When you hear that a 6-foot-7-inch-tall transfer student is coming from another country to join a Forty Niner team, you probably think football or basketball. But the goal of Spencer Nichols in coming to UNC Charlotte from Canada was to join a Motorsports Engineering racing team, and he is now co-captain of the 2020-21 Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) team.
A senior in the Mechanical Engineering Motorsport program, Nichols will be graduating this summer. Then starting in the fall, he will enter UNC Charlotte’s Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. program.
“My goal since the 11th grade was to study motorsports at UNC Charlotte,” Nichols said. “A friend of our family who went to same high school I did, but at about the same time as my Dad, works on NASCAR cup series engines. I met up with him and asked his advice on what school to go to be an engineer in motorsport. He said if you’re wanting a strong hands-on engineering program, go to UNC Charlotte. That was exactly what I was looking for.”
Nichols arranged a visit to North Carolina to see the UNC Charlotte campus and its motorsports facilities. “As soon as I walked into the Kulwicki Lab and saw the plasma table and into the Motorsports Research Building and saw the water tunnel I was sold. I knew I was home.”
Nichols grew up on a 1,600-acre apple farm in Nova Scotia. The farm adjoins two other farms owned by his uncles. “The whole community is basically farming,” he said. “My siblings have also stayed on the farm. I guess I’m kind of the rebellious one who has gone off to the big city to go racing.”
Growing up, Nichols played hockey and football, but was always more interested in auto racing, even though no one else in his family was. His father had a 1986 pickup truck that Nichols used to work on, always looking for ways to make it faster and faster.
“I wanted to be a NASCAR driver when I was a kid, but at my size I knew that wasn’t going to happen,” Nichols said. “So, I decided to go into the engineering side of the sport.”
With a plan of eventually transferring to Charlotte, Nichols started his college career at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “My plan was always to come to UNC Charlotte, but I started there to save some money and to make sure that engineering was for me.”
Shortly after coming to UNC Charlotte in 2019, Nichols started helping out with the FSAE team. Then in 2020, he became co-captain along with his friend Wesley Goodwin.
“Since then, this place (the Kulwicki Lab) has been my home. Any spare time I have I am working on this project.”
The FSAE team should have been building a new car for competition in Detroit this year, but COVID changed that. The team is now reorganizing the overall design-and build-schedule, to allow more time for car development. For next year, the team will re-engineer an existing car to be fully electric for the FSAE Electric Vehicle competition. They will also build a new traditional FSAE combustion-powered car.
In addition to his undergraduate studies and working on the FSAE team, Nichols also works in the Kulwicki Lab 20 hours a week as a teaching assistant. “I definitely spend more time here than at my apartment, which is what I was hoping for when I decided to come to Charlotte”
In the fall, Nichols will be starting the Ph.D. program with Dr. Mesbah Uddin as his advisor. Nichols’ focus of study will experimental computational fluid dynamic, and practical wind tunnel applications. He will also be keeping an eye on the FSAE teams.
Kulwicki Lab Manager Jim Fox has been supervising Nichols for a year now. “He is a driven and hard-working young man,” Fox said. “He subscribes to the theory you should work smarter not harder. I purposely give him a lot to do, and he handles it all, learning to delegate, a skill that will make him a good manager someday. He is a pleasure to work with.”