Emotionally Driven

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Phil Picard remembers the moment he caught the automotive racing bug.

It was 1975, and the 17-year-old was at Watkins Glen Motor Speedway with some friends for his first live Formula 1 race. The field for that U.S. Grand Prix included American Mario Andretti, Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, and the man who would become Picard’s idol, Austrian Niki Lauda. It was the last of 14 races in the worldwide open-wheel circuit that year, and Lauda clinched the first of his three Formula 1 championships by winning that day.

“That was my motivation to look at automotive work,” recalled Picard, a 1980 automotive technology graduate who now owns Momentum Motorsports IIC out of Montgomery, New York. “Racing is so emotionally driven. When you get someone who is bitten by the racing bug, there’s a level of passion you don’t encounter when you’re turning a wrench in a garage.”

Formula 1 was not Picard’s first encounter with racing: A varied and difficult high school career culminated in his attending an alternative high school program in his hometown of White Plains, New York, which allowed him to do his school work in the morning and then head for the track.

By the time he visited Watkins Glen, he had already established himself as a competitor in motocross, and motorcycle racing stayed with him throughout his tenure in the two-year automotive technology program at Morrisville.

Picard still calls on his Morrisville experience in his daily work as owner of Momentum, one of the premier Formula 4 teams in the country. “I am where I am because of what I learned at Morrisville,” he said. Momentum Motorsports also recently teamed up with DRT Racing, a top-level go-karting program out of New Hampshire. Go-karts are smaller open-wheel cars; Picard also hopes to move into Formula 3 and Formula 2 racing, so he may eventually be involved in all steps along the way from go-karts to the junior-driver development series (Formula 4, 3, and 2) that lead to the sport’s greatest series, Formula 1 racing.

A generation later, Tony Pisa came to Morrisville with a racing bug of his own. The Oswego, New York, native had a strong background in auto skills since his early teens and he had a specific interest in engineering. But it was his performance in the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition, hosted at Morrisville during his junior year in high school that pushed him to continue his auto studies. He and his partner won the New York state portion and went on to finish 11th out of 50 teams in the country in 2004.

Pisa earned his Bachelor of Business Administration degree in automotive management in 2010. After years of working on various racing teams at several levels at Oswego Speedway—his specialization was body fabrication, but he had a hand in many areas of crew work—he bought and planned to race a 600cc microsprint car last year. However, he later was offered a full-time ride in a friend’s small-block supermodified car at Oswego. The move to the Greg O’Connor team was his first full-time ride on any racing circuit, and it signaled his move from dirt to asphalt racing as a driver.

It caught on, to say the least: Pisa finished 13th in the series and was named Small Block Super Rookie of the Year at Oswego Speedway for 2017.

“I have been involved in racing as a fan and crew member for most of my life,” he said, “and driving is something I have been wanting to do for a long time.”

Pisa is an example of how an automotive education can also lead graduates to unexpected careers. He currently works full-time as a mechanical maintenance technician at a manufacturer in Syracuse, New York, where his work is not related to the automotive industry. He wants current students to keep in mind that “while their training in school focuses on automotive, it can be applied to many different industries, and they should not be afraid to look around for other opportunities when they are trying to decide on an internship or looking for a job after graduation.”

It’s an idea that may have some merit, said current Automotive Department co-chair and assistant professor Ray Grabowski.

“There are tons of different ways you can go in this industry,” said Grabowski, himself a 1989 program graduate who returned to teach in his college program in 2006 along with former classmate Ron Alexander, Automotive Department co-chair and associate professor.

It was one of the underlying themes Picard and Pisa shared when they returned to Morrisville during Mustang Weekend last fall, making an appeal for students to consider careers in racing. Picard even went as far as to suggest a concentration in racing be added to the program’s curriculum. “Why not?” he said. “We can start with internships and see what we can do.”

Pisa also likes the idea of a racing concentration at his alma mater. “I think it would be very interesting. If a driver has a solid mechanical background, he or she is better able to understand what the car is doing on the track.” A mechanical background also helps a driver explain to crew members what he or she wants the vehicle to do and what changes might help to improve on-track performance, he added.

Is it realistic to think Morrisville can realize Picard’s dream of a racing concentration in a department already filled with so much diversity? “I think it can be done,” Alexander said, “if we can fill those positions for students with jobs after they graduate. If we can have regional facilities (a challenge, as a lot of racing operations are located in the South) where students can get entry-level positions. The precision measurements that are so important to racing are things we already teach. The jobs are very comparable.

“The key is getting those contacts in racing that match the ones we have in other parts of the auto industry. People like Phil can help make that happen.”

Picard is determined to help his alma mater see it through. He wants to offer students internships with his operation, and he is looking for students who share his passion for racing.

“If someone really wants to do something,” he said, “they figure out how to do something.” 

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