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Sleepless Terp turns love of cars into career in racing

Grand Prix of BaltimoreNASAPetroleum IndustryJohn Harbaugh

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.

"My learning came alive."

Those who knew him recalled Hampson as focused, driven and one who always thought outside the box.

"Craig was motivated and self-assured, a talented guy who knew what he wanted to do," said David Holloway, the professor who started the auto project. Now retired, Holloway said it wasn't unusual for students to fall asleep on the floor of the lab, surrounded by blueprints and metal shavings, while building their car late at night.

Come morning, "Dr. Holloway would open the door, give us a kick and say, 'Time for class,'" said James Cooper, a classmate of Hampson's who works as an aerospace engineer for NASA. "We missed out on the college social scene, but by our own choice."

In appreciation, Hampson invited three Maryland engineering students to be part of the Newman-Haas team this week. He had them wheel tires around during practice and perform wax body work. He wanted to give them the kind of exposure to professional racing he only dreamed of in college.

"Had I had this opportunity at Maryland, I'd have driven 1,000 miles just to be up close," Hampson said.

The trio of Terps — C.J. Gorrell, Kevin Nichols and Steve Chung — placed fourth out of 80 college teams in a prestigious Formula SAE race in California in June.

"I think they had a really good time," Hampson said. "It was good for them to see a professional racing environment and see a real racecar up close. I'd like to think they came out of here with a couple good ideas of what to do. In a lot of ways, I think their car might be cooler than ours. It's a pretty impressive piece they built. They were all attentive and enthusiastic, and I think we made a fan out of a couple of them. It's tough to show them everything we're doing, but when I had a quiet moment, I tried to talk to them about fuel strategy or tire strategy. I think all the mechanics on the team were very gracious with them."

Greg Schultz, adviser to Maryland's racing program, said he hoped the experience would help the students learn the grueling side of an IndyCar career.

"They'll get bitten by the racing bug, sure, but they'll also see what has to happen to prepare the car — all of the behind-the-scenes stuff that you don't see on TV," Schutlz said. "There's a lot of grunt work to Craig's job. It's not all glorified engineering stuff."

That flip side, Hampson wrestles with daily.

"On one hand, I've been able to live out my dream. I won't go to my deathbed thinking, 'Boy, I wish I'd taken my shot,'" he said. "But it's a very hard life. We're like the carnival that comes to town for four days, performs and then moves on.

"Between doing research and writing reports, there are few days off and a huge amount of travel, pitfalls that make it hard on both your body and family."

Hampson, who is married, has two young daughters whom he misses during racing season (March-October). The family lives in Deerfield, Ill.

"My wife is supportive, but she thinks this whole business of cars running around in circles is completely silly," he said. "She's probably right."

Hampson confessed after the race he was a little bummed that Hinchcliffe — a 24-year-old contender for IndyCar Rookie of the Year — didn't have a better showing this week, in qualifying or on race day. Although Hampson oversees both teams, he manages Hinchcliffe's car, and based on a pair of fourth-place finishes on road courses in New Hampshire and Long Beach (Calif.), he thought Hinchcliffe might have a shot in Baltimore. But he had to look at the bigger picture and be happy for the team with Servia's runner-up finish.

"We had the good and the bad for the team," Hampson said. "It's really good for Oriol to finish second, especially after staring 16th. And [Hinchcliffe's] car was handling really well. It was probably the faster of the two cars, actually. But you get caught up in somebody's accident. Sometimes things happen, and a lot of [times] they're out of your control. You just have to roll with it."

On the bright side, Hinchcliffe didn't lose any ground to JR Hildebrand in the Rookie of the Year race because Hildebrand had a rough day himself. It's important to try and focus on the positive, Hampson said, because by nature, he tends to have a negative mindset. In his eyes, the gas tank is always half-empty rather than half-full.

"I operate with an appropriate sense of fear of the familiar and a suspicion that I have made the wrong choice," he said. "It's not a happy way to live, but it forces you to check your answers.

"I'm certainly not the brightest race engineer out there, but I am a grinder who works pretty hard to make sure that I've covered the bases as best I can."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this article.

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