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Car Racing ODU Alumnus Lewis Says Engineering Helps Him Every Day

Growing up in a family of car dealership operators, it was always assumed that Ashton Lewis Jr. would go into the family business.

What nobody expected, especially Lewis, was that he would fall in love with car racing. After spending a summer working with a minor league racing team, Lewis told his father about his new passion.

A deal was struck. Lewis could pursue his passion racing cars, provided he went to college and got a mechanical engineering degree.

Lewis got his degree from Old Dominion University in 1996. After racing and working in engineering for racing teams for more than a decade, he ultimately ended up in the family car-selling business.

"But not a day goes by where I don't use my engineering degree from here," Lewis told faculty and students on Thursday, Oct. 15, at the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology's Alumni Speaker Series.

"The skills that you're going to learn, there's no other degree that will prepare you for moving forward with your life."

Lewis learned the real-world lessons of engineering before even entering college. He had given up on advanced mathematics in seventh grade, but found out he would need advanced-placement calculus to get into an engineering program.

"Truth be known, it was just tougher than I wanted to work," Lewis told the audience.

"During the summer between junior and senior year (of high school) I actually came to ODU and took pre-calculus. When I finally took AP calculus I got a five (out of five) on the final exam. It just tells me what a difference a teacher can make - and also the advantages of applying yourself to hard work."

After high school, Lewis enrolled at Virginia Tech. But truthfully, he was really majoring in racing. Travelling every weekend to race meant that "school took a back seat."

In 1992, Lewis, who had dreamed of being a Formula One race car driver, went to England to participate in a tryout of sorts for the series. He did very well, placing 15th out of 176 entries. That's when he got the reality check.

"I got all these letters from racing teams. They all said how much it was going to cost me."

Lewis decided to refocus his goals. He transferred to Old Dominion and raced a car he built through ODU's senior design project to a number of wins at Langley Speedway.

"The attention you get from the faculty here is just phenomenal to me," Lewis said. "Once I saw how what I learned here was being used in my racing, the correlation between the two made my grades instantly change."

His racing success put him on the radar of large racing teams in the southeastern United States, including Hendrick Motorsports.

The fall after graduating from ODU, Lewis was hired by Hendrick as an engineer for Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet. But he was miserable. He wanted to race.

So, through sheer persistence, he ended up racing a car he, his father and his brother built in the NASCAR Busch Series.

With a budget fractions the size of major teams on the circuit, Lewis still managed to compete for eight years, finishing in the top five in a number of races.

Finally, in 2007, married and with a young child, Lewis decided it was time to settle down and enter the family car business.

And every day, Lewis says he uses his engineering skill set.

"If you are taking anything away from your engineering degree," Lewis told the students, "there is no other degree that you'll get that teaches you how to analyze problems and develop a solution.

"As an engineer, all you do is solve problems."

Lewis had one more piece of advice for engineering majors who may want to follow in his footsteps someday.

"Take a couple of business classes. They're useful, too."

This article was posted on: October 16, 2009

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