Ralph Stephens, College of Engineering
Ralph Stephens has two words to describe the way he drove when he was 16: fast and reckless.
Today, at 74 years old, Stephens still drives fast whenever he can, but his speed trials are limited to racetracks and his technique is anything but reckless. Six years ago, Stephens reconnected with racing by getting involved with motor sports like autocross (a low-cost timed competition in which drivers navigate through a course marked by traffic cones) and high-speed precision driving.
The physics and mechanics of these sports tie into Stephens’s work in the College of Engineering, where he’s a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering. As a researcher, he studies fatigue, fracture mechanics, and product liability, and as a teacher he brings racing scenarios into the classroom to explain engineering concepts. He also spent several years as advisor to the UI Society of Automotive Engineers, a student group that designs, builds, and races a mini-baja car against students from other schools and universities.
His teaching abilities cross over into motor sports, too. Stephens works as a high-performance driving instructor for several car clubs.
We sat down with Stephens to talk about cars, engineering, and his love of Iowa City.
How did you get involved with high-speed driving?
As a 16-year-old kid on the south side of Chicago, driving fast and recklessly was my way of being a hero in the neighborhood. When I finished high school I wanted to be a race car driver and a mechanic. I was a mechanic for a year, but I decided it was not for me. So I went to school to study engineering, and 12 years later I got my PhD.
Racing has always stayed with me, but I had children, and the time and money to do it were not there. Then, in 2002, I had a mechanical systems design class that was just permeated with racing because there were so many students in the class who were interested in racing. In spring 2003, I had some external judges evaluating final projects from another class, including a former student who had been vice president of engineering at John Deere. I asked him why he retired, and he said, “So I could devote more time to vintage auto racing,” and I said, “That’s it!”
So I became involved with autocross, or solo, with the Sports Car Club of America. We would drive around cones in parking lots. We never went over 65 miles an hour. It cost $25 a day, but I was only on the track for about 10 minutes, and I didn’t like that. So I got involved with high-performance driver education, where we go to actual racetracks and learn how to drive in a very high-performance manner. I’ve done that 45 times now, pretty close to 100 days on the track, which amounts to be at least 9,000 track miles.
What is involved in driver education?
Driver education is aimed at getting people to drive at high speeds in a safe, quality manner. There’s no timing; you’re not trying to beat someone. It’s just high-speed driving at your level. We preach driving with smoothness, precision, and repeatability. Normally my speeds are not more than 120 miles an hour, but I’ve driven up to 140 miles an hour on the track. That’s my fastest. I did that a couple of months ago in Daytona.
So you started out attending driver education as a student—how did you get into teaching it?
I attended four schools of how to be an instructor, and I’ve instructed with Audi, Porsche, and BMW. I’ve instructed 13 students, from novice to advanced. It’s been fun. I don’t really like to go out and just drive myself. I like to get in a car with a student.
One of your most recent teaching experiences was at a three-day school at the Florida Daytona International Speedway, home of the Daytona 500 NASCAR race. Tell us more about that experience.
I had read an article about that driver education school and I said, “That sounds unbelievable, driving on the Daytona 500!” So I called the person in charge and told them my background, and based on my schooling, he accepted me as an instructor.
Driving on that track was absolutely awesome. 135 miles an hour was the fastest I could get the first two days, but I’d already driven 135 mph on other tracks, so I decided I wanted to go 140 mph—I’d rented a car, an Infinity G35, and the tires were rated for 140 mph maximum. The rear brakes were worn down after two days, so I was nervous, not knowing if my brakes would suddenly go out on me. But I did it twice! That was an awesome thing. I’d like to do it again next year; I think I’ll rent a Corvette.
What do you like most about high-performance driving?
It’s something I always wanted to do when I was a kid. You could call me either the best or the worst driver in my neighborhood, depending on how you define it. I don’t have to drive fast on the highways anymore because I get plenty of experience on the track. And you have to concentrate very hard—this requires both physical and mental coordination. In a weekend of driving, I’ll shift 700 or 800 times.
Which is more difficult, driving on the racetrack or making that merge from I-380 to I-80?
Probably I-380. Driving through big cities on the interstate at 70 mph, bumper to bumper, is much more scary to me than a racetrack. On the track we’re spread out, and we have rules for passing: you can’t pass on turns; you have to be signaled to pass; if you don’t let somebody pass you’re going to get warned first, and then they’ll kick you off.
What cars do you own?
I drive the BMW Z4M—the M stands for motor sports or madness—and a Porsche Boxster S. Those are both nice fast cars. My wife drives a Jeep.
How does high speed driving tie in with your teaching and research at Iowa?
My specialty is why things break under cyclic loading. You know how if you take a paper clip and bend it back, pretty soon you have two pieces? I’m looking at how many times can you turn that paper clip back and forth before you have two pieces. It’s called fatigue.
The same principles can be applied to racing mechanics, so I introduce a racing concept in class at times. The students are really interested in it, so that provides motivation and excitement.
You’ve been at teaching at The University of Iowa for 44 years—why have you stayed so long?
The community is a utopian community. I like the environment we have here, and we have an excellent university system. It is fantastic to work with our young students at all levels.
What do you like to do in your free time besides racing?
I work out five to seven times a week, in five to seven different sports: racquetball, swimming, hiking, weightlifting, biking, cross-country skiing…. If I don’t work out, I am a dead guy. Some people have to have cigarettes, some have to have marijuana, some have to have heroin—I have to have sports.
by Anne Kapler