3 Suggestions: How to Break Into Motorsports

Ask Samir | How to break into motorsports.

I have read your articles on the site about how to become a race engineer and I found it very insightful and helpful. However, if you were in my shoes and had a mechanical engineering degree but practically no motorsports experience, what is one thing you would do to break into the motorsports world and quickly advance your career?

Nathan

Hey Nathan

Thanks for the email and pictures. Sounds like you’re at a fascinating point in your career and I’m glad you’re finding the content useful. 

To answer your question on how to break into motorsports career stuff, I’ve three suggestions for you.

1 – Take a listen (and make notes!) to Dave Devine’s podcast, as well as James Williams and episode 50 with Willem Toet. Also the other engineers like Damian Harty (who’s book you should get – on Amazon), Danny Nowlan, Jeff Braun and Richard Firth

2 – Get yourself out to your local track. I’d suggest going on a race weekend but also researching your local HPDE/Track day club and getting out to see them. That will give you a feel for motorsports in practice. Go with an open mind and expect some conversations with some jaded people (!) but try, if you can, to think bigger picture and wonder if this is the kind of environment you feel at home in or not.

3 – Imho the two biggest things to learn in terms of their impact on performance, are how to optimise the driver (hint: with data) and the tyres. Sadly, for an engineer, these might, on the surface, feel like the most boring parts of the whole adventure because it’s really nothing to do with cars. In effect I’m suggesting you treat the car like a black box and then work on the human and the dull looking black round things.

I personally resisted this advice when I was told it and spent many years being happily distracted by the shiny stuff of suspension, data systems, aero etc.

Of course all of that is important too but my late discovery, was that unless you / your driver can produce half a dozen laps in a row, close to the limit of the car, consistently, say, within a 1% lap time variance, AND, that you have a good control over your tyre performance (pressures and temperatures in good working windows), then nearly anything else you try and do is going to get exceedingly confusing.

The main reason for the confusion is because your car, any car, is really complex. There are several interrelated and interdependent things going on (such as the role of dampers/shocks say in roll versus bumps over bumps) that are also all extremely sensitive to environmental conditions (such as the weather or track surface.)

You’ll quickly discover what is a good approach in one set of conditions can often require exactly the opposite in another set of conditions, so what do you do?

Of course, if it was easy then anyone could do it (and it would be no fun!)

Therefore the bonus suggestion is:

4 – Work as much on your ability to design good experiments that you can do in practice (here are some testing templates), as you do on learning the book knowledge.

I have a personal theory that the most successful race engineers and race drivers are not only the ones with the book smarts and experience but really they are the ones that can learn faster than their competitors. 

If you think about it it makes sense because once you’re at pro level, everyone can drive and everyone knows the theory’s, so what is it that sets you apart? 

Purely from a performance perspective, the only thing that is going to set you apart is your speed of decision-making and the quality of your choices – both in terms of setup and driving – over the course of a race weekend. 

And what is going to help you make better decisions? 

Well in my experience having a better understanding of what good looks like than anyone else.

To achieve that I’ve only ever been able to determine things more precisely (i.e. 23.3 psi front left, 22.9 psr front right), rather than vaguely (i.e. “a bit more pressure on the fronts should help”) via running controlled experiments.

In other words, accepting things are complex, that we’re chasing a moving target and then, rather than obsessing over finding a silver bullet to use everywhere, instead doing my best to learn cause and effect, with an open mind, to work out what should be the best here and now – even if that is quite different to anything we’ve done before.

And guess what, if that “doesn’t work” then its ok – we can’t fail because we’ve learnt something.

See where I’m going with this?

This way, for me, combines the best of both worlds (objectivity and subjectivity) to always give yourselves the best chance of success against a moving target.

Anyhow, I hope that helps you a little as you thinking about how to break into motorsports. Not quite the write 1001x letters to every team owner / crew chief in your local area, but more of a “try before you buy” method to see if this is really for you.

Wishing you the best of luck and let me know if you put any of these ideas into practice.

Samir

Read more: https://www.yourdatadriven.com/become-a-race-engineer/

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