I was fortunate enough to be invited by Dean Case of Mazdaspeed to the Formula SAE West Competition this weekend to participate on a panel of racing industry professionals as a presentation judge. I jumped at the opportunity to participate, as I was eager to find out what innovation was on the horizon for racing from this next generation of motorsports engineers. The experience was inspiring as I was surrounded by the future of racing and a healthy new crop of young engineers that have vision, passion, creativity and optimism. I was ready for the day…what could be more exciting than the spirit of innovation, school pride and the thrill of competition?
If you have never heard of the FSAE West, it’s a student design competition that is organized by SAE International www.sae.org that has been in existence since 1979. The concept behind Formula SAE is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted a design team to develop a small Formula-style race car. The prototype race car is to be evaluated for its potential as a production item. The target marketing group for the race car is the non-professional weekend autocross racer. Over the course of the school year each student team designs, builds and tests a prototype based on a series of rules whose purpose is both to ensure onsite event operations and promote clever problem solving. And now, 60 schools--domestic and international--converge on the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, to compete for the top spot.
Our judging panel consisted of a unique cross section of racing industry experience that included the team captain, Corena Dusek, former Managing Editor of Performance Racing Industry Magazine and founding Director of Hyundai motorsports, John Morel, Director, Product & Marketing Planning from Siltanen & Partners (ad agency for American Suzuki), Karen Wong, Manger Communications & Brand Identity for Mazda North American Operations, Jim Skelly, Council Director for SEMA and former Technical director at NHRA for 16 years, Don Taylor, who has had numerous years in the racing industry, formerly with GM Racing, and NHRA. I felt privileged to have been associated with this group.
Our panel was to represent an investment group and the students were to present to us the vision of their project providing aspects of engineering, design and function of the car and specifications, how the car will be manufactured, marketed and financed. The presentations were to be 10 minutes in length with a short question-and-answer session, followed by panel feedback. We had back-to-back presentations that filled the entire day.
The presentations were interesting and varied and most teams played to their strengths, focusing a majority of the time allotted to the car design and engineering elements. Since my experience lies in marketing, advertising and promotion, I was particularly interested in how the teams approached their target market and what kind of advertising media they planned with the proposed budget. Some of the teams had skewed views on what it cost to advertise. For instance, one team suggested “an aggressive advertising campaign allocating $25,000 for the year.” I was particularly impressed with another team who had set up a social media network and blog to generate monthly traffic that resulted in an average of 27,000 views per month. This team’s goal was to generate a loyal following (which they clearly had) and focus their marketing efforts to this group, which I thought was clever. It was rewarding to see presentations that were well organized, with a compelling business plan, and then be able to provide constructive feedback to the groups that had gaps in their presentations. The feedback was welcomed and taken as constructive…after all this is a learning experience. Right?
During the lunch break I spent some time walking through the pit area to see the student’s creations in real life. As I moved through the paddock, I saw smaller schools that made the trip from long distances in rented Budget trucks to larger schools that had large trailer rigs. One team that clearly stood out was the University of Washington, which had around 40 members all standing around the car in their purple uniformed shirts. It was quite impressive to see their level of commitment to the program. I had to give a quick look to my alma mater CSUF Fullerton, and see what kind of car they created. I was greeted with a warm reception and Titan pride. I admit to being biased, and immediately found their car to be my favorite.
With each car I observed, I could count on someone from the team walking up to me and asking me if I had any questions about the car. I could sense their anticipation for me to make some observation or comment about their work. I wandered up to the University of South Florida team, and the captain noticed the PRI logo on my shirt and said they attended the show last year and absolutely loved it. He called the PRI Show the “ultimate candy store” and said that he made great contacts there and formed working relationships with some of the exhibitors, one of which being Brown and Miller Racing Solutions. I would encourage any of my PRI customers to get involved with some of these student programs, as you can get tremendous branding and positive PR mileage for your company. These kids have unbelievable passion, and if you give them a bit of encouragement and support, most will talk about you and your company with high regard when they enter the industry after graduation. You could gain a customer for life.
After leaving the pit area, I went over to the garage area where the technical judging was taking place. Several student team members were locked up one-on-one with technical judges explaining the features of their car. The judges were comprised of some of the racing industry’s finest, and included people such as; Scooter Brothers from Comp Cams, Claude Rouelle from OptimumG, Jason Wahl and Mike O’Neil from Tilton, Jack Burns and Vince Roman from Burns Stainless…and so many more. It was great to see so many people of note in racing giving back to the industry…and you can bet that some of them were on hand to scout new talent for hire, which wasn’t surprising considering the talent on display here.
Although I was a first year rookie this year with the FSAE West, it was an honor to be invited as a judge, and I felt that I was able to contribute some business insight about racing and help enrich the students’ experience. I would like to thank Dean Case of Mazdaspeed, who is the FSAE West event presentation captain. I think you would be hard pressed to find a harder working PR man in motorsports than Dean Case…he’s everywhere! I would also like to thank Corena Dusek and my co-panelists for an enjoyable day. It was quit an impressive team, with many industry contributions in their various careers. Next year, the FSAE West will be moving to Lincoln Nebraska, but there is talk about FSAE Baja coming to California in the next year or so. I plan to help out however I can, and would encourage others in the racing industry to participate. It’s a great chance to give back to the next generation of motorsports engineers, and it’s a rewarding experience, personally, as well.