Sunday, at the Baltimore Grand Prix, Craig Hampson's mind was racing. See the headset the chief engineer of the Newman-Haas team was wearing? One voice screamed into Hampson's right ear; another one bombarded the left.

It was his job to digest it all, from his spot in the team's pit box, his eyes darting to computer banks telling Hampson the ever-changing status of car, driver and even the racecourse itself. Was it time to gas up, change tires, adjust the shocks and springs? For two hours, drivers Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe sped down city streets at 160 mph, relying on Hampson and his two assistants to make snap decisions.

And for two hours, Hampson tried to put out the fires that played havoc with the team's pre-race strategy. A big crash. A breakdown. A lengthy caution. When it was finally over, he couldn't help but feel a mixture of elation and disappointment. One of Newman-Haas' drivers, Servia, avoided a big pile-up and surged to a second-place finish. But the team's other driver, Hinchcliffe, got stuck in the mess, shuffled to the back, and finished a disappointing 24th, completing just 54 of 75 laps because of handling problems.

It was, in some ways, a typical day for the 41-year-old Maryland graduate. You never know what the track is going to throw at you from one day to the next.

"All hell breaks loose; curveballs are thrown," Hampson said when asked to describe what his day is like. "I'm listening to race control in one ear, my driver in the other and looking at data from the 70 sensors on the car. It's a chess match on wheels. No one man can manage it, for sure."

It's a job that Hampson likens to that of the Ravens' John Harbaugh.

"Imagine how 'amped up' a football coach is during a game," he said. "To me, it's the same thing."

It's a calling he embraced on his arrival in College Park in 1988 as a wannabe engineer.

"I remember touring the lab building on campus, seeing a red racecar and asking, 'What's that?'" he said.

Told that Maryland's mechanical engineers built cars to race against other colleges, Hampson's eyes lit up.

"You're going to let me play with cars?" he said. "When can I start?"

He grew up a gearhead, tagging along with his father, a drag racer in Bridgewater, N.J.

"Dad was always restoring an antique Model A or a Ford Mustang," Hampson said. "He had a strong mechanical aptitude, and he encouraged me to figure things out.

"As a little boy, I fell in love with trains, then model rockets and airplanes. Then I got my driver's license, and I was off and running."

He bought a used 1982 Mercury Capri, which had sexy flares around the fenders, and began to dress it up.

"Then, speedometers only went up to 85 mph, so I bought a special one that topped 100," he said. "Dad saw me installing it in the driveway and asked, 'What do you need that for?' But he let me do it. He was all for tinkering."

While in high school, Hampson pumped gas at a local service station and watched mechanics strut their stuff. At Maryland, he reveled in an engineering program known for its practical applications. The most popular project, born in 1982, lets students design and construct their own racecar each year and compete with other schools.

For Hampson, those four years were a joy ride.

"Others went to frat parties and bars," he said. "My social time was spent in that engineering lab, with good friends, building cars.