Tips for a Career in Motorsports Engineering - Team Integra Forums - Team Integra
Rating: 11 votes, 5.00 average.

Tips for a Career in Motorsports Engineering

Posted 12-31-2002 at 12:00 AM by Angry Joe

[yellow]Note: This document is intended for people interested in engineering careers in motorsports, not professional driving careers. This is not a complete 'how to' guide but rather some helpful advice I've learned for those seeking a career engineering racecars[/yellow]

How Involved are Engineers in Racing?

Just about every major race series employs engineers. The most celebrated (or notorious, depending on your outlook) arena of technology is Formula One. It’s been said that there are three frontiers of technology in the world today: NASA, the United States military and Formula One racing. The competition between engineers is as ferocious as it is between the drivers, as they scramble to get an edge. There’s always a buzz around Formula One as rumors fly about Ferrari’s novel gearbox design, how Williams is somehow getting another 20 horsepower out of their engine or Mclaren’s new aero package. To dismiss other racing series as trivial with regard to engineering contribution is a mistake, however. I recently had an opportunity to speak with the head race engineer of a prominent NASCAR Winston Cup team. Yes, that is the same left-turn only NASCAR we all love to make fun of. Yet NASCAR teams do make use of engineers. In fact, this particular team employed an engineer with a doctorate in aerodynamics – this for one of the most aerodynamically limited racecars in the world! He said that the restrictiveness of the series is actually more of a challenge for the engineers, as they search for creative new ways to squeeze more speed out of the cars. Smaller ‘feeder’ series like Formula Atlantic also use race engineers, though the pay they receive is most likely considerably lower.

What’s it Like Working for a Race Team?

No, you can’t drive the car. Now that that’s out of the way, what can you expect working for a team? It varies heavily depending on the team and the series. In addition to the NASCAR engineer, I spoke to someone who was a race engineer on a front running CART team out of college. Their jobs were quite different – the NASCAR engineer typically remained at the team headquarters coordinating the different development areas of the cars, while the CART engineer traveled with the team analyzing suspension telemetry. They agreed on a couple key points though:

Get ready to put in lots of time. Race teams are always under pressure, so expect to put in a lot more than the usual 9-5 job. Both engineers confessed that they had little free time to pursue their own hobbies, ironically one said he was unable to do the club racing he wanted to due to lack of time. Being on the road is particularly difficult, as you can be away from home over 300 days a year. If you plan on having a relationship, all I can say is good luck – you’re going to need it.

They were agreed on another aspect as well: don’t go into racing for the money. If you have dreams of fame and fortune, you’re likely to be very disappointed. Aside from Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey, how many famous race engineers do you know? Hell, 90% of you reading this are probably saying “Ross who?” A love of cars and racing is mandatory for a successful engineer. As for pay, it can vary. A head engineer at a successful team makes a comfortable amount, but starting out with a team, especially if they’re having a rough season is going to make you feel poor compared to your friend who got recruited at Black & Decker. If you weigh jobs by the salary and the hours you put in, racing sucks!

Get ready for a steep learning curve. People on race teams tend to have much more asked of them than the typical toaster engineer. Some people will tell you that your classes count for crap, and you won’t need 90% of what you learn in the field. Don’t expect that kind of environment in this field. While a degree does not qualify you as an expert, you will be expected to apply what you learned in school.

That said, if you’re the right kind of person it is an awesome job. You’ll get to see and work with things you won’t find anywhere else. You won’t get stuck designing emergency brake brackets or doing NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) analysis on minivan cabins. And you get to see the results of your work every race weekend of the season. How did the engineers I spoke to like their jobs? The engineer at NASCAR loves it, and he doesn’t see leaving NASCAR, a series he once scoffed at, any time soon. The CART engineer admitted his job was cool, but decided the pay he was getting wasn’t worth the hours he put in, and he would rather have racing as a hobby. He’s now working at a more conventional job and plans to build his own track car for SCCA Improved Touring racing.

Getting a job

On a whim, I called Team Rahal, a CART racing team, to tell them I was inquiring about a job. “Yeah, we get a lot of people asking about that” was the dry response from the secretary. Obviously, everybody and their mother wants to get into racing. There’s no set formula that guarantees your future in motorsports, but here are some things that help.

Get a Degree: You kind of need a degree to call yourself any sort of engineer, and that doesn’t mean a diploma from Lincoln Tech. A mechanical engineering degree has always been the degree of choice for most (including this author) but you might also consider electrical or computer engineering, as well as materials science/engineering. Aerodynamics is a big part of racing. It is actually a mechanical engineering discipline; so if your school doesn’t have an aero program and you want to pursue this field, consider becoming an ME and concentrating your electives in fluids and aerodynamics.

Join a Formula SAE team: Formula SAE is a student design competition, where teams design, fabricate and race an open wheel racecar. There are other competitions like supermileage and mini-baja, but FSAE is obviously where you want to be for motorsports. Formula SAE is a buzzword and recruiter’s ears will perk up when you mention it. Like anywhere else, race teams like people with experience; and designing and racing your own car is about the best experience you can get. Look for schools with reasonably established club teams where you can join as a freshman, even if you don’t get credit for it. In my opinion, schools that only allow the program as a senior design project produce poorer cars and the project as a whole is far less rewarding. If you’re already going to a school without a team, you might want to think about starting one. That is a formidable task and an article in itself. If you plan to be successful in FSAE, count on putting a lot of time into it. If this sounds like a hassle, think long and hard about your future because you probably aren’t cut out for a race team anyway. For more information on Formula SAE go here:

Get other experience: Your mom incessantly complains that you’re wasting your time rebuilding your engine, but she might actually be wrong. Messing with cars doesn’t give you engineering experience, but it is practical experience, something many graduating engineers lack (this is another good argument for Formula SAE). Plus it shows you have an interest, and that helps separate you from the kid who drives his mom’s Audi and thinks cars are, like, so phat. (Disclaimer: No offence is meant to anybody, but race teams are not likely to be impr by your car’s body kit, neons and spoiler) So wrench away! Tear your car apart and autocross it while you’re at it. Autocrossing has nothing to do with engineering an Indy car, but it shows interest and lets you get first hand experience in motorsports. The CART engineer lamented that he didn’t get to do any racing himself; he felt that every race engineer would be better at their job if they competed in some sort of organized road racing for a season.

Volunteer to crew for a pro team: Volunteer to help a professional team on a race weekend. A top tier CART team isn’t likely to accept your offer, but most teams one rung down on the ladder may be more receptive. Some good series to try: Formula Atlantic, Star Mazda, Barber-Dodge, Trans-Am, American LeMans, Speed World Challenge, Infiniti Pro and Craftsman Trucks. This is also a good way to meet people; and that’s key in any industry.

I recently spoke to the owner of a smaller Formula Atlantic Team. He was skeptical about people straight out of school going into race engineering, particularly with a smaller team that has less tolerance for people low on the experience curve. Here is the response he gave me:
Best advice is to take up a traditional engineering job, to earn a primary income... And then volunteer with some race teams in order that you can gain practical experience... I have been employing a junior engineer with similar skills as you for the past 6 months, and reality is that he isn't very productive because he has limited skills practical for car racing... And the only way you make yourself useful to a race team is having experience of going racing... SAE doesn't really cut it from my experience... I would say you are better off hooking up with some SCCA National class racers (visit and check out a schedule of a national weekend where you can meet some people) then volunteer to help crew... that will give you some practical experience, so that you can work towards a position with a F2000 / Fran-Am / Atlantic team... but to get to those jobs (there aren't many full time jobs!) you will be better served to also be able to provide services as a car mechanic... with a dual role, it makes it easier for small teams to both give you a salary and to pay your travel to races...

hope this helps, and good luck!
Note from this that small teams prefer people with multiple skills on their payrolls.

If it's more convenient, you can also crew for a club team. Club racers compete as a hobby, so getting paid is out of the question. Still, many SCCA club teams are very serious, and are a great way to get experience. One great way to do this is ask around at a local autocross. Many autocrossers also participate in club racing, or know people that do. If you ask around you've got a good chance of hooking up with someone for a race weekend.

Ultimately, your success in the racing business is going to depend on how dedicated you are. Are you willing to volunteer free time to a team to make some connections? Are you willing to work crazy hours for peanuts? Live on the road on a steady diet of White Castle burgers and Snickers Bars? Can you deal with your mommy not tucking you in every night? If you can handle it, you might be cut out for a race team. And for you gearheads who read the last paragraph and wonder where the downside is, it might be only a matter of time…

Popular Racing Series
I’ve tried to include all significant professional racing series here. Some of these are considered top-tier teams, while others are ‘feeder series’ which are supposed to showcase new talent. The cars in feeder series are usually identical as those competitions are supposed to highlight new driver talent. Drivers who compete in top tier teams like CART and Formula One almost always rose from a lower tier series, although a few prodigies come straight from karting.

Not all the following teams make use of full time engineers, but those that don’t are still a great place to volunteer for experience.

NOTE: This list is incomplete at this time. For the moment I’ve focused on mostly U.S. based series that are relevant to the article. I’ve done my best to get the facts straight but if you see a mistake or think I overlooked something, don’t hesitate to let me know.

Formula One

The biggest racing series in the world, period. Not much of a hit in the U.S. but elsewhere it is second only to soccer in popularity. Very much an international series with teams based throughout Europe as well as Japan. Races are also an international affair. Formula One cars are the least restricted technology-wise of any series, a fact that has always stirred controversy as the cost of competing continues to skyrocket. There are also arguments that driver aids like traction control and pit-adjustable telemetry take away from the driving competition, althoug talent is still very much a requirement. The drivers in F1 are second to none. Think your Integra revs high? These cars use 3 liter 10 cylinder engines that rev in excess of 18,000 (that’s eighteen thousand) rpm and make over 850 bhp. Each engine is a fully stressed component in a carbon fiber monocoque chassis that can only be described as a work of art. These cars weigh in only 1320 lbs. Even without a driver, an Acura NSX weighs as much as three Formula One cars plus their drivers while the F1 car puts out three times the horsepower from an engine with a smaller displacement! They are the fastest and most technologically advanced track cars in the world.

Other good F1 websites:

CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams)

If you’ve seen Driven, please don’t judge CART by that abomination of a movie, which showcases the series. In the United States, this is as close as we get to Formula One. The cars, referred to as Champ Cars, are fast, high-tech open wheel racecars. The series is unique in that cars race on road courses and ovals, and while it is considered an American series, races are held all over the world. The cars have carbon fiber monocoque chassis and are heavily dependent on aerodynamics. Their 2.65 liter turbocharged V-8 engines produce in excess of 900 bhp, the most of a track going racecar. Next year a different, less powerful engine package will be used.

IRL (Indianapolis Racing League)

These cars are outwardly similar to CART cars but are very different in design. The series is aimed at going back to the roots of American open wheel racing. The cars are very cost-controlled and they race exclusively on oval courses in the U.S. They use 3.5 liter normally aspirated V-8 engines that can rev no higher than 10,500 rpm. This is the only major series where engine rpm is limited. The cars make about 700 bhp.


The stock cars we know and love (to make fun of, in my case). We’ve all heard the jokes; Asscar drivers can’t make right hand turns, my mom’s ’89 Lumina is more technologically advanced and part of the entrance requirement is living in a trailer park and marrying your sister. That’s not really being fair, however. NASCAR is very much about grassroots, cost-controlled racing. Running on American oval tracks, the 3400 lb cars are considered by many to be rolling anachronisms. They use mild steel frames, big block V-8 engines fed by carburetors, straight rear axles and modified Detroit Lockers for differentials (spools are illegal). Say what you want, it is still a highly competitive and challenging series that is hugely popular in the United States. The dated technology does little to interfere with the spectacle of raw, snarling power that these cars provide. What it does do is bring the focus back to the drivers and makes the cost of competing much lower. In case you were wondering, the bodywork is pretty much the only similarity between the stock cars and the street cars they represent.

Toyota Atlantic

Toyota Atlantic is a major feeder series for CART. It is the last step in the CART ‘ladder’ leading up to racing in the CART Fed-Ex series. While not as brutishly fast as Champ Cars, Toyota Atlantic cars are very fast in their own right. Power is provided by a 250hp spec Toyota engine, and the cars weigh only 1265 lbs. Like CART, Toyota Atlantic competes on ovals and road courses. Races are held in North America with stops in the USA, Canada and Mexico. The club (non professional) version of this series is Formula Atlantic.

[b]Barber-Dodge Pro Series[/]

The Barber-Dodge series is considered an entry-level pro series in the CART ‘ladder’ where new drivers can build their talent. This North American series competes on road courses in the United States and Canada. Barber-Dodge cars are only slightly slower than Toyota Atlantics, weighing in at 1400 lbs and powered by a 265 hp Dodge V-6. Each year the overall champion is given a $255,000 scholarship towards competing in the Toyota Atlantic series.

Star Mazda

Another feeder series for formula cars, Star Mazda was created with the goal of addressing the deficiency of American Drivers in many motorsports competitions. The series competes exclusively in the United States. There are actually four regional series to minimize travel expenses. Star Mazda cars are similar in performance to Toyota Atlantics. The cars are spec, with carbon fiber tub chassis and a 240 hp rotary engine. They weigh only 1140 lbs. One of Star Mazda’s boasts is “Atlantic car performance at Formula Ford cost.” The club series is known as Formula .

Formula 3000, Euro Formula 3000, Formula Nippon

Each of these is a regional branch of Formula 3000, with the first being the largest series. Formula 3000 is the most famous feeder series, and a scan of the driver’s grid is a glance into the future of Formula One. The international series competes at many of the same tracks as Formula One. The cars are quite fast, weighing in at 1200 lbs and using 460 bhp spec Zytek V-8s.

Infiniti Pro

A newly created series that aims to take the place of the now defunct Indy Lights as a talent builder for future IRL drivers. Like the IRL this feeder series features open wheel racecars on oval courses.

American LeMans

The biggest endurance road racing series in the world. The series was intended to expand the racing seen in the famous 24 hours of Lemans, a yearly endurance race held in France. This series is very much American as the name implies, but all cars compete at the famous French endurance race in addition to events in Canada and Mexico. The drivers do not stay in the car 24 hours (which would make pee breaks tricky) but rather each car has three drivers who rotate through shifts. The cars, however, get no break so reliability is paramount. As a result even the fas Lemans cars do not make as much power as the ticking time bomb engines of Formula One and Cart. The most powerful engines make over 600 horsepower. A unique aspect of this series is that multiple classes run at the same time. There are four classes, two prototype (non production based) and two GT (production car based) classes. The prototype classes are LMP900 and LMP 675. These menacing cars are pure racecars with no commonality, actual or implied, with any street car. LMP 900 cars can have engines up to six liters displacement and the name is derived from the 900 kg minimum weight. LMP 675 cars are allowed up to 3.4 liter engines and a 675 kg minimum weight. The GT classes are production based and divided into the GT and GTS classes, the latter being the faster of the two. Typical GTS cars are the Dodge Viper, Saleen S7 and Chevrolet Corvette while the GT class contains cars such as the BMW M3 and Audi S4. A full European series, called European LeMans, was recently created due to the success of the American series.


“Muscle Cars versus the World” is Trans-Am’s moniker. This could be the ultimate muscle car series. Now 37 years old, it is the longest running road racing series in North America. The GT cars resemble streetcars in appearance, but run a full tube frame chassis. True to muscle car spirit, the cars must be V-8 powered in a front-engine rear-drive configuration with; you guessed it, a live rear axle. Their engines make over 650 bhp. American muscle cars make up the majority but the Jaguar XK8 also competes. The series runs on road courses in the U.S. and .

Speed World Challenge

Lots of people will tell you this is the best racing on television – and they’re probably right. These touring cars grind and bounce off each other more than the clowns in NASCAR with the added entertainment of running on road courses. There are two classes: Touring and GT. Touring cars are less exotic sedans and coupes such as the Mazda Protégé, BMW 328ci and, of course, the Acura Integra. For those of you that are out of the loop, the Real Time Integras have taken first place in Touring Class every year since 1998. The GT class has more powerful cars lik the BMW M3, Corvette and Acura NSX. Cars are significantly modified but they are based on their street counterparts. Interestingly, all must run on a specified street tire, the Toyo Proxes T1-S. In the touring class all cars must also run a spec rear wing.

Formula Ford 2000

Another feeder series run by the SCCA to showcase new driver talent while keeping the cost of competing to a minimum. These are fast open wheel race cars, but they are not as high tech as those in Toyota Atlantic or Star Mazda. They use tubular steel space frames and spec 2.0 liter Ford Ztec engines which produce 150 bhp. These features are packaged in a light weight 1,190 lb vehicle. Unlike the popular club racing Formula Fords, these cars do rely on aerodynamic downforce to maximize cornering speed. The series competes on road courses in North America.

Touring Car Championship

An American touring car series based on the very popular Eurpoean Touring Car Championship. The series features typical sedans and coupes like the Integra, BMW 3-series, Volkswagen Jetta and Subaru WRX. The cars run on mandated 17-inch Hoosier race tires, in contrast to the street rubber required for the Speed World Challenge cars. The cars are production based. Bolt-on engine modifications are allowed, and suspension modifications are free as long as the factory mounting points are used.

German Touring Car Championship (DTM)

A very popular German touring car series. The competing cars were 2-door coupes powered by 4.0-liter V-8 engines, but after 2002 4-door sedans were permitted. Currently the models in the series are the Audi TT, Opel Astra and Mercedes-Benz CLK. The cars run on mandated 18-inch Dunlop race tires.

V-8 Supercar Australia

What happens when Australia does NASCAR? Something special, that's for sure. The most notable race series from down under features brutish V-8 powered sedans on road courses. The two featured cars are the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon. If those names don't sound familiar to you, it's because neither is sold in the United States (though the Commodore may come here badged as the Pontiac GTO). The cars are production based, and their small block V-8's make 600bhp.

World Rally Championship

This exceptional rally series is second only Formula One in popularity worldwide. These rally cars take a tremendous pounding in conditions that would leave any sort of sane person at home drinking hot chocolate, and they do it at positively suicidal speeds. Regardless of their skill, WRC drivers have bigger balls than anyone - period. Among the featured cars are the Subaru Imprezza, Ford Focus, Skoda Octavia, Mitsubishi Lancer and front-running Peugeot 307. The cars are heavily modified, with all wheel drive and in the neighborhood of 400 horsepower. Rallys are hel in countries as distant as Morocco and Sweeden, but not in the United States. I guess a Jersey Pothole rally is too much for even these guys...

World Superbike

Like bikes? This is the premier motorcycle racing series, featuring your favorite crotch rockets from Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Ducatti, Kawasaki and Aprilla. There are two classes: SBK (Superbike) and Supersport. Superbikes are larger displacement models like the GSX-R 750 and Ducatti 998R, while the Supersport class has smaller 600cc machines. The series comes to road courses all over the world, including several in the United States.

Formula Renault

Despite the use of a spec French engine, this is a UK open wheel series. The cars are similar in stature and technology to the Formula Atlantic and Formula Mazda cars. Like the aformentioned vehicles, Formula Renaults use a carbon fiber monocoque chassis and a spec small-displacement engine. In this case it is a 2.0 liter Renault powerplant (duh...) that makes 185 bhp. Among the notable graduates of this feeder series is Kimi Raikkonen, who jumped straight from Formula Renault to Formula One.

Grand-American Sports Car Series

A recently created road racing series for sports cars. The cars featured in the series are similar to those in American Lemans, with both highly exotic prototypes and production based sports cars. There are two prototype classes (SRP and SRP II), which have no similarity with production cars. The GT and GTS classes are production based sports cars, while the AGT class as tube-framed sports cars similar to Trans-Am machines. The series runs both sprint and endurance races, with the highlight being the 24 Hour endurance race at Daytona.

More race series may be as I gather additional information
Posted in Careers
Views 30643 Comments 1 Edit Tags Email Blog Entry
« Prev     Main     Next »
Total Comments 1


  1. Old Comment
    welltal89's Avatar
    Please update the list of racing series, otherwise I enjoyed reading this post. Working at an automotive engineering company definitely is a large feat, but some people just enjoy cars so much that the pay really DOESN't matter, and the time flies by very quickly!
    Posted 06-22-2012 at 06:00 PM by welltal89 welltal89 is offline
For the best viewing experience please update your browser to Google Chrome