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Spotlight: Learning in the Fast Lane

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Spotlight: Learning in the Fast Lane

Date Published:
Friday, December 10, 2010

Students in UNC Charlotte’s Motorsports Instrumentation and Vehicle Dynamics classes experienced hands-on learning when they ventured to Charlotte Motor Speedway to drive a NASCAR Sprint Cup race car this fall. On this ultimate field trip, the motorsports engineering students felt exactly what the car’s instruments were telling them.

The 2007 Sprint Cup Car of Tomorrow was donated to the William States Lee College of Engineering by the Red Bull Racing Team. Motorsports students have outfitted the car with instruments including data acquisition sensors to record multiple performance variables such as wheel motion, steering angle, throttle position, suspension travel, acceleration, bouncing and rolling.

The students ran the car at a course alongside the zMax Dragway at Charlotte Motor Speedway. They set up the car’s shocks and springs, gathered data, and then changed the setup to see how the performance data was impacted. For bragging rights, they also recorded each of their lap times.

“We want them to look at how changes in the setup affect the car,” said Peter Tkacik, an assistant professor in Motorsports Engineering. “So we’ve instrumented the car with dozens of sensors that record all kinds of data. But we also want them to know what it feels like. Driving the car lets the students personally experience what the data is telling them.”

It’s huge to have this experience. If you can’t drive a racecar, as an engineer you can’t relate to what the driver is telling you or be able to tell him what to do.
David Longman
Senior at UNC Charlotte

A junior in the instrumentation class, Lance Eckard got his first chance at driving a real Cup car. “Actually driving the car was really exciting,” he said. “It gets the adrenalin pumping. Now I know what it feels like when the instruments and data show you different things.”

David Longman, a senior taking both the vehicle dynamics and instrumentation classes, said “It’s huge to have this experience. If you can’t drive a racecar, as an engineer you can’t relate to what the driver is telling you or be able to tell him what to do.”

Data acquisition is becoming more important to race teams, Longman said, because they get very limited track practice time. “You have to be very good at data acquisition to understand how the vehicle is running,” he noted. “For us to get to drive the car helps us even more in being able to relate to what the data says. Driving a Cup car is very expensive in most cases, so this is a great opportunity.”

UNC Charlotte’s Motorsports and Automotive Engineering program was created in 1998 with the formation of a motorsports concentration within the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Science. The program offers one of the most innovative “hands‐on” educational experiences in the country. As a result, roughly 10 percent of all NASCAR engineers are UNC Charlotte graduates.

Click here for more information about UNC Charlotte's motorsports engineering program.