Life in the fast lane

Fast cars. Cool heads. Big bucks. Welcome to the world of motorsport.

Kirby Nankivell and Jordan Yeomans are young, confident and can keep a cool head – essential for engineers working trackside at some of the country’s biggest car racing events.

While at University, both Kirby and Jordan participated in Formula SAE, an annual competition that sees University students form and manage a racing team and design and build a Formula-style race car to compete against other University teams.

Perseverance pays off for Kirby

Kirby’s journey to motorsport success took many twists and turns. And that’s even before the tenacious race engineer graduated with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Adelaide.

Jordan Yeomans, Kirby Nankivell and Jonathon StephensHe’d built an experimental hybrid engine for the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR) in Canada, participated in Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) teams at three universities, was instrumental in making Formula SAE an extracurricular activity for University of Adelaide students, and interned for oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips – all while still studying.

Kirby thought he had secured his first job in motorsport when he was tentatively offered an assistant engineer position in the V8 supercar team with which he had done work experience while at university.

“Unfortunately the job fell through when the team lost a major sponsor,” he said.

Kirby got another shot while contracting for Queensland based engineering company Pace Innovations, which had a car racing program in New Zealand. Despite having no professional experience outside of Formula SAE, Kirby was asked to be the company’s race engineer.

“To this day, they still give me grief about how bad I was,” he said.

“I’ve never said no to anything, even if I thought I was going to be terrible at it. Everything is a learning experience.”

Kirby’s big break came after Pace Innovations completed its design for the ‘Car of the Future’ for V8 supercars and started providing engineering services for these cars at the Clipsal 500 (now the Adelaide 500).

Kirby asked if he could go along to the event and help out. It was here he met Matt Stone, son of Jimmy Stone from the famous Stone Brothers Racing team. Matt was competing in the Dunlop Super2 Series at the Clipsal 500 and Kirby helped him as a data engineer for the weekend.

“I’ve never said no to anything, even if I thought I was going to be terrible at it. Everything is a learning experience.” – Kirby Nankivell

“I performed well enough at Clipsal, and Matt asked me ‘to come racing with him,’ which was when I really began to develop as a race engineer,” said Kirby.

Kirby Since then, he has been a data and race engineer at many big events, including the Australian GT Series, the Bathurst 12 hour and the Dunlop Super2 Series. This was on top of working full-time, running an engineering
department as a senior design engineer for Pace Innovations and working on a wide variety of projects.

Along the way, Kirby has also recruited other SAE Motorsport team members, including Jordan Yeomans.

“The reason why we hire juniors from Formula SAE, is they have a level of practical skills that generally don’t exist elsewhere, so they can hit the ground running more than any other graduate,” he said.

Having achieved so much in a short space of time, Kirby has just started his own engineering business and is working on a number of projects inside and outside of motorsport.

Jordan sets sights on big problem solving

It was during orientation week that engineering graduate and Masters student Jordan Yeomans set his sights on working in motorsport.

“Kirby walked into my first lecture to talk to us about a project called Formula SAE – from there on I was hooked,” he said.

Jordan Yeomans“I immediately loved motorsport as soon as I saw it. It’s trying to optimise a system with the same set of rules as everyone else, and the winner is the person who can do it best.

“For an engineer or a problem solver, it is the ultimate problem.”

Jordan caught a lucky break in motorsport a week before his final university exams.

Kirby asked him to be part of a team building a custom design race car for Australian GT series owner Tony Quinn.

Following this job, Jordan worked on a variety of motorsport engineering projects. He also moved into trackside engineering at racing events.

As a race car engineer, you are the go-between the driver, the team manager, the mechanics – basically everybody, and it’s your job to keep everything on track.

“So if there are three practice sessions for the day, you need to make sure that for each session, the cars are ready, the drivers are ready, all the computer settings are right, the tyres are the correct pressure, and everyone knows their job for the day,” Jordan said.

The motorsport industry is big business. “The tyres alone cost $1000 each, and on a racing weekend a car can go through 20 tyres easily.

“There can be some very stressful times, you need strong self-confidence and cannot second guess yourself,” he said.

Jordan recently returned to the University of Adelaide to start a Masters in Engineering, taking on a project in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

“It’s kind of like turbo-charging problem solving. It’s the direction everything is moving in, and I want to be part of it.”

Formula SAE

At the University of Adelaide, Formula SAE is a fully student managed extracurricular activity, overseen by a member of the Faculty of Engineering.

Fourth year Mechanical Engineering student Jonathan Stephens is team manager of the 2018 University of Adelaide Formula SAE entry.

Jonathon Stephens“Our team is made up of 60 students. Most are from mechanical or electrical engineering, but there are also students from graphic design and finance.

“We don’t just take engineers, we take anyone because they bring different skills,” he said.

This year, for the first time, the team has designed and built an electric car. According to Jonathan, most electric car teams in their first year don’t make it as far as the final track event.

“Our goal for this year is to make it to the start line, and then see what happens from there.”

Find out more about Adelaide University Motorsport at

Story by Kelly Brown
Photos by Meaghan Coles

Featured image: Kirby Nankivell in the Holden Laboratory, Engineering South, North Terrace campus
Second image: L to R: Jordan Yeomans, Kirby Nankivell and Jonathon Stephens
Third image: Kirby Nankivell in the Holden Laboratory
Fourth image: Jordan Yeomans in the Holden Laboratory
Fifth image: Jonathon Stephens in the Holden Laboratory


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