The term auto racing academe may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't—at least not anymore. Clemson has become the first university to offer graduate-level training in motor-sports engineering, and it hopes eventually to develop an interdisciplinary motor-sports curriculum for undergraduates that will include courses in the management, marketing and communications of the racing business. Clemson's foray into high-octane academics comes at a time when stereotypical grease monkeys are fast disappearing from auto racing. College-educated crew members are hotter commodities than talented drivers. The leading NASCAR team, Hendrick Motorsports, employs six staff engineers. Bobby Hutchins, an NC State mechanical-engineering grad and computer whiz, is manager and engineer for seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. "We're forming a second team," says Hutchins, "and this program's putting out just the kind of people we'll be looking for. I wish it had been around when I was going to school."
Although the school's educational purpose "is not to create race engineers," says program director James Kasprzak, "we are attracting a lot of people who are interested in going into the motor-sports industry." Clemson started the program 18 months ago with five students. The intent was to create a sort of boot camp for graduate students in mechanical engineering by assigning them to crucial, tight-deadline projects with racing teams, particularly in NASCAR. "It puts them in the crucible," says Kasprzak, who believes that one project in a racing environment—students work with the teams in the garage and at the track—can be worth up to three years' experience in the automotive industry at large.
The program has already produced one racing engineer, Greg Erwin of Sabco Racing. Twelve students are now in the program, which is being funded by a $300,000-a-year grant from Ford and a $2.5 million endowment from Clemson alumnus Robert Brooks, the owner of the Hooters restaurant chain. Brooks gave the money in memory of his son, Mark, a Clemson graduate and racing buff who was killed in a plane crash along with Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki in 1993.
"You've got to have more than the run-of-the-mill mechanic from Joe's Garage," says veteran NASCAR crew chief Richard Broome. "If you find someone with mechanical engineering education combined with racing experience, that's ideal."