Last year, instead of simply discarding their obsolete standard-model racecars, Richard and Kyle Petty decided to donate the cars to universities with programs that produce racing engineers. It's telling that their first donation was to the Virginia Tech Foundation for its Virginia Institute of Performance Engineering and Research (VIPER) program.
According to Petty Enterprises General Manager Robbie Loomis, racing needs "an area where we can groom and shape engineers to really fit the racing model. There always seems to be a disconnect between the book engineer and the actual applications engineer at the racetrack. So hopefully we can bring that together for the future."
Mending this disconnect is what the mechanical engineering program at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) is all about. The VIPER program is co-located at Virginia International Raceway in Halifax County and at Danville's IALR, a joint effort between the university and Southside Virginia to focus on creating an innovation economy.
Julie Brown, director of academic programs and outreach at IALR explains, "The institute, through its academic and industry partnerships, is providing a solid educational experience to prepare tomorrow's engineering workforce. At the same time, connecting these academic experiences to real-world applications hopefully will lead to economic-development opportunities for the region."
The performance-engineering program at IALR has been exceptionally successful at recruiting top graduate students from across the country to pursue their degrees in Southside Virginia. Research assistant Shawn Schneider says, "I had several options to choose from when applying for my graduate degreee in mechanical engineering. However, Virginia Tech's high accreditation; Danville's relaxing, small-town environment; and the institute's vast resources made my decision very easy."
Currently, 13 of the 16 resident graduate students enrolled in the Virginia Tech mechanical engineering degree curricula in Danville work as research assistants in several different performance-engineering and robotics labs. Five students are affiliated with the Performance Engineering Research Lab (PERL), run by Associate Professor and VIPER Director Steve Southward, and another five work in the Vehicle Terrain Profiling Lab (VTPL) with Associate Professor John Ferris. Two students are affiliated with the newly established Computational Multiphysics Systems (CMS) lab led by Furukawa Tominari, who was hired by the university to work at IALR and is one of the few researchers in the world whose work integrates computational physics and robotics. Another student works with Saied Taheri, director of the Intelligent Transportation Laboratory, which is part of Virginia Tech's Center for Vehicle Systems and Safety.
PERL, VTPL, and ITL researchers feed research data not only to VIPER but also to private industry and government agencies. One such project was VTPL's topology measurements of the racetrack at Bristol, Tenn., last summer. To measure the racetrack, VTPL students employed a system developed in their lab that provides high-fidelity, three-dimensional terrain topology measurements of on- and off-road terrain. With this data, the students created a surface mapping of the track, which can be used as an excitation in vehicle simulations. Knowing the track surface will give teams racing at Bristol Motor Speedway a better understanding of how to tune suspension of their race cars to minimize lap times on race day.
All vehicle-performance mechanical engineering students are enthusiastic about their experiences at IALR, citing the high level of student-faculty interaction and the opportunity to be involved in the revitalization of the region as important factors in their decision to move to Danville instead of studying in Blacksburg. However, the primary reason that all the perspective motor sports and vehicle-performance engineers give for being drawn to the IALR is, hands down, its facilities and equipment. Here, students work every day in labs outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment like the Vehicle Terrain Measurement System; a driving simulator; and an Eight Post Shaker Test Rig, one of the few commercially available in North America.
"The performance engineering program at IALR has been very successful in recruiting top graduate students from around the country to pursue their graduate degree in Southside Virginia," says Southward. "Students are attracted to the world-class facilities at VIPER Service, IALR, and the Virginia International Raceway because of the fantastic opportunities they have to develop cutting-edge technologies as well as obtain hands-on experience that is highly valuable to the motor-sports industry."
The program's value is reflected in the decision made by Chris Boggs (mechanical engineering '02; M.S. '04; Ph.D. '09), the first doctoral graduate from the IALR-based program, to return to VIPER to work on the Eight Post Shaker Test Rig. John Kennedy, senior director of research and innovation at IALR, considers Boggs' choice a sign that "the IALR core mission is working. We are attracting talented students to the region and keeping them here so that we don't continue experiencing ‘brain drain.' It is exciting to see the shift to a technology-based economy coming to fruition."
Indeed, the presence of the program in Southside is being felt elsewhere in the economy. Brown says, "The City of Danville recognizes the impact of having Virginia Tech graduate students residing in the community and believes that this initiative is one piece of the puzzle as the region looks to attract young professionals to the area. One example of this partnership is the development of student housing in the historic downtown area," she adds. "Economic development officials are keenly interested in having the graduate students living in the downtown area and demanding amenities that would be attractive to other young professionals."
The availability of such educational opportunities as the graduate engineering program at the IALR will help Southside Virginia to keep its best and brightest students in the area. These prospects, when infused with an entrepreneurial climate, can create a solid innovation environment that will transform the region--and provide a model for similar regions to reinvent their economies.