Degrees Of Difficulty For Drivers

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Sometime this month, a large envelope will come in the mail to Ryan Newman. No, inside are not more postcards for him to sign.

The content of the envelope is the culmination of many years of hard work, discipline, planning, skill and intelligence. It’s a fancy white piece of paper with “Purdue University” written in some fancy script.

It’s a college diploma. In Newman’s case, the degree is in “Interdisciplinary Engineering” with a concentration, if you will, in vehicle structure engineering.

And when he gets it, he’ll join a select group of drivers who have degrees. Brett Bodine has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of New York-Alfred. John Andretti has a B.A. in business management from Moravian College. Buckshot Jones has a similar degree from Georgia. Chad Little got a marketing degree from Washington State, and then got a law degree from Gonzaga.

There aren’t many more. Some other big-time NASCAR drivers attended college – Ward Burton, Elliott Sadler and Kurt Busch for example – but moved on to racing before getting that four-year degree.

But does it really matter? Just as a college degree doesn’t automatically guarantee success in the business world, a college degree doesn’t make you a better driver.

Sure, Alan Kulwicki took an engineering degree and turned it into the 1992 Winston Cup title, but since then no one who has graduated from college has won a championship.

By no means does that make guys like Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt a bunch of dummies. Driving talent is still the top priority of car owners, though other things have crept into the equation.

“One of the truest indications of intelligence isn’t necessarily a person’s reading ability or math ability, but how well they adapt to changes in their environment,” team owner Jack Roush said. “In the Gong Shows (tryouts) that we set up, we subject the drivers to hostile car setups to ideal car setups to things that are dramatically different than what their experience might have been previously.”

Roush has staged Gong Shows the past few years to fill seats in his NCTS program. In addition to simple speed on the track, Roush is looking for drivers who ask the right questions, who give the right information, who correctly interpret the chassis.

There’s more, of course. Long gone are the days when a driver gets to the track in a pickup truck with his buddies, works on his car all weekend, then celebrates with a few cold ones. Multimillion-dollar sponsors demand the time and energy of a driver, who has to be a spokesman as good as any Hollywood actor.

“In today’s world, the driver needs to be able to talk comfortably to the media, he needs to be able to communicate effectively with the crew and with the folks that can help him, he needs to be able to manage stress,” Roush said. “How a person can measure up in those areas winds up being more important than the level of education he may have achieved in school.”

In Newman’s case, however, college can be a big help. Like Kulwicki, Newman hopes to carry his engineering skills to his race car. Sure, Newman is a talented driver, but his understanding of exactly how a car works might give him a slight advantage.

At Purdue, freshmen engineering students take basic classes, and then pick a major. He wanted to take mechanical engineering, but racing got in the way.

“It’s pretty much expected that the more direct path as a student is to intern over the summer with companies,” Newman said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to do that because of my racing career.”

Newman was driving open-wheel cars on the weekends and in the summer, so internships weren’t possible. Instead, Newman picked interdisciplinary engineering, a sort of Super Wal-Mart for engineers. Basically, Newman could study what he wanted, settling on vehicle structure engineering.

“I did most of that on my own,” Newman said. “I based stuff on the fact that I wanted to be first in the way of my knowledge about cars in general, not just about the mechanical side.”

He took classes in heat transfer, exhaust transfer, air transfer and aerodynamics, among others. He even signed up for an agriculture class that focused on traction. “Every vehicle that we drive, no matter what it is, is a tractor,” Newman said.

Win on Sunday, learn on Monday. Racing and college left little time for anything else, but Newman – as any good engineer – didn’t mind.

“I never went to a single sporting event at Purdue,” said Newman, who tried to keep racing and his studies separate. “Never went to a single bar or party. I didn’t have time. I don’t drink, and I didn’t think it was beneficial to my racing career.

“You don’t want to know my GPA. Let’s just say I barely made the minimum GPA requirements. It was difficult for me… There were times I raced 55 times a year, and I was gone the first five weekends in a row when school started.”

Eventually, Newman moved to North Carolina to join Penske Racing. He took some classes at Catawba Valley Community College via the Internet and transferred them to Purdue. He doesn’t plan on attending any graduation ceremonies.

“Just so I have that piece of paper,” Newman said.

Coy Gibbs was close to getting a piece of paper, but when his football career was over, Gibbs decided to take a look at NASCAR and forgot all about Stanford. Gibbs, the youngest son of former Washington Redskins coach and Winston Cup car owner Joe Gibbs, was a starting linebacker for the Cardinal and wanted to play in the NFL.

But only the best of the best make the NFL, and the realization he wasn’t going to make it in pro football was a stunning blow.

“When football was over, I just left,” Gibbs said. “It was real hard. I just didn’t really want to be around it, especially the way I grew up… Dad wasn’t coaching any more, so I wasn’t around it when I went back home. I was kinda hoping he would take the (Carolina) Panthers’ coaching job because I probably would’ve coached with him.

“I’m happy he didn’t now. It’s fun to be involved in NASCAR.”

Coy’s older brother, J.D., was involved in racing, so Coy looked at NASCAR as a career. He had thought about it while at Stanford, but being a student-athlete demands all your time – and then some.

Gibbs was a history major with a religion minor, and was “very close” to graduating when his senior year of football was over. By then, NASCAR beckoned, and the idea of having a degree – even from a prestigious school like Stanford – didn’t matter to him.

“I could care less,” said Gibbs, now a full-time NCTS driver for his dad. “It’s worthless to me in this world, the racing world. It’s not like it’s an engineering degree or something like that. If you’ve got the basic knowledge, that’s what’s going to help you out the most.”

Gibbs wonders whether any kind of engineering degree helps when a driver makes Winston Cup.

“If you were an aero engineer, yeah,” Gibbs said. “I don’t know. It’s such a big picture that even if you were a driver that had an aero engineering degree, how much is that really going to help you? You’ve got to focus on so many different things.

“How many drivers have an opportunity to go to the wind tunnel when (a team) goes? It’s not realistic to head up a whole program when they’ve got other obligations for their sponsors.

“The best college for racing is racing. You’re going to learn a heck of a lot more than in college if you’re out there racing.”

There’s so much to learn about NASCAR, Gibbs said, that the only way to learn it all is to be there.

“It’s a slow learning curve,” Gibbs said. “Not many people in racing can teach anything. It almost has to be taught on the job, learning it as you see it. When you sit down and try to teach someone how to do something, you really can’t. You’ve got to watch and learn. That’s what’s so difficult about learning stuff in racing. You may have an engineering degree, but you can’t apply it. It’s worthless.”

Newman might dispute that, and so might the countless engineering professors across the country.

So might Roush, who said he was a proponent of going to school part-time after a racing career started. Roush did that, but one of his drivers, Kurt Busch, left college after a year to pursue his driving career. Busch, though, is now also a proponent of going to college.

“A little bit of college experience, whether it’s education or experience, is more vital,” Busch said. “It helps a person become more well-rounded, helps a person absorb more, to be able to fit into a situation like this.”

The college experience is much more than engineering or math or physics or any other curriculum. Busch was planning on getting a pharmaceutical degree at the University of Arizona, but he didn’t limit himself to racing and the classroom.

Busch went to “95 percent” of Arizona’s men’s basketball games in 1997 – the year the Wildcats won the NCAA championship. Busch also went to a lot of Arizona football games and played intramural softball.

“I was always doing something,” Busch said. “I should have been looking at my books more.”

Busch said he “had no idea” what he was getting into with pharmaceutical studies.

“Both of my folks suffer from rheumatoid arthritis,” Busch said. “With the pills and the medicine they’re always on, I wanted to get involved more with the medicine. A PhD in pharmaceuticals is higher than a doctor. We have control over what they prescribe. It was going to be a long journey.”

It would have taken more than six years before he would finish his schoolwork. If he had stayed on that path, sometime next year you might have seen Dr. Kurt Busch at your local pharmacy.

“The plan was to become a pharmacist, to build a foundation for a family, to still live in the Las Vegas area, possibly Arizona – where there’s a high need for pharmacists because of the retirement community – to race on the weekends, to be a late-model racer,” Busch said. “That was the plan. But it kept blossoming to meeting car owners, meeting sponsors, doing well on the race track. The racing took over.

“It’s not a turn I wish I would have made or didn’t make. It all turned out for the best. If racing doesn’t work, who knows, I might end up going back to pharmaceutical school.”

Busch got a call from a car owner to race late models in Las Vegas, and Busch won his first race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Even as his career was taking off, he wanted to continue schooling at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

But racing three weekends a month doesn’t leave enough time for school.

“You can’t play this sport and go to school at the same time,” Busch said. “You have baseball where you can do that, football, basketball, hockey. You can get an education while you’re playing that and making you grow as an athlete.

“Racing, there’s no sport comparable to it. This takes up so much of your time, and you have to start at such a young age to develop into a racer by age 20-25, that you have to do it from the get-go.”

Busch turned 23 last week, and he clearly has developed into a racer – without a degree.

Nick Woodward is 21, and he’s on his way to becoming a racer – with a degree. Woodward won the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series’ Atlantic Seaboard Region championship last year, all while attending High Point (N.C.) University. He graduated this May with a degree in business and a minor in computer information systems.

“I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t want to put my driving career on hold, either,” Woodward said. “I graduated in four years and didn’t have to knock it into five. At times, I didn’t think I would be able to do that. As a matter of fact, I probably wouldn’t have given me much of a chance to graduate in four years.

“I won a lot of late model races, and I was doing well in school, so neither of the efforts suffered at all. When I graduated, it was a big relief, and I was able to start focusing on racing.”

Woodward did a lot of driving on the weekends, but it wasn’t limited to the track. His team was based in Maryland, where Woodward grew up, so he had to commute from North Carolina to Maryland to race tracks in Virginia.

“It was extremely difficult to go to school and race,” Woodward said. “I’d leave Friday afternoon, race on Saturday and then come back Sunday. I’d have to have everything with my classes lined up before I left on Friday. That was pretty tough.”

For his senior year, Woodward joined another team where he only had to worry about driving. Plus, professors and school officials – even the president of the university – worked with Woodward, helping him schedule his time around his racing.

“They helped me get some (public relations) work for myself, and it was good PR for the school,” Woodward said. “It brought them a little publicity, so it worked out well on both ends.”

It remains to be seen how Woodward’s racing career will end, but even if he fails at driving, he wants to remain in the sport.

“I always said if I couldn’t make it driving, I wanted to be involved in racing somehow, to be involved with the sponsorship side somehow,” Woodward said. “Maybe as a team manager or something like that on the business side, so I went to business school to learn organization and teamwork.”

Those skills will be with him no matter where Woodward ends up. Just like Newman’s engineering knowledge. Or Busch’s experience at Arizona. Or Gibbs’ time at Stanford – even if he doesn’t see any use for it now.

There’s no school – certainly not one with a basketball or football team – a driver can attend that will guarantee a long career in NASCAR. And even if a driver goes to college, he can’t be assured it will help.

Winston Cup racing is unique among professional sports because so few drivers have college degrees. Even golf – which is often compared to racing because the individuals compete against everyone – has its share of college grads.

And it’s not as if racing is a simple sport. There are plenty of engineers and consultants running around the garage area. It would seem only natural that drivers have similar levels of education.

Maybe that’s changing. Maybe the drivers of the future will have college degrees in hand by the time they reach Winston Cup. But car owners aren’t looking for diplomas.

“We’re watching for something in a driver that would be outstanding,” Roush said. “Alan Kulwicki, for instance, probably used his engineering education and his sense to bolster up driving aptitude and talent that was sub-par. The combination was just awesome.”

Awesome – that’s what car owners want. If you have a college degree and are an awesome driver, great. If you don’t have a college degree and are an awesome driver, well, that’s great, too.

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