Two West Virginia University alumni are using their mechanical engineering degrees to race toward success.
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources graduates and West Virginia natives Pat Wildfire and Bruce Schlicker have taken off in the automotive industry, engineering fast cars in their careers.
While their paths have taken them to different places, they both started the same way: with a need for speed.
Building a Fast, Quality Car
Wildfire, from Calhoun County, has been a racing fan since he was a child. Starting with mountain bikes and moving to motorcycles and cars, he has always had a passion for pushing the limits of speed.
He took that passion with him to WVU and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, in 2007 and 2009 respectively, and has used that foundation in his internships, co-ops and career.
While a student, Wildfire interned with Toyota Motor Corp. and did a co-op with Cummins, Inc., a service engine manufacturer. He has also interned with the Renault F1 Team in the United Kingdom, working in research and development for their Formula One racing team. With this wide background, Wildfire has learned a multitude of lessons, all of which have helped him in his current work.
“The biggest advice I can give to students is to intern and co-op,” said Wildfire. “What you learn there is most important.”
Currently, Wildfire is a vehicle development engineer for SSC North America, a supercar company with the goal of creating world class vehicles.
The company is best known for their vehicle the Ultimate Aero, which was named the World’s Fastest Production Car in 2007. Wildfire’s goal at the company is to regain that title.
He oversees the design of the company’s cars from the top-down. With a focus on developing and designing total performance vehicles, he ensures all new designs and concepts are thoroughly tested in the real world, in addition to computer simulation.
“Nothing ever goes on a new car, no customer can look at anything, until it’s been road tested,” he explained.
This ensures not only a fast car, but a well-made one.
“The Ultimate Aero wasn’t just a fast car, it was also a quality car? it was comfortable, quiet and technologically advanced,” said Wildfire. “It’s not hard to make a high-performance and reliable car as long as you start from that perspective. The trick is to know what your goals are.”
Although he spends most of his time involved with the engineering processes in the car development, he has been heavily involved in designing a new exhaust system for the model as well.
“Pat’s learning is 50 percent gumption to learn and 50 percent problem solving,” said Gary Winn, professor and coordinator of the occupational safety and health doctoral program in the Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering.
Winn, who races cars and motorcycles as a hobby, met Wildfire when he was an honors freshman engineering student.
“He has a deep-seeded need for speed,” said Winn. “He loves the physical rush, combined with the problem solving and do-it-yourself aspect of making cars go fast.”
For Wildfire, this job is exactly where he wanted to be.
“Going fast has always been a passion. This sort of thing is what I like,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do this and now I am.”
Formulating a Winning Combination
Bruce Schlicker, on the other hand, was a late-comer to the racing game. While Wildfire was racing as a child, Schlicker’s passion for quick cars didn’t come until college.
While at WVU he worked on the Statler College’s Mini Baja Car team, an undergraduate competition in which students design, build, test and compete vehicles. Ken Means, advisor to the Mini Baja Car team and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, served as a mentor to Schlicker while he was at WVU.
“When he was on the Baja team, you could tell he had racing in his blood,” said Means, who believes that Schlicker has a great mix of practical and analytical skills.
After completing his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2005, Schlicker began working for Norm Weaver, an Automobile Racing Club of America truck series driver, and working towards his master’s, which he received in 2008.
Now well aware of his speedy desires, he then moved to North Carolina in hopes of finding a job on a NASCAR team.
He started at Fitz Motorsports, first as a fabricator and later an engineer. After bouncing between a few different teams, he finally landed at Richard Childress Racing, where he has now been for three years, two of which have been spent with the team behind the No. 62 car. Driven by Brendan Gaughan, the team has worked its way to the top 10 in NASCAR.
Schlicker’s contribution to the team comes in pairs: he works with the crew chief and mechanics to engineer the best car for each race. They examine factors such as past performance, the history of each track, expected weather conditions and the team’s race strategy to find a winning combination.
“I take the information from the meeting and relay that to our mechanics,” said Schlicker. “We then run simulations on the car to see what we need to alter.”
After these simulations, the crew works on the car to increase the level of grip and aerodynamics to find the right balance between drag and downforce. Each week presents new challenges and Schlicker oversees the changes that must be met to perform best on each track, always aware of how a change on one part of the vehicle might affect another part.
“The competitive side wants to make things better for the next time. It drives me to want to improve and build a winning car.”
The need for speed runs deep in both Statler graduates, despite it taking them down different roads. Each has found a way to take their experiences, knowledge and dreams and make winning combinations and quick careers on a path to success.
CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.