DEARBORN - The waist-high table Tommy Joseph is standing behind looks more suited for a DJ getting ready to entertain a sold-out crowd on New Year’s Eve. But in the place where you would expect to see turntables and microphones sits a laptop computer, along with two large monitors showing a variety of numbers and graphs.
To the average person, the information on the screen doesn’t say anything, but to Joseph it speaks volumes because 20 yards further in a wind-swept room separated by a huge pane of glass sits a 40 percent scale model version of the new Mustang that Ford Performance is bringing to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2019.
The car has all the same components of its full-size counterpart and sits on a rolling conveyer belt that, when running, simulates aerodynamic conditions it will encounter on the race track. Wind tunnel testing like this is a requirement these days, especially in a sport where gains are measured in fractions of seconds, so it’s Joseph’s job to make sure every inch of Ford’s newest model is optimized to the fullest.
It sounds like a daunting task, taking the company’s iconic vehicle and adapting it to the guidelines NASCAR has prescribed, but that didn’t phase Joseph when he was promoted to Aerodynamics Supervisor for Ford Performance in January.
“I wanted the challenge and the pressure that comes with it, but the main thing is I wanted to do a good job,” said Joseph, who was hired at Ford in March 2017 as NASCAR aerodynamics program leader. “The unique history Mustang has over the years adds something, especially now that it’s going to be in NASCAR and will be competing against the Camaro, but we’ve got a good team. There are many people on this project that are also feeling that pressure and thriving on it.”
Pressure is something Joseph has been dealing with for many years at the highest level of motorsports, having worked 12 years in Formula One with teams like Red Bull, Sauber, Honda and Williams from 2005-17.
“The reason I spent that much time there is because I was continuously learning, but the learning curve plateaued,” said Joseph. “I realized that as an engineer I want to challenge myself continually and what Ford presented was a new challenge. It’s still in my field, but also related to production cars. I just happen to be working in NASCAR now using a different application of aerodynamics.
“Along with racing in another series, there was also the difference of working for an OEM. Now, I’ve got not only the resources of the race teams, but also the power and capability and resources of a manufacturer,” continued Joseph. “That’s been a new experience and a great experience. I feel like I understand our race teams very well because I’ve worked with their counterparts in F1 for many years. Now I’m learning how to work with an OEM and I’m learning to use the resources of the manufacturer in the best way to help the teams.”
Working with teams is something that comes naturally to Joseph, who was born and raised in Chicago after his parents came to the United States from India in 1975.
“I think from a young age my parents were good about giving me the opportunity to learn but not really pressuring me,” said Joseph. “I started reading when I was three years old just because they had books around, so from an early age I enjoyed learning and when I got older I liked math and science.”
He also liked rooting for Michael Jordan and the hometown Chicago Bulls, who ruled the NBA during the decade of the 1990s, winning six championships.
“That’s where I learned about competition in sports,” recalled Joseph. “Unfortunately, I tried very hard at basketball, but I was never going to be in the NBA. I ended up being good at math and physics and science, so I could be an engineer. I took the skills I was good at and combined it into the most competitive way I could, which is car racing.
“The thing that is unique about what I like to do, either in my past with Formula 1 or my current role at Ford, is that I get a chance to compete,” continued Joseph. “That makes the difference between someone who likes cars, but maybe just likes to go to car shows or build custom cars, to a person who actually likes racing and wants to compete. I think it’s that ultimate competition that makes a good engineer in racing.”
Joseph developed a love for motorsports during his high school years and often drove to nearby Wisconsin, where he would watch some grassroots drag racing, and landed his first job at a speed shop working on cars.
“My boss actually had a Mustang that ran 11-second quarter-miles. He painted it purple and yellow and it was pretty intense,” said Joseph. “That was my first real experience with working directly in racing at that speed shop. It was a lot of drag racing, but I did a little bit of autocross. I would go to whatever local races I could find.”
That included going to Chicago Speedway in suburban Cicero to watch the CHAMP car races, but the racing bug really bit him after making the three-hour drive to Indianapolis for the inaugural United States Grand Prix in 2000. He became a fan of Juan Pablo Montoya and followed his career when he moved to Formula 1, which sparked an interest in aerodynamics.
Joseph attended Clemson University, where he competed in a student race car design competition known as Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). He served as technical director for the group in 2003-04 and helped the team to a 12th-place national finish from a field of over 140 teams.
After getting his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, Joseph found himself at a crossroads of what to do next. His passion for aerodynamics had reached a point where he wanted something that provided a real-world experience, and he found it at Southampton University in the United Kingdom.
“Southampton had closer relationships with the Formula 1 teams and they had their own wind tunnels, so I could have a chance to experience those at the university,” said Joseph, who was also accepted at Cornell in the United States and Cranfield University in the UK. “I also wanted to get that experience of living abroad to see if I liked it, and I think that year doing my master’s degree helped me acclimate slowly to the European or British lifestyle and that made it was easier to stay there and work. I started by going over for a one-year test and ended up staying 12 years, so you could consider it a 12-year study abroad in some ways.”
Since returning stateside, Joseph has settled in at the Ford Performance Technical Center in Concord, NC, where he oversees a team of engineers that work out of a newly-constructed scale-model shop inside the 33,000 square-foot facility. That enables his group to work on multiple global projects from NASCAR to Australian V8 Supercars.
”I don’t think we could have done this program to the level that we are prior to Tommy joining our team,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance. “We also couldn’t do it without the active engagement from all of the aero leads with our respective teams and the depth we’ve added within our Ford Performance group.”
With the NASCAR Mustang project nearing completion, Joseph’s attention will turn to the next phase, which is seeing how it does in competition. The car’s debut race will be the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019 and he’s planning on being there with a front row seat.
“For sure it will be exciting,” said Joseph. “A lot depends on the result and I think we’ll put all the effort we can into getting a good one, but what’s always unknown now and in my previous career is what the other teams are doing. Everybody is working, whether they have a new car or optimizing their old one. In the end, only one car is going to win and we hope it’s a Mustang.”
That would truly be music to his ears.