November 1, 2006
College put Pratt mechanical engineering alumni Ben Atkins ('02) and Andy Hogg ('03) on the fast track to an engineering career with NASCAR. They are now two of seven engineers working for MB2 Motorsports, a NASCAR team based outside of Charlotte.
Atkins, from Abington, Va., and Hogg, from York, PA, first met through Duke University Motorsports, a student group that designs and builds open wheel, single seat racecars to compete in the Formula SAE competition.
That hands-on experience gave them an early opportunity to apply engineering concepts learned in the classroom and sparked their desire to pursue careers in cars in general and racing in particular, they said. Their participation also offered them the opportunity to take on a leadership role: both ultimately served as president of the group.
"I can't say enough about the SAE team," Atkins said. "It was preparation for where I am now. It was through the Duke team that I developed critical relationships, got hands-on experience with cars, sponsorship. It was invaluable. I couldn't put a price on it."
"Without Duke Motorsports, there is no way I'd be here today," agreed Hogg, who is also a graduate of the Pratt School's Master of Engineering Management Program (MEMP).
For Atkins, cars and racing were always an attraction. Still, early in his college career, he remained uncertain about the direction his future as an engineer would take. Atkins said it was former assistant director of development Rick Owen who first opened his eyes to the potential for a career in the racing industry. As president of Duke Motorsports, Atkins had interacted with Owen in getting support for the Motorsports team from the Alumni Fund.
After graduation, Atkins did whatever he could to get the additional work experience he needed to land a job with a "cup team." He spent two years working for smaller development leagues, to pick up the necessary skills and make connections with people in the industry.
He ultimately met someone who taught him the software used by data acquisition engineers to test and optimize cars prior to each race. When a data acquisitions job opened up at MB2, that experience paid off, allowing Atkins to jump right in.
"NASCAR doesn't allow computers on race weekends," Atkins said. "We do practice tests in advance to measure the engine parameters and instrument the cars. We analyze the data and give feedback to the crew chief to help in decision making about suspension or other changes to make the car go faster."
Each race track is so different that the specifications that are best for one track have little to no application to another, he said.
In Hogg's case, his interest in the automobile industry first led him to a job at General Motors in Detroit where he worked for two years as an engineer designing chassis. When he heard there was an opening for an aerodynamics engineer at MB2, however, it was an opportunity he couldn't resist.
Hogg's job at MB2 entails tweaking the shape of the race cars' bodies, making small but significant improvements while remaining within the very strict requirements dictated by NASCAR.
"They give you a list of rules that the shape has to match," Hogg said. "My job is to optimize the gray area. It's a little here, a little there, but it adds up."
The primary aim in making a faster car is to find ways of increasing the downward force, he explained. When cars become airborne, the drag slows them.
"Our goal is to find that extra 40 pounds of down force," Hogg said. "The driver might not notice, but we know it's faster."
Because MB2 is a smaller NASCAR team, Hogg and Atkins also get the opportunity to do "a little bit of everything," they added. Atkins might help out with aerodynamic tests in the wind tunnel, for example. They also work on building new cars and keeping the dozen or so cars in MB2's shop in good working order.
"The work is a perfect mix," Hogg said. "At GM, I spent a lot of time in front of a computer.
"Here, I do spend time on the computer, but I'm also turning wrenches on race cars – getting my hands dirty. It doesn't get boring. I show up at work each day and it could be anything. I get a chance to apply my education everyday."