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Life in the Fast Lane

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Courtesy of Dennis Read,
Cornell Alumni Magazine

With his engineering degree in hand, Chad Walter '93 left Cornell and headed south to look for a job in stock car racing. His decision was not well received, either in North Carolina or back home."My mom wasn't happy about it," says Walter, who grew up near Buffalo. "She thought I was crazy for wanting to work on race cars after getting an Ivy League education."And as for the racing teams? "They were a bunch of good ol' boys, and they knew what they were doing," Walter says. "They knew how to make these cars go fast, and they didn't need an engineer's opinion. I couldn't have given them a good one anyway, because I didn't know a whole lot about it."

But times have changed--and engineers have become a vital part of the NASCAR scene.Walter is now crew chief for the No. 24 National Guard Chevrolet in the NASCAR Busch Series, working for one of the top teams in auto racing, Hendrick Motorsports. The team, which has seventeen cars and $22 million in sponsorship, is a long way from Walter's first job. "I pushed brooms, busted down tires, moved equipment around--whatever needed to be done," says Walter, who played Big Red football for a couple of seasons until injuries forced him out. "I was around race cars for five or six years before I started to tell people that I knew how to turn on a computer. That was the smartest way I could have done it, because I learned about what I was engineering before actually doing it."

Walter had been a race fan growing up; his appreciation for the sport deepened when he worked on Cornell's Formula SAE team, competing against other schools to design an open-wheel race car to specifications from the Society of Automotive Engineers. (The cars are judged on both design and performance; with Walter on the team, Cornell took first place in 1992 and 1993.) He got his first engineering job with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2000, working on a Daytona 500-winning team, and eventually became head engineer. In 2005, he moved to Hendrick Motorsports as an engineer for the No. 5 and No. 25 Nextel Cup teams; a year later he served as crew chief for the No. 5 Busch Series car driven by Kyle Busch, which won one race and finished seventh in the season standings.

As crew chief,Walter's role is similar to that of the head coach of a football team. He's in charge of preparing the car in the garage, working with the driver to determine the best setup, and making strategic calls during the race.Walter relies on a crew of twenty-eight as he prepares for two to three races at a time; he's typically on the road at least three days a week during the season, which runs from February through mid-November. "This business is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," says Walter, who is married and has four children. "There's no such thing as time off. The competition is so tight that you can't afford to take time off, or you're just going to suffer."

The entire article by Dennis Read can be found in the Cornell Alumni Magazine.
- A.S.