Building a Race Car: Gracie Hackenberg ’18 and Teammates Prep for Motorsports Challenge

Original members of Smith's first race car-building team are (from left) Jessica Wert '18, Amelia Wagner '18J, team founder Gracie Hackenberg '18, Molly Kaufman '18, Alysha de Silva '18 and Annick Dewald '18. Photo by team member Isabella Casini '17.

Gracie Hackenberg ’18 grew up around auto mechanics, helping her grandfather—a NASA engineer—work on vintage cars in his garage.

Now, Hackenberg has brought that passion to Smith, where she and a team of students are prepping a race car for the 2017 Grassroots Motorsports Challenge, an industry-sponsored competition to be held in October in her childhood hometown of Gainesville, Fla.

Hackenberg and her team are retrofitting a 1999 Mazda Miata that she and a professional driver, Alan McCrispin, will drive together in Florida. (Under rules of the race, $2,017 is the maximum that can be spent on the car.)

“Right now we’re working on building the roll cage,” says Hackenberg, an engineering major and a member of the crew team at Smith. “The cage is made of steel tubes that protect you if you roll or hit something during the race.”

For Hackenberg, the motorsports challenge “pulls together everything I’ve done so far at Smith. The engineering program here has allowed me to tailor my coursework to what I really want to do.”

Gracie Hackenberg ’18 works on a race car she will drive in the Grassroots Motorsports Challenge in October in Gainesville, Fla.

The initial spark for her project was lit last fall, when Smith’s Picker Engineering Program invited Dean Case, communications officer for Mazda North American Operations, to meet with students on campus.

“Gracie asked a lot of good questions,” recalls Case, who is married to Joni Gang ’84. “She expressed a strong interest in racing, and she took the initiative to set up a student visit to Watkins Glen” raceway in New York to see the National Auto Sport Association’s Eastern States Championship.

The excitement generated by the event inspired Hackenberg to enter the motorsports challenge, which Case says is a recruiting ground for the automotive industry.

“The cars are like a rolling resume,” he says. “Employers know they have been built by people who can produce a product on time, on budget and in a team situation.”

Case and Gang have continued to provide mentoring support for Hackenberg and her team. The project also got a boost from Hackenberg’s PRAXIS summer internship sponsor—Connecticut-based Hale Motorsports—which sold the team a Miata chassis for $600 and has offered temporary workspace until the car can be moved to an on-campus loading dock where retrofitting will continue.

Sue Froehlich, a laboratory instructor in Smith’s engineering program, says Hackenberg’s project is “the first foray by a Picker student into an engineering build-and-compete event.”

“Gracie is entering an open competition where the majority of entrants are not college student teams, but rather racing enthusiasts of diverse expertise,” Froehlich notes.

Andrew Guswa, director of the engineering program, says the project “very much fits with our program’s philosophy to support student-initiated work. And Gracie’s enthusiasm for automotive engineering has been infectious.”

Alysha de Silva ’18— who joined the team after the trip to the New York raceway last fall—can attest to that.

“Motorsports is not my ideal field of engineering,” de Silva says. “But how could I turn down the opportunity Gracie presented to actually build a race car?!”

The Mazda Miata that Gracie Hackenberg ’18 and her Smith team are retrofitting for a race in October.

As for what draws Hackenberg to motorsports, “Racing is just such an awesome community,” she says. “I grew up with cars and going to racetracks—and reading Grassroots Motorsports magazine.”

Although she felt welcome at the track in her Florida hometown, Hackenberg was conscious of being one of the few women working there. “People would mistake me for someone’s wife or child, not an engineer,” she says.

Her goal is to be “an exceptional engineer and to spend my life making the sport faster and safer.”

“I hope at some point there will be enough women that I am no longer seen as a female race engineer, but simply as a race engineer,” Hackenberg adds.

In October, her grandfather, Tony Cook, will be among those watching her race in the motorsports challenge.

In the meantime, the team is in search of a name, as well as new members to succeed those who have graduated or moved on to other projects.

“Gracie has been doing a superb job with the welding and fine-tuning so we can bring the car to Smith as soon as possible,” de Silva adds. “That’s where the real fun will start, where we can fine-tune the engine and make practice laps.”

For Hackenberg, the race car challenge is a labor of love.

“I’ll be at the loading dock every day until the car is ready,” she says. “To me, this doesn’t feel like work!”