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May 2004
Wheels of Change
By Susanne Deitzel

     There’s always a kid in the schoolyard with the biggest bag of marbles. And, often he can be a little careless about the less-flashy mibs in his bag.

     Almost inevitably, he will one day notice his pile is much smaller. . .his rivals have been winning his marbles and have even invested in some special shooters of their own. Now, that easygoing player begins scrambling to keep his assets in check.

     Carolinians have begun to recognize that, barring action, that scenario could exist here, the marbles representing the innumerable NASCAR teams and shops forming the base of the region’s NASCAR industry. Since the sport received national broadcast rights, the appeal of NASCAR has expanded exponentially from its traditional fan base, as has interest in the incredible dollar power of the NASCAR fan. With major races now located in western sites like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and soon, Texas, the Carolinas are no longer the geographical center of NASCAR. Necessarily, it has become ever more important that the motorsports industry base stays right where it is, in Cabarrus and Iredell counties, North Carolina.

     Enter UNC Charlotte’s Motorsports and Automotive Engineering Program. Begun in 1983 by Dean Bob Johnson, and Dr. Jerre Hill, the initiative for the program was formalized by offering a motorsports concentration in the mechanical engineering department in 1998. In the late nineties, the program had budded into a formidable force seeking to fulfill the needs of the motorsports industry in and around Charlotte. Now estimated to be an economic force of $1.5-2 billion dollars in the region, the 300+ race teams and numerous motorsports shops are finally getting the recognition they deserve from state and local government and area businesses.

     Championed by Dr. Jim Cuttino of the Research and Development arm of the Motorsports Engineering Program, a concerted and official initiative is underway
to document the significance of NASCAR’s economic impact, as well as implement additions to the program that will address the industry’s needs.


Revving The Engine

     What began as a grassroots effort to answer students’ desire to indulge their interest in NASCAR, has evolved into a highly esteemed Motorsports and Automotive Engineering program. Says Dr. Jim Cuttino, “One of the most unique things about this program, is that it was fueled from the onset by a passionate and sincere interest on both the part of students and staff. We began by literally walking through hallways and asking who was interested in becoming involved in a motorsports concentration.”

     Since that rather casual poll in the early days, the program has evolved into a multi-disciplinary endeavor involving six UNC Charlotte departments. The Motorsports and Automotive Engineering Program offers undergraduate concentrations, graduate programs, research and development, involvement in several national design competitions and partnerships with local businesses. Yet, while the curriculum might not be unusual, the character of the program is undeniably unique.

     Explains Cuttino, “We have a fantastic opportunity to give our students true hands-on training in their area of study. With two legends cars, state of the art dynamometers, machining and metrology equipment, and high-tech computational and simulation software, we can translate theory into practice and vice versa.”

     He continues, “When I was in school, our instructor demonstrated a lab, we wrote down the necessary figures, and went home to do the computations. That is not what we want in our program. If a student is working on an engine dynamo-meter, they will be doing an engine pull every two weeks, get their hands dirty, and really understand the theory inside and out by seeing its tangible representation.”

     Why the emphasis on hands-on labs? Says Cuttino, “There is no substituting for experience. Rather than memorizing a bunch of theory for an exam and doing a ‘brain dump,’ the students can learn why that theory is important. Plus, it equips them with the knowledge and confidence to walk into a shop and get a job. My idea is to have our graduates walk into Joe Gibbs Racing, and say ‘Hey, that’s the same Superflow Engine Dynamometer I worked on in school, how do you like the layout of the new software menus…’

     The interplay between the Automotive Engineering students and other involved departments also provides for a well-rounded view of the industry. For example, the school participates in the SAE Formula Car Competition in Detroit annually. To attend, the team must present a full business report to the judges, as well as a marketing plan to get the car to the track. Cuttino says this not only allows students from other schools to indulge their automotive passions while pursuing their course of study, but also exposes the engineering students to the flip side of racing.

     He jokes, “I had a student so proud of the work he had done on a Formula car that he displayed it backwards in the foyer. When I asked him why he did this he answered, ‘I wanted to put the business end out front.’ From there, of course we had a talk about corporate sponsors.”


Workings in the Pit

     The passion and commitment of Cuttino and his students is so infectious, it is easy to forget that there is a bigger picture. The motorsports program is a major cog in Chancellor Jim Woodward’s vision for UNC Charlotte.The program effectively demonstrates the school’s ability to feed talented labor into local businesses, as well as provide technical and theo- expertise to local industry.   

     Comments Chancellor Woodward, “The University has a responsibility to support local industry, and we are particularly equipped to do so if that industry is technology and science-based. By providing a connection to the source of scientific breakthroughs and emerging technological advances, the University’s influence is significant.”

     Anticipating the decline of area manufacturing, and the exit of major corporations, Woodward and his industry peers favored supporting the dynamic interplay of the small businesses in the NASCAR industry. “Having a variety of products and services working within an industry, particularly an existing one, is a more stable working model than spending countless dollars to attract a large corporation whose demise or relocation could sink a whole community.”

     Cuttino concurs, “We consider our role to be that of a technical consultant to the community, in addition to being a resource for the best-trained talent in the industry. Instead of simply sitting back and demonstrating engineering theory, we consider it our responsibility to evaluate the needs of the motorsports and, to a larger degree, the automotive industry, and shore up our resources to fulfill those needs.”

     Yet, UNC Charlotte is not alone in these pursuits. Clemson University in South Carolina recently received $140 million to develop an automotive complex, which has made local motorsports personalities jittery. Yet, both Cuttino and Woodward contend that this development could be very positive for the region.

     Explains Cuttino, “Plans for the Clemson complex are centered around automotive manufacturing and passenger vehicles, while UNC Charlotte’s emphasis is geared more to high-performance vehicles and motorsports. By providing both ends of the spectrum in such a discrete geographic area, the labor pool and technological benefits become very attractive to potential employers in the automotive industry.” He adds cheerily, “Automotive Engineering is certainly big enough to keep both universities busy.”

     To that end, UNC Charlotte is doing its part to facilitate a variety of initiatives to add to its motorsports offerings. Ranging from expensive testing equipment for area race teams, to the possibility of a local test track, the potential for growth is tremendous.

     “Consider,” says Cuttino, “these racing teams that have to travel to Detroit to test their instrumentation and design. They are traveling 35 weekends of the year, and spending an additional week doing something that UNC Charlotte could potentially provide if we had the right equipment.”

     “Then,” he adds, “consider the fact that NASCAR mandates a maximum of five two-day race tests, and five one-day race tests on any given track. Given the variety of track design and conditions, this can be prohibitive to a team. If we could somehow facilitate a local test track, that would bring an enormous advantage to the area.”

     This, says Cuttino, not only supports the industry, not only benefits the community economically, but also provides an interface between the teams and UNC Charlotte students. He remarks, “This level of communication facilitates a venue for students to reach out to their potential employers and demonstrate their talent, and also gives the teams a sounding board as to their needs and wants. Efforts like these provide an amazing synergy between the university and the community.”


Getting the Right Spin

     Of course, every pie-in-the-sky initiative comes down to funding. This is why industry stalwart Ed McClean founded the North Carolina Motorsports Association (NCMA), and why the North Carolina Motorsports Caucus (NCMC) was created. Comments Cuttino, “The area was ready and waiting for someone to provide leadership to this rather dispersed group of businesses. McClean created a movement to unify the regional motorsports industry into one voice, and since then, has generated the huge amount of awareness we are experiencing now.”

     In fact, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, under the leadership of Jeff Michael, recently received $150,000 research grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation to determine the economic impact of motorsports in the region. Remarks Cuttino, “Motorsports in North Carolina grew as a cottage industry, of its own accord. As it grew, no one has ever provided a comprehensive examination of its influence. At the conclusion of the study we will have the necessary figures in hand to demonstrate the facts, figures and needs of the industry and surrounding communities.”

     While a research grant might not be as exciting to fans as hearing the crank of one of the Legends engines, its importance should be just as cacophonous. Shoring up this important information could mean keeping several area races like Darlington and Rockingham, rather than losing them to other venues.

     While some might think, “What’s losing a couple of races?,” the reality is, there is strength in numbers. By diminishing the concentrations of races in the area, there is less incentive for fans to bring their pocketbooks to Charlotte, rather than to a competing series of races.


Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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