Inside Story: Living The Racing Dream

  • james-hetaraka-dempsey-motor-racing-001
  • james-hetaraka-dempsey-motor-racing-010
  • james-hetaraka-dempsey-motor-racing-021

“I’ve always been interested in motorsport racing, but I’ve never been in the pits before. So seeing how they diagnose the way the car went on the track, how they use all the highly-advanced technology to get the full potential out of the car was a real buzz. It was the highlight of the year.” 

“When I got there I thought, I’m falling in love,” says Unitec automotive student, James Hetaraka, after spending the weekend working with the racing team pit crew for the Porsche raced by Dempsey Wood. 

James, 29, is a former carpet layer who decided to retrain as an auto mechanic after a back injury, and completed his first semester at Unitec in 2016. “I decided to chase the dream. I’ve always been interested in cars -- I just love pulling stuff apart and seeing how it works.”

The experience in the pits was part of a sponsorship deal Unitec has with Dempsey Wood Motor Racing, in which two top students are given the opportunity to get a first-hand experience of being part of an experienced racing team pit crew.

At the time of writing, James and fellow student, Chris McKay, had met the Dempsey Wood crew at the first racing weekend of the season in Taupo. If all goes to plan, they’ll be joining the team on racing weekends throughout the season. 

The pit crew are responsible for refueling, replacing tyres, making any necessary repairs and changes. It’s also their job to assess the data that is collected by sensing technology in the vehicle each time it’s raced, and identify how its performance could be improved upon. 

This might include data on how much pressure the driver put on the brake on certain corners, the pressure from the turbo charge, the temperature of each cylinder, the temperature of the tyres, how much force is going across the car and so on. 

That then informs a series of decisions about how the car will be run and what can be manipulated to make it race faster, or what changes to the driver’s race strategy could be made. 

Gerald Ryan, lecturer in Vehicle Systems and Materials at Unitec says that the automotive industry is increasingly requiring those working within it to have a fundamental understanding of computer technologies. “The trade is changing. If I bought a modern Mercedes Benz it will have 57 body computers on it. So if I want to do anything with the motor, I’ve got to talk to a computer.”

Working in the pit is exposing James and Chris to some of the most sophisticated technologies available, where they’ll get experience analysing data and making quick decisions in response. “It’s an exciting environment, but you’re under pressure, because next door is another group of people trying to do the same, for the same reasons, in the same conditions -- chasing the best set up to win on the day,” says Gerald. 

It’s an experience that reinforces what students are learning at Unitec, but also one that nurtures passion and self-discipline, he says. “We can teach them the high end technical stuff, but we can’t give them passion and self-discipline. What could be more fun than working on a race car, which is a Porsche with 800 horsepower and turbo chargers.” 

James is currently completing his last semester in the Certificate in Applied Technology (Autotronics).


Automotive Engineering Study Autotronics Order Study Guide