, Motec dash, and a power distribution module were installed, and Finch and a student developed a wiring harness with KSV Looms that terminated in Deutsch connectors.
“When you look at the car and the electronics, it was a lot of money, but I did it purposefully because the system that’s on the car is the equivalent of what you’ll find in a top level Pirelli World Challenge car,” he explains. “When we’re all said and done, it’ll be instrumented almost to the level of an IndyCar – we’ll have wheel speed sensors, damper pots, infrared for brake temperatures, and we’ll be able to do the same math that’s done at a professional level.”
Finch’s plans for the 2017 race season were lofty, hoping to be competitive in the Hoosier Super Tour and run up front at the Runoffs, with IUPUI’s Motorsports Engineering students getting hands-on experience at the track along the way. Thus started a season-long rollercoaster ride. The season opener at the NOLA Super Tour kicked off with a bang as the team’s only motor failed. That, however, led to the university funding a backup motor. Then success came at the VIRginia International Raceway Super Tour where the team took both poles and wins.
But that was followed by more problems at Road America during the June Sprints Super Tour – there, a missed shift left the team scrambling for another motor since their backup had yet to be completed. Despite that misfortune, Finch marks the weekend as a positive learning experience for the students, who banded together to get the car back on track.
How will their 2017 race season end? The IUPUI team of students will be at the Runoffs this September, and they’ll pull out all the stops. Will it be enough to run at the front of the pack and perhaps flirt with a podium finish? Finch hopes so, not only for the competitive racer inside of him, but also for the students and the Motorsports Engineering program.
“In any competitive industry, [employers] are going to go for the best people – they’re very driven to succeed,” he says. “Professional motorsports is a sport, like football, baseball, hockey, or anything else, and they want success.”