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Hooked on Motorsports: A Journey through the FSAE Talent Pipeline into Racing

Guest Post by Rebecca Vollmann, courtesy of SAE Momentum
Posted: February 15, 2024

It’s race day. White-knuckled hands grip the steering wheel. Sweat beads on the furrowed brow, just barely visible under a balaclava. The helmet’s visor gets flicked down, the reflections of the competition, raring to go, glaring back. Senses are overcome by the rich smell of race fuel filling your nostrils and a cacophony of combustion becoming music to your ears. The roar of the engine drones out anything that doesn’t matter. All that does matter hinges on a green flag and the ability to put the accelerator pedal to the floor. 

The average automotive enthusiast is well acquainted with the rush of feelings that come with race day. For any gear head, grease monkey, or petrol head, it’s almost second nature. It goes beyond being a fan of motorsports though, the thrill-seekers want to be a part of it. For a select group of young men and women, their spot in the world of motorsport was earned through a program they dedicated countless hours of time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to … Formula SAE.

For employers not familiar, you will seldom find better candidates for internships or early talent roles than those in Formula SAE or other project-based student organizations. For students, there is nothing closer to that real-world work experience than being a part of a competitive engineering team like Formula SAE. These teams are comprised of students from various backgrounds, some putting in 40-hour work weeks on top of the already demanding course load of an engineering student. These individuals, pushing the boundaries of what “full time” really means, accomplish the impressive feat of designing a race car, building it from the ground up, and racing it at an annual competition, all within the span of a couple semesters. This competition is not only a measure of the performance of the vehicle they construct, but how they applied good engineering practices in their design and manufacturing processes, project management, and business strategies. The execution of these principles is what they are scored on, and whether done impeccably or with improvement needed, there is much that team members involved get to take away from this experience.

For some, Formula SAE got them hooked on the world of motorsports. Kevin Boehm is one of those individuals. Kevin is a four-time Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) national champion, two-time Touring Car America champion, test driver for Honda R&D, co-driver for the #92 CrowdStrike AWS BMW M4 in the GT4 series, and served as a race engineer throughout all of it. Before all that however, he was a first-generation college student studying mechanical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

Kevin grew up with a father that had a passion for cars whom he loved spending time with at drag races. “My exposure to that world helped me learn through osmosis,” Kevin recalls. He always followed racing, but he never thought it was a viable career path for himself, until one day in high school when he was introduced to the engineering discipline. The next race he attended, he set out on a mission to talk to the people he saw by transporters in the paddock area. The first person he spoke to happened to be a race engineer and that’s when all the dots connected for him. “It led me down a path where I knew that that was what I wanted to do for a living.”

Kevin’s father had a knack for making a lot happen with what little they had, and Kevin adopted the same trait. “I never considered college before because it wasn’t a guarantee,” Boehm reflects. He put in the time to do well in high school and get scholarships. When researching colleges, he looked at mechanical engineering programs and soon discovered Formula SAE, which he used as criteria to filter out other schools. With the idea that being surrounded by the motorsports industry could lead to job opportunities, he committed to UNC Charlotte. “I had to work hard [to go to school], so I didn’t want to waste the opportunity.” He joined the Formula SAE team almost immediately his freshman year. The mindset of getting the most out of everything he puts his energy into certainly grew with him throughout his academic career and into his professional vocation. 

“I wasn’t focused so much on driving, but more so on engineering,” he says, but it was at that time that Kevin saved up money to do a track day in his personal vehicle that he drove daily. To his surprise, he was able to connect his engineering knowledge to his driving ability and do quite well as a driver. By this time, it was his junior year and he decided to fully commit to FSAE and doubled down on his participation in the club. He stated, “you don’t have to have any experience to get started; the barrier to entry is time commitment and sticking to it.”

He focused on designing the car, rebuilding the engine, building the chassis, notching tubes, tacking them in place, using jigs to match the intended design, manufacturing vehicle subsystems, and eventually expanded into data acquisition as the car came together. His hard work paid off and he earned the role of team lead in his senior year of college. “It was really different from the classroom,” Kevin remarks, “you can get hands-on experience from labs, but not at a big project level.” 

While getting that classroom and lab experience is necessary to completing a degree, many students feel better prepared to enter the workforce with some project management experience under their belt. The same way an engine operates in perfect harmony with the rest of a car, students must learn to do the same as a team. “FSAE is subassemblies, components, and ideas that all work together harmoniously” Kevin comments, “having all of that click is necessary to being effective in a leadership role.” 

Once graduated, he left school with the confidence and conviction to go realize his dream. It started as a test driver and engineer with Honda R&D. “Leading a technical program was really valued by my employer and why I got hired immediately out of school” Kevin recalls. On the technical side of things, he also understood the value of being well-rounded as an engineer, studying mechanical engineering but working on things that straddled between electrical and mechanical. “As a test engineer, it is important to measure what you and the car are doing to be able to repeat it iteratively and draw conclusions from that data” says Kevin. If you follow him when he’s not behind the wheel, he is analyzing driver inputs and vehicle outputs, calculating lateral G to make suspension adjustments, and trying to infer from the data how to go even faster.

 Go faster, indeed. A decorated champion in all rights of the word, Kevin credits his engineering approach to driving style for his success. That talent and dedication propelled him from the SCCA to TC America and now to Pirelli GT4 America. When he finally went professional, Kevin reacted the only way he knew how. “It was a short moment of relief, then a moment of panic knowing how much hard work lay ahead.” In 2022, that labor of love resulted in winning ten out of fourteen season races, never finishing lower than third, qualifying on pole in half of those races, and leading over 60% of laps that whole season. He dominated the year driving while also being an integral part of the race engineering team. “I was busy on a scale I never comprehended before, but I knew I couldn’t drop that ball,” he states, looking to his team with both a sense of responsibility and gratitude.

Although he is undoubtedly accomplished, Kevin refuses to get comfortable with the amount of knowledge he has acquired and where he is career-wise. “I have to fight the urge to think I know what I’m doing,” Kevin says, “there is always a new way to think about racing.” He draws on his experience in Formula SAE to balance utilizing the experience he has without dismissing new challenges or considerations. He doesn’t rush into any solution or recommendation, but instead assesses its collective value. When looking forward in his career, he intends to focus on GT racing and hopes to be successful enough to race in the GT3 category.

When he reflects on the experiences that got him to where he is now, Kevin remembers enduring the difficult classes, challenging projects, and never-ending assignments, but most importantly, his time in Formula SAE. It shaped his relentless pursuit of perfection in his engineering craft. When asked what advice he would have appreciated back in his FSAE days, he says “don’t question what you are doing - understand the importance, pay attention, and know it’s all worth it.”


This story originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of SAE Momentum.