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Fantasy Camp for Engineers

You’ve no doubt heard about fantasy camps that give ordinary, everyday people the opportunity to step out of their routine 9-to-5 lives and live out their dreams for a few days in the company of those who have done it – and in some cases are still doing it – at the professional level. There are baseball fantasy camps for those who grew up dreaming of someday playing in the majors. There are rock and roll fantasy camps for frustrated musicians who always wondered what it would feel like to rock out at Madison Square Garden. But what about engineers? Just because we spend most of our time grounded in reality, figuring out how everything in the world works, doesn’t mean we don’t have fantasies like everybody else.

Unfortunately, until recently nobody paid much attention to that. Then along came Littelfuse, a company that specializes in producing some of the best circuit protection devices in the world. Their products are used in all types of electronics, from the simplest to the most complex applications including the highly sophisticated electronic control and data acquisition systems designed into IndyCar race cars. IndyCars are arguably one of the most technologically advanced types of race car in the world today. The sleek, aerodynamic single-seaters can easily exceed 225 mph and they generate so much negative lift – a.k.a. “downforce” – that at 200 mph they could theoretically run upside-down on the ceiling without falling off. Unlike NASCAR, where it’s all about the driver, in IndyCar racing it’s all about the technology.

So, this year the folks at Littelfuse came up with a cool idea called Speed2Design that is basically a fantasy camp for engineers. Here’s how it works. In conjunction with their distributor, Mouser Electronics, Littelfuse sponsors the KV Racing Technology #11 IndyCar driven by Tony Kanaan. To capitalize on their investment, they invited engineers from all over the country to visit the Speed2Design Web site and enter for a chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to one of four IndyCar races. But this is no ordinary trip. The five winners at each race get full pit and garage credentials, which gives them the opportunity to mingle with the team, watch them build and rebuild the cars, ask them questions, get a detailed tech talk from team members explaining everything from car set-up to data acquisition, stand in the pit box as they practice, and then watch the race. Unless you get hired by a team, there is no way to get any closer to the action, and I know because I’ve been a motor racing journalist for 40 years now.

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That’s one of the reasons I had mixed feelings when I first heard about the idea. As an engineer, I saw the immediate value of it. What engineer wouldn’t jump at a chance like this? But having been around the sport as long as I have, I’ve seen what can happen when the pressure is on. I’ve seen A.J. Foyt throw wrenches and tear into people when things weren’t going his way. I’ve been snapped at by Darrell Waltrip when he didn’t feel like answering questions. I’ve had my foot run over by a stock car because the crew members pushing it thought I was in their way. I’ve seen the worst some drivers and team members could dish out to people they considered “outsiders,” and it wasn’t pretty. So I admit I had some reservations about bringing 5 inquisitive engineers into a team’s garage and giving them free-run of the place. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the Indy 500, the biggest race in the world, the team could not have been more accommodating, despite the amount of pressure they were under. The five lucky winners got to spend countless hours in the garage watching the mechanics adjust and readjust every component on the car. They got to meet the driver, Tony Kanaan; the team’s chief technologist, Eric Cowdin; and Mario Illien, one of the brains behind the Chevy IndyCar engines. They got to ask the team’s engineers and mechanics as many questions as they wished, and take pictures of things most racing fans never see. Two weeks later, 5 more engineers got a similar experience at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS), and again the KV Racing Technology engineers and mechanics could not have been more accommodating.

In speaking with the winners at both Indy and TMS, one thing became clear. Most admitted that if they were younger and not so settled in their careers, they would’ve jumped at the chance to work for an IndyCar team. One young lady had no such reservations however. Freshly graduated from the Milwaukee School of Engineering with a degree in mechanical engineering, she postponed her graduation party to make the trip to Texas. For her senior design project, she’d captained her school’s Formula Hybrid International team, which designed and built a small race car to compete against other colleges in events held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. For her, winning the Speed2Design contest was a way to get her foot in the door and hopefully make contacts that might lead to a dream job in the sport she loves so much. And it might have worked. When we left Texas, the word was that the team was going to give her a try-out at the Milwaukee race. How cool would that be if she makes it?

How about you? There are still two races left in the contest. To enter, go to Speed2Design.com.