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Students, start your engines: WVU Tech professor brings NASCAR industry knowledge to the classroom

Dr. William Church on WVU Tech campus
Dr. William Church on campus

Dr. William Church always wanted to teach, but he also wanted to build engines. Luckily for him and WVU Tech students, he’s gotten to do both and bring his real-world experience working for big names such as Penske, Arctic Cat, Indian Motorcycles and the Argonne Research Laboratory to the classroom.

A Meadow Bridge, West Virginia native, Church said he knew he wanted to build NASCARs and engines. However, he wasn’t sure how to get into the industry or what the background of engine builders was. He decided to go to West Virginia University, but his first try at college wasn’t successful.

“It was a disaster,” Church said. “I decided college wasn’t for me.”

A couple of years later, Church found the path he needed to be on.

“I was reading a Hotrod magazine article about a guy from Georgia, Ernie Elliott, who was Bill Elliott’s brother and engine builder. He talked about how he got into NASCAR. He went to the University of Georgia and majored in mechanical engineering. I said, ‘Well, that’s what I should have done!’ So, I saved up all my money and worked for several years to go back to school. Ernie Elliott’s story about how he used what he learned to build better race engines really inspired me to go on that career path to do that,” he said.

The decision to go on to graduate school came from more of a necessity, Church explained. This decision would pay off in big ways for his career.

“I realized it was one thing to say you wanted to work for General Motors or Harley Davidson after graduation, but as an undergraduate the competition is fierce. I knew graduate school would give me more credibility to my profile and show commitment to a certain career path. I knew with the time I spent out of school I would need a resume that was a bit above normal and to stand out,” he said.

Professors at WVU wanted him to stay and pursue his Ph.D. but the program was geared toward diesel engines and emissions, while Wisconsin’s program focused on performance. Church obtained his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

While at Wisconsin, a recruiter from Roger Penske’s team visited and brought Church to North Carolina and hired him to work for Penske Racing. Most notably, Rusty Wallace won his last race with one of his engines, and Ryan Newman won the Daytona 500 with one of his engines.

Dr. William Church in his office at the computer

Church went on to work for the Argonne National Laboratory on a project through the Department of Energy and Chrysler, then Polaris Industries working on ATVs and Indian motorcycle engines, and Arctic Cat, before coming to WVU Tech.

“I enjoyed my work at Argonne National Laboratory. It was a wonderful chance to work with some people I knew like Steve McConnell, who is a higher-up at Marathon Oil right now and a WVU graduate. My best friend from Wisconsin was also there. So, there was a chance to work with some of my old compadres, and I really enjoyed it. I can’t say I was a big fan of Illinois and Chicago, but it was a chance to work with some truly inspiring people,” Church said.

When asked about the future of the field regarding engines and the emergence of electric vehicles, Church says it’s a bit more complicated than it might seem.

“As far as engine work goes, if there are applications like 4-wheel drives, farming equipment and construction equipment, electric vehicles don’t work as well. The problem is going from energy constraints to resource constraints. Obtaining lithium-ion for the batteries and materials for battery packs would mean there are other vehicles we can’t convert. There is a shortage of materials, and I don’t see that changing. I think we’re going to have to choose and pick the best way to go after it – I don’t think everything will be electric in my lifetime, anyway.

With the rising gasoline prices, electric vehicles can be an attractive option for reducing dependency on fossil fuels. Church says right now, hybrid vehicles are better at helping reduce carbon dioxide levels while maintaining efficiency on West Virginia roads.

“The quickest way to reduce emissions, where the electric grid is coal-fired or powered by other high carbon fuels, is to run a hybrid car, which will work really well almost everywhere. I used to put my students through an exercise in thermodynamics class where they picked an electric car and a gasoline-powered car and crunch the numbers to find out the carbon footprint comparison. Much to their surprise, electric vehicles didn’t win out in our local southern West Virginia grid. It’s a difficult problem. If it were easy or painless, we would have already done it. We will have to do some heavy lifting and hard thinking about how to do this smartly,” he says.

Church always wanted to be a teacher or professor, but it wasn’t the only thing he wanted to do. When he got recruited to work for Penske, he knew being a professor was probably not in his favor, or he didn’t think so.

He knew he didn’t want to be in a traditional tenure-track position where he had to research and publish articles frequently. However, when Tech had an opening that was close to home and had an emphasis on teaching, he said it was exactly what he was looking for and jumped at the chance.

“The product you put out are students instead of academic papers. I didn’t expect to ever have that opportunity,” he said.

“This has been my favorite job, without a question, the best job I’ve had. I love it at Tech,” Church remarks.