Mechanical alum and students experience Daytona

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As published on on January 15, 2015 –

When the Mazda Motorsports Prototype race team recently tested in preparation for the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona, it invited some special guests: students from the University of Florida’s mechanical engineering department. The Mazda racing program is operated by SpeedSource, a race team based in Coral Springs, Fla. The team’s engineering director is Marcus Shen, a 2008 graduate of the UF mechanical engineering program.

The students had an inside look at the Mazda SKYACTIV-D sustainable-diesel-powered prototype racecars. The dozen students met with Shen and the team’s engineering staff, including team owner and driver Sylvain Tremblay and Jeff Braun, the competition director. They also met with Tristan Nunez, the team’s youngest driver at age 19, and Joel Miller, who is both a driver and a mechanical engineer.

The Mazda Motorsports/SpeedSource team is in the second year of a multi-year development program at the highest level of competition in the TUDOR UnitedSportsCar Championship, and will compete in the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 24-25. Mazda Motorsports has had significant success in the 24-hour endurance race at the famed Florida track, grabbing 23 class Rolex 24 victories since 1975.

“The trip was a home run,” said David Hahn, professor and department chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at UF. “It was such a unique experience for the students to learn so much in one afternoon and see the direct implementation of what they’re learning. They got to see the design and engineering tools they already work with in action. The more our students can see real-life examples of what they can strive for, it really motivates them. They clearly saw that what they are working on in the classroom has a direct impact on their career path.”

Marcus Shen has been with SpeedSource full time since he graduated in 2008. In his senior year at UF, he worked as a volunteer with the team.

“It was great for me to meet the new generation of students,” said Shen. “The university must be recruiting well, because they all asked really strong questions and you could tell they were tuned-in. Not many students get to see this, so I was happy to share my experiences at the university and my career.

“I became interested in the automotive industry when I was in high school,” added Shen. “Originally, I thought I would focus on the [auto manufacturers], but I got involved in Formula SAE at Florida, and I began to see how racing could be another career path. One of my classmates raced with his father in an old Mazda RX7, so I started helping them, and now I’m engineering on the factory Mazda prototype team.”

“It was inspiring seeing how much Marcus has accomplished in his short career in the racing industry,” said David Kanner, a third-year mechanical engineering student and president of the school’s Formula SAE program. “Knowing that he was in the same exact position as us a few years ago, it was very exciting to meet him, hear from him, and put a face to the name I have heard so often in the shop.”

“He (Shen) explained how his university training allowed him to start working confidently from day one,” said 19-year-old Tejas “TJ” Parekh. “He was able to achieve the high levels the team performs with and explained how his core skills applied directly to racing. It was interesting to hear him relate a lot of what we’re learning now and how it translates into real life. He really emphasized the importance of hard work and how passionate you have to be to make it work. You have to be motivated to put the work in and use passion to apply what you’ve learned.”

Professor Hahn recognized the power of seeing it all in person, and the lessons that apply to any career path.

“To have Marcus – one of our graduates – speak to them was very motivational,” said Hahn. “Sylvain (Tremblay) and Jeff (Braun) provided the same message: a formal education and hard work is essential to success. It was powerful for them to see Marcus and say to themselves ‘it can be done. I can get there.’”

Shen’s one-on-one time with the students was limited due to a crash of one of the racecars. As the students arrived at the speedway, the car was brought to the garage in many pieces. The driver was uninjured, and the students had a front row seat to watch the team dismantle the car to assess the damage, then quickly make repairs. The car returned to the race track less than two hours after the crash.

“I was impressed that everyone was involved in repairing it and getting it back on the track,” said Parekh, a first-year member of the UF SAE team. “The crew members were all very talented, but no one was on their own – they all worked together. I had never seen a race team before and I was very very impressed with the people and the car. It really made me want to improve my performance and the performance of our SAE team.

“I’m involved with the control systems, which includes everything the driver interacts with,” said Parehk, about his role with the UF team. “I’m designing new pedals and a new steering wheel. When I mentioned to Joel Miller that I was designing a steering wheel, he immediately grabbed the steering wheel out of the race car. It was similar to what I had designed, and he offered a lot of good advice as a driver and engineer. I have studied the wheels quite a lot online, but I had never seen one in person, so it really helped.”

“In engineering, things are going to fail,” Hahn said. “You’re going to have setbacks, like the accident. But that’s why we test: to push the limits and keep testing. The lessons aren’t specific to racing: they apply to a student who is interested in aerospace and the SpaceX program. They need to be technically strong but also very passionate about what they do. Engineering is a high-stress, performance-based effort no matter what industry.”

“The time the SpeedSource team spent with our team showed that passion, hard work and discipline can pay dividends,” said Kanner. “The experience helped remind us that ‘if you do what you love, you will never have to work a day in your life,’ since it was clear that everyone on the team loved engineering!”

The invitation to the University of Florida students is an example of Mazda’s commitment to education in the United States. In 2014, Mazda Motorsports created and funded a special STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program that reached more than 12,000 high school students across the country. The school events include one of the Mazda prototype race cars, and fun science and technology lessons based upon racing. Driver and mechanical engineer Joel Miller provides many of the lessons dressed in his racing uniform. The program, titled “Racing Accelerates Creative Education” – or RACE – will continue in 2015.

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