ORLANDO, Fla. - Hidden in a quiet corner of the educational complex, and nestled between a building where they study dead animals and treat wastewater, Dr. Robert Hoekstra and his 14 graduate students continue the age-old search for speed.
Building 76 at the University of Central Florida is where slide rules are replaced with ratchet wrenches, where backpacks are replaced with toolboxes, where study time involves the deafening roar of a race engine.
The conditions are both modern and crude: Computers and grease guns, sensors and spark plugs, technology and common sense.
Each turn of the wrench is supported with a hypothesis and scientifically-proven procedures. The conclusion either takes the group a step further into the unknown or back to the drawing board.
Hundreds of miles north of here at Penske South in Mooresville, N.C., where men hardened by hands-on experience turn parts and pieces into the engines used by Rusty Wallace, there is an interest in what's happening inside Hoekstra's classroom. They know success in the classroom eventually makes its way under the hood of Wallace's Ford Taurus.
The NASCAR Winston Cup Series has turned to academia to find an edge on Sunday afternoons. It's a marriage of science and tradition in a sport that remains in a perpetual quest to go farther and faster than ever before.
"Engines are developed one horsepower at a time," Hoeskstra said. "The days of finding 10 horsepower at a time are gone. Race teams are now finding it's easier to find horsepower by science, not by guessing."
Central Florida is the only university in the country that offers a master's degree in race-engine technology. The degree is called Precision Engineering with a Specialization in High Performance Engine Optimization.
"This sport has evolved into a whole new stratosphere," said Don Miller, who along with Roger Penske and Wallace own Penske South. "The basics haven't changed, but the technology certainly has gone further than anyone ever expected. That's why we try to get help. We give them parts and pieces, and sometimes they stumble onto things that help us."
Penske South works with Central Florida and North Carolina State. Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports also have deals with North Carolina universities.
"We gave Central Florida some (restrictor plate) engines and had them work on project for us," Miller said. "As it turns out, they've helped us quite a bit with our restrictor-plate program."
Hoekstra said his group has nearly completed its work with Penske South and will start a new engine program for Jasper Motorsports and driver Robert Pressley next semester.
Miller said engines were turning 640 horsepower in 1989. Five years later, the best engine at Penske South turned 694 horsepower. Now engines are in the 750-760 horsepower range, and he fully expects to see an 800 horsepower engine before the current racing season is over.
"I have tremendous respect for how the NASCAR guys got to where they are today," Hoekstra said. "There's a lot of work involved in finding something simple. Science always drives what we're doing, and when we find something, we get a rush, have a little party and then we go back to work."
Hoekstra's classroom includes a dynamometer where ideas can be tested at full speed. Each component of a race engine is wired to provide feedback. Every aspect of the engine is examined in action - exhaust, combustion, crankshaft, gears, pistons and valves. Each area holds the potential to unlock more power. Engineers from the nearby Kennedy Space Center also work with Hoekstra's class.
The success at Central Florida helped Hoekstra land the $500,000 "Smoketron," a machine invented by legendary engine builder Smokey Yunick. The machine has a 300 horsepower electric engine that can put a race engine through its paces at 9,000 rpm without combustion. That, Hoekstra said, will allow his group to study the way the parts and pieces in the engine work in conjunction with each other without being effected by the unpredictability of combustion in each cylinder.
"Data is confused by the combustion process," Hoekstra said. "This donation by Smokey Yunick will allow us to study every aspect of a working engine while it's in use. At best, the combustion process is chaos. It's something that's hard to predict."
Yunick, who's built cars that were driven by racing icons like Mario Andretti, Buck Baker, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, Curtis Turner, Bobby Unser and A.J. Foyt, said he was approached by several universities about his "Smoketron," but he chose Central Florida because he was impressed with the school's methods and findings.
"I knew the professor running it, and I knew it was a real program, not a bunch of baloney," Yunick said. "I want this machine to be in use every day, helping new engineers understand the mysteries of the internal-combustion engine."
By the time the students leave Hoekstra's program with a master's degree, they understand every aspect of the engine. One of his graduates works with Toyota's engine program on the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit, while another graduate works for KTEC, the company that builds the race engines for the new Chevrolet Corvette for the road racing series. And another graduate is in the engine development shop at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
"This is very hands-on," Hoekstra said. "They have to have hands-on experience. I want them to be up to their elbows in oil all day long when they first get here. They have to have that experience. They have to know how to tear down and rebuild an engine. Just having an engineering background won't work. They need a practical background as well."
Colleges and universities are helping the Winston Cup Series in other ways. Penske South is setting up an aerodynamic program to study the chassis at Old Dominion University. Clemson already has that area of study in place as part of its Motorsports Engineering Program.
Hoekstra said Central Florida also is contemplating whether to get in the chassis business as well.
"This is an area that's wide open right now," he said. "The whole sport of auto racing is wide open."
Both on the track and in the classroom.
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