Engineering in the fast lane

Jul 29, 2005

Kettering grad Michael Wheeler '02 found his dream job as a race engineer for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR circuit.

Just three years after graduating from Kettering Michael Wheeler '02 is in the fast lane, literally. Wheeler is a race engineer for Joe Gibbs Racing based in Huntersville, N.C

Like the car he engineers for Joe Gibbs Racing, the #11 FedEx Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by Jason Leffler, Wheeler's life is fast paced, full of long hours and isn't without a few bumps in the road.

"I travel with the race team on weekends doing testing and working with the crew chief," said Wheeler, "and spend weekdays working with the shop engineers to fix problems that come up during races." That adds up to seven days a week and more than eight hours a day during the NASCAR racing season which runs from February to the end of November.

He took a few minutes out of a busy week July 28 to visit campus and tell current student about his fast track career path. He also spent some time with his old fraternity brothers before racing back to Huntersville.

Joe Gibbs Racing is part of the NASCAR circuit, with three teams in the Nextel Cup Series and two teams in the Busch Series. Wheeler is the race engineer for car #11, currently ranked 36th in the Nextel Series. The other two Nextel Series cars are #20, driven by Tony Stewart, currently ranked in second place and #18, driven by Bobby Labonte, currently ranked 23rd. Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the most successful teams in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, having produced championships for Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002.

Wheeler doesn't mind the hours, or the pressure, because he has his dream job. "You can't just read a book and find the answers to your questions and make your car go faster," he said, "you have to come up with ideas on your own."

Sometimes finding your own answers means riding along with the drivers at 180 miles an hour. "I don't drive the race car," he said, "but after I talk to them about a potential problem I'll take a ride and feel what they feel." For the most part however, Wheeler stays track-side and watches the car's performance from a distance. "You can watch a car on the track and see what it's doing if you know what you are looking for," he said.

Taking a production car and "tweaking" the engine, drive train, chassis and more, entails a lot of creative engineering and energy. Wheeler said Kettering prepared him for a career in racing in ways a traditional college experience couldn't.

"In racing it's like we get tested every weekend to see if what we did all week worked out well," said Wheeler. "Kettering was like that," he said, "you couldn't afford to get behind because then you would have to play catch-up all semester. The fast pace and all the work you had to put in, and the level of academic intensity involved, makes everything afterward seem easier. It was great training for the racing business."

A Mechanical Engineering graduate, Wheeler was never far from racing, spending all his free time during work terms in his hometown of Long Island, N.Y., volunteering for a local racing team as their race engineer. He joined Joe Gibbs Racing his senior year at Kettering. During school terms, he was active in Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, serving as president his senior year.

What he didn't expect from a career in racing on a flat track were the ups and downs. "I didn't expect the emotional ups and downs between victory and defeat to be as big as they are," he said. "When you're winning races it makes you feel really good. When you're not, you are playing 'catch-up' trying to improve performance."

That's when things really speed up. The most challenging part of his job, he said, is time. "Sometimes I wish there was just one more day in the week so we could get more done." His busy schedule is just one indication of the popularity of NASCAR racing. "NASCAR has really exploded in the past 10 years," said Wheeler, "about the time they started building tracks all over the country in the '90s."

Previously, most NASCAR race tracks were in the southeast United States. Now there are more than 30 tracks across the country including some in northern and western states like California, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Texas and Nevada. Click on this link for more information about NASCAR.

One extra day per week may never become a reality, but engineering a winning team is definitely a possibility for Wheeler. For right now "race cars are my girlfriends," said Wheeler, and that's the way his boss likes it. "He tells me I don't have time for girls right now and to get back to work," joked Wheeler.

Written by Dawn Hibbard