ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Matt Carson '98:
Life in the NASCAR fast lane

Photograph of Matt Carson piloting an aircraft

Matt Carson '98, as pilot

It takes more than an expert driver like Tony Stewart and a fast Chevrolet Monte Carlo to win a NASCAR race. Another type of race is run in the shop, where designers, machinists, and —yes, engineers—work against the clock and competitors to design, build, test, and install new parts.

Matthew Carson (EE ’98, ME ’01), engineer on the Joe Gibbs Racing team, often has only a few days to figure out what went wrong in last weekend’s race and redesign it or fix it for a race the upcoming weekend.

“Luckily, I don’t need to go to the tracks to test a part,” says Carson. “We can test it on our equipment. Ideally, we won’t have to build it to test it—that’s the project I’m working on when I’m not putting out fires.”

The role of the data provided by an engineer is crucial to the success of Joe Gibbs Racing. Since Carson began there five years ago, he’s partied at NYC’s Waldorf Astoria, celebrating the team’s 2002 and 2005 Nextel NASCAR championships of driver Tony Stewart. Many think the team’s advanced standing has everything to do with its advanced technology. Joe Gibbs Racing has ramped up its digital environment, especially its use of digital product development and testing.

Working virtually first and then later in the shop, engineers stripped excess metal from upper components and applied it below the centerline of axles to improve handling. Now Carson is working on evaluating new engine configurations virtually. “I’m always trying to make components lighter and stiffer,” he says.

Carson has written an analysis tool for valve train testing; he’s created programs in Visual Basic to keep track of overall testing. Carson routinely evaluates engine parts from Gibbs’ vendors. In some cases, he can test the parts to higher tolerances than the suppliers can.

“Sometimes I find a substandard part or design,” he says. “I might want to redesign and have our shop make the part. Some of our vendors sell to all the teams and, unless it’s a safety issue, we’ll just fix the problem ourselves and keep it a secret. Competitive advantage is important.”

Cost is not an issue in the racing world, Carson says. “A fuel pump cable failed on Tony Stewart’s car at Bristol. Tony could have won the race, so that cable breaking cost us about $100,000.”

Each car has a 780-hp motor that costs more than $50,000 to make—and it is designed to last one race. The team goes through at least 280 engines, each designed for 500 miles, in one season, and it makes many parts for the engines in its modern machine shop. Carson, who worked for General Motors, loves the excitement and fast pace of the racing industry. “It’s fun. It’s something different every day, not like the corporate world where you work on one part for one car and it may not come out for four years. Here we see performance on the weekend.”

Carson enjoys tearing the engine apart and doing analyses after a race. The thrill of the race is not just vicarious with him; Carson has been racing in Sports Car Club of America autocross events since his college days, most recently in a Camaro. He also holds a commercial pilot’s license and is working toward his flight instructor’s rating this year.

But Carson is spending more time at home these days. He and his wife, Desha, have a year-old son, Micah Matthew, who likes to spend time with his dad.

—By Su Clauson-Wicker