TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (April 18) – James Hinchcliffe eased off the clutch, spun the rear tires and took the green flag for a short-lived trial run of the University of Alabama College of Engineering’s Formula SAE race car.
The Verizon IndyCar Series driver’s quick lap helped team members unveil the race car in front of more than 300 area middle school and high school students – and college students transitioning between classes – during the Honda STEAM Connections Tour event April 18 on campus.
The Honda STEAM Connections Tour showcases the science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math (STEAM) that are the underpinnings of motorsports and the automotive industry.
Students toured the College of Engineering’s 3D printing, astrorobotics, and mechanical engineering and civil engineering labs in addition to outdoor interactive displays featuring a competition electric vehicle (EV) car from Huntsville, Alabama-based GreenpowerUSA, a Honda Performance Development mobile engineering unit, and the Honda Manufacturing of Alabama MDX that competes in the Pirelli World Challenge.
Hinchcliffe, who drives the No. 5 Honda-powered Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and his Honda Performance Development engineer, Brian Johnston, also fielded questions from students during a formal program in the Ferguson Student Center during the daylong activities.
“These students can do anything they put their minds to,” said Hinchcliffe, who has recorded five victories in the Verizon IndyCar Series heading into this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham. “I was a kid from Ontario who just wanted to drive race cars for a living. There were a lot of obstacles, a lot of challenges along the way, but I put my mind to it. I didn’t have a Plan B because that would distract from my Plan A, so I focused all my energy into it and here I am now.
“For me, that’s the message behind this all. What we’re trying to show here is that the sciences and the math have a broader reach than the students might think. They have a lot of real world applications and those are continually growing. Literally every element of STEAM is on display with my race car. As a driver, you pretty much have to have a minor in mechanical engineering to understand what your race car is doing. If you don’t understand it what it is doing, you’re never going to be successful.
“I want the students to understand first and foremost that the sciences can be fun and take away an appreciation for the STEAM subjects and how they can be applied in the real world.”
Abigail Stevenson, an eighth-grader from Tuscaloosa, affirmed Hinchcliffe’s objectives. She also was the recipient of a couple of twirls with the 2016 “Dancing with the Stars” runner-up to a round of applause from schoolmates.
“I thought the whole day was interesting and I got to see behind the scenes what engineering students are working on,” said Stevenson, clutching a signed Hinchcliffe photograph. “What James and the engineer were explaining about how involved engineering and sciences are in the race car was interesting, too.”
More than 40 engineering students have devoted a cumulative 12,000-man hours into building the carbon fiber Formula SAE car with a motorcycle engine that will enter competition in May.
“All the parts are manufactured by the students except the motor, and even that has performance enhancements,” added Hinchcliffe, who started karting at an early age and graduated to formula cars. “Remember that they are students, so they have classes, too. It really is a passion and I’m excited to see the car running. I had a blast driving it.”
The Honda STEAM Connections Tour of universities across the nation is organized and managed by STEAM Sports Group.
"We were extremely pleased to launch the third season of our Honda STEAM Connections Tour so successfully at the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa,” said T.E. McHale, manager of motorsports communications for American Honda. “James and HPD's own Brian Johnston did a wonderful job of engaging the students, several of whom surprised me with their extraordinarily perceptive questions.
"That said, I would not be at all surprised if, six or eight years from now, I bump into a member of today's student audience working at a racetrack somewhere. It was a terrific day, and I look forward to several more as our program continues through the racing season."
In addition to the hands-on campus experience, teachers from the schools were given a two-week curriculum focusing on the STEAM behind motorsports with an emphasis on chassis, data analysis, engine, fuel, nutrition and tires. The curriculum was written by renowned STEM educator Dr. Laura Bottomley of N.C. State’s The Engineering Place and provided via grant from the TechForce Foundation.
The next Honda STEAM Connections Tour is May 15-16 in conjunction with Purdue University at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.