Former NASCAR Pit Crew Chief Meets with Engineering Students
November 08, 2019
By Matty Madden '21
Cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors to work his way up, former NASCAR pit crew chief Robert "Bootie" Barker, '94 was willing to do whatever it took to gain a motorsports career. Even being paralyzed from the waist down after a high school car accident didn't stop the Old Dominion University alum from chasing his racing dreams.
On the eve of ODU's Homecoming football game, Barker visited the motorsports lab in the Batten College of Engineering and Technology.
"Be willing to work for free," he told the motorsports students. "I started in racing by cleaning the bathrooms at a garage, then I worked up to mopping the floors, and I slowly worked my way up. You've got to be willing to do things like that and work your way up in racing."
Now an engineer for Leavine Family Racing, Barker grew up next door to the famous South Boston Speedway. He played high school football in the small southern Virginia town of Halifax and loved the thrill of competition.
As a junior studying mechanical engineering at ODU, Barker heard a radio announcer discussing the engineers who build shocks for race cars. He immediately realized racing was the perfect industry to put his engineering degree to work while satisfying his competitive instincts.
With their respective vehicles on display, students from ODU's Formula Society of Automotive Engineers and Baja clubs shared their experiences and asked Barker for advice.
"If you want to go far in the world of motorsports, get with the best driver you can find and go as far as you can with them," he said. "What we as engineers do is important, but at the end of the day, the driver is the real difference maker."
One student asked Barker what could be done to improve their formula-style car. Barker looked at it closely for a bit.
"What are the rules?" he asked. "What can you add to the tires? How much downforce can you add? What are the limitations? You've got to familiarize yourself with the rulebook."
He stressed this point several times during his visit.
Another student asked about the use of simulation in NASCAR.
"You're basically in a big IMAX theater with a car in the middle. There are pedals and a steering wheel, and you can feel everything. If something is too tight or there's some other issue, you can feel it. The key difference between simulation and actually being out there on the track, though, is that you know you're not going to die," said Barker, drawing laughter from students.
Later that evening, Barker was honored at the Alumni Honors Dinner, an annual banquet recognizing graduates who have excelled in their professions and impacted their communities.
Matty Madden is a junior majoring in public relations