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IUPUI Students Race To Learn, Win at SCCA Nationals at IMS

There are nearly 1,000 cars competing Sept. 25-Oct. 1 during the SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most prestigious amateur racing event in the United States.

But one of those cars is playing a role perhaps unlike any other. The No. 83 Mazda Miata driven by Bob Perona in the F Production class is both a rolling classroom and laboratory for students in the motorsports engineering program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

The group of approximately nine students have prepared and serviced the car for a full season of SCCA racing, working on the car at school in Indianapolis and at races around the United States. Working on the race team is the final, real-world test for students after they learn racing engineering theory in IUPUI classrooms.

“It’s a pleasure to be out there, among the competition,” Perona said. “The kids, they have put a lot of work into this. It’s basically a full-time job for them plus school. It’s a lot of late nights, a lot of work.

“It would be great to have a strong run. We’re not going there to lose. We think we have a car to run up front. To run up front, to show what the kids are capable of and bring it home, that’s the goal of this first season.”

Chris Finch is a lecturer in the motorsports engineering program at IUPUI who manages the school’s SCCA program. He and Perona worked together at Verizon IndyCar Series and Indy Lights team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports from 2012-14. Longtime IndyCar crew member Finch was an engineer for SPM from 2009 until joining the IUPUI motorsports engineering program in 2014, helping Tristan Vautier win the Indy Lights championship in 2012. Perona has served as a driving coach for SPM since 2012.

As Finch talked about the IUPUI program with Perona, both realized students would be more attractive as prospective employees for professional racing teams if they supplemented their classroom learning with real-life experience.

Finch devised a program to buy a used SCCA car to provide students with real-world, hands-on motorsports experience. IUPUI officials and Finch’s fellow faculty members in the motorsports engineering program enthusiastically agreed.

So a 1991 Mazda Miata appeared in the team’s shop last year, and the students got to work immediately. The car needed upgrades to compete in the F Production class, which uses stock engine blocks and chassis but allows numerous modifications to the rest of the engine, the suspension and the body.

“There’s a lot of engineering that goes into it,” Perona said. “It looks like a Miata, but that’s about as close as it is. The students have built the car.

“When we got it, it was clear that we needed to make a lot of upgrades and put some work into it. The students have done all of that. They’ve done fabrication, they’ve taken it apart, they’ve put it together. They’ve done everything under the direction of Chris Finch. They’re really doing all the work. It’s been impressive. They’ve done a very good job.”

The original idea was to have an engineering student drive the car, too. But Finch and Perona agreed students would receive more preparation for a full-time job in racing if they stuck to engineering and preparing the Miata.

After long hours of blood, sweat and gears, the team was ready and prepared to tackle a complete SCCA schedule this year, with Perona again behind the wheel.

The IUPUI car and student crew have competed at tracks ranging from Virginia International Raceway (VIR) to NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans. The high point came in April at VIR, where the team earned two victories.

Balancing a full load of course work while working nights and weekends on the race car has given students a glimpse at the commitment required to succeed in professional motorsports. Finch and Perona also hold the students to the same standards to which they adhere as a longtime racing engineer and driving coach, respectively, at the highest level of the sport in North America.

“We try to keep the expectation of performance and everybody doing their job high so they know that’s what it’s all about,” Perona said. “If there was a lot of standing around early in the program, there isn’t anymore. I think everybody gets it. They come, they know they’re there to get the job done. There’s growth.

“You want to be able to have these kids graduate and go to the teams and say: ‘Hey, I’ve been to the racetrack. I’ve done this. I get it. I understand waking up at 5 in the morning after working until 11 at night. I understand the travel side of it, what to look at when at the racetrack.’”

The same hard work has continued this week at IMS as the team prepares for its race at 2:35 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29 at IMS. But there are unique benefits to competing at the Racing Capital of the World.

One, the students can sleep in a familiar bed and make an easy commute to IMS, which is about 4 miles from the IUPUI campus. IUPUI faculty and officials, who have provided enthusiastic support for the program, can come to a “home race” to see the team’s efforts and students’ growth in action.

"It's a really great opportunity for us," IUPUI motorsports engineering graduate student Andrew Jefferson said. "As far as amateur racing, this is the biggest event."

Said Perona: “It’s fun to run at Indy. It’s great that it’s in our backyard because kids can commit the time, and people at the school can come and see what we’re doing and what it’s all about. It helps us connect a lot of the dots.

“It’s kind of a dream program, the way it’s supposed to come together. We’ve had some success this year; we’ve had some difficult races. But it’s really mimicked the way racing kind of should be anyways. There’s no replacement for competition. It’s really good.”

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