Speed degree: Purdue University’s Motorsports Engineering Program

Doctors go to medical school; lawyers go to law school; motorsports engineers go to?

Most engineers of the past and present earned generalized degrees in mechanical engineering, aerospace or applied physics and then put that broad-based background to work in racing. It’s a scenario that by and large has worked well. But times are changing.

Today, motorsports engineering is either operating within a very restrictive ruleset where gains can only be found at the very edges of the margins. Or, in a series where the rulebook is more open in limited areas or where new technologies like electrification are taking hold.


Whether it’s the former or the latter, racing organizations are looking for specific expertise. That is where the Motorsports Engineering Program at Purdue University in Indianapolis begins to fill the void.

“I tell the students, ‘You’ve been trained through your whole education for me to ask you questions. As soon as you graduate from this program, no one’s going to ask you questions. You have to ask the questions,’” says Christopher Finch, the program’s director and veteran engineer of the IndyCar and IMSA paddocks. “When I look at it from a race engineering standpoint, I’m constantly asking the ‘what if’ question:  ‘What if it rains? What if the ambient is 90 and the track temp is 130 degrees (which is different than earlier in the month)? What if it’s cloudy with the wind gusting out of the east?”

Not your typical dorm room driving game. Simcrafts SIM Rig is vital to student’s foundational understanding of vehicle dynamics.

When a graduate of the program shows up for their first day on the job at the race shop, they’re ready to get to work.

The Motorsports Engineering Program began in 2008 as a joint project between Indiana University and Purdue University Indianapolis (commonly known as IUPUI). The program evolved over time and when the two universities separated, the motorsports side of it fell under the control of Purdue. Presently, the program typically sees around 120 students entering the freshman class, from which around 30 will typically graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Motorsports Engineering. It is the only ABET- (a nonprofit, ISO 9001 certified organization that accredits college and university programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology) accredited program in the U.S. and one of three in the world that awards degrees with a specificity in motorsport.

It’s not all fun with racecars. Students spend the first couple of years studying the theory of standard STEM classes like calculus, chemistry and physics. The second half of the program gets into the practical side of motorsports engineering.

“By their junior year, they’re really starting to get into the heart of the program,” Finch explains. “The first stepping stone for them is vehicle dynamics. That’s the grandfather of all things vehicles, all things racing. They do systems engineering, or what we call data acquisition, during the junior year. We lay a little more foundational work in control theory, or what you might call vibrations. From there, we get into motorsports design, which teaches core design principles utilizing motorsports vehicles as the foundational topic.

Practical experience in vehicle dynamics comes through taking part in events like the SCCA runoffs.

“By senior year they’re in aerodynamics, motorsport powertrain, which includes topics in internal combustion engines, hybrid systems and electric motors,” he continues.  “And then every engineering program requires a senior capstone design class. Senior capstone is the culmination of every engineering class as students are grouped in threes or fours and given a project. We’ve done all sorts of different things from upright dyno design to differential dyno design to full vehicle suspension design. The essence is getting them to understand how to draw upon the education they have just finished and apply it to a real-world problem.”

In this context, the only real-world problem they must solve is as eternal as time itself: how to go faster.

Where do they go?

Not every graduate goes into a motorsport role. Some have gone on to engineering jobs at companies like Caterpillar, Harley Davidson and Space X. But plenty more have fulfilled their destiny in the rarified air of the motorsports world.

Of the teams competing in the 107th Indianapolis 500, well more than half employed at least one Purdue University Motorsports Engineering alumnus.

Beyond IndyCar, program grads can be found throughout IMSA and NASCAR, as well as at manufacturers like GM Motorsports, Honda Performance Development (HPD) Toyota Racing Development (TRD), specialists like Pratt & Miller and at suppliers like X-Trac.

“Our students can step into a team and be ready to work, but they face stiff competition from any good mechanical engineering program in the nation,” says Finch. “But I think what a lot of team managers are recognizing that our students can come in and understand the vehicles from the start.”

Learn more about the Motorsports Engineering program at Purdue University.

Story originally appeared on Racer