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The Infiniti Engineering Academy is Engineering a Future

The love of cars is dying with each generation—or is it?

Mike FloydwriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

It's bad enough the world continues its forced march toward treating vehicles as rolling appliances with the steering wheel ripped out of our hands, even worse when all we're told about the younger generation is that it's only obsessed with machines that fit in a back pocket.

So it is refreshing to sit across from 21-year-old Evan Sloan as he enthusiastically tells us over dinner about finally getting to drive his dad's prized Shelby GT500—then nearly smashing it up more than once.

The Boston-area native, who grew up watching Formula 1 races with his dad from the time he was a young boy, became such a fan that he oriented his studies with an eye toward a career in the sport. And then, almost without realizing it, he made a decision that would shape his life and take him from an automotive enthusiast dreaming about his future to living it.

He applied for a position with the Infiniti Engineering Academy.

Sloan had gone to California to study mechanical engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. During his time there he became the president and vehicle dynamics lead for the Caltech Racing team, which built and raced a small, electric-powered, open-wheel car as part of a Formula SAE student competition. (Now that's the kind of extracurricular activity we can get behind.)

While working on the project, Sloan and the rest of the team received an email about the academy. He sent off his application and didn't think much of it until a month or so later when he was contacted. Then things started to get real.

The Infiniti Engineering Academy puts the real into real-world engineering experience. This isn't some cushy, soft-shoe internship where you fetch some coffee, learn a few concepts, and maybe get a project bone thrown your way. There is some serious, big-time stuff, not a bunch of resume-puffing fluff.

Now in its fourth year, interest in the academy has exploded from a modest 1,000 applications to more than 12,000 in its last go around, and Infiniti expects even more next year. Seven students are chosen representing seven different regions of the world. Sloan was this year's American representative.

"It generates more diversity for the organization, which for us is important," says Tommaso Volpe, global director of Infiniti Motorsport and spokesman for the academy, during an interview at this year's U.S. Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin where I also met Sloan.

Once the field is whittled down to 10 applicants in each region, they're invited to an intensive finals competition where they're poked, prodded, and tested until a winner is chosen. The academy looks for that first-round draft pick, a team player who can start blocking and tackling on the engineering gridiron right away.

This year's American finals were held in Seattle at Microsoft's headquarters; the tech giant is one of the Renault Sport F1 team's partners. Finalists were broken up into two groups of five and tasked with challenges, sort of like "Survivor" but without being marooned on a mosquito-infested island.

Among the team exercises were developing an app in less than two hours to analyze data from the F1 team and the "dragster challenge," which involved building and testing an R/C-style electric car. It's about solving complex engineering problems in a team environment while attempting to personally stand out. But this isn't just about having the biggest brain in the room. Winners need to be able to hold their own in social situations and display leadership abilities as well.

Once the lucky seven get rolling, they spend a year in the U.K., with six months working at the Renault F1 technical center and six more at Infiniti's European technical center where they gain experience working on the road-car side of the business. Each one of them is assigned to tasks that best align with their area of expertise. Several of them have already found permanent jobs within the Renault/Nissan/Infiniti universe.

With his boyish good looks and aw-shucks interview style, Sloan is an all-American college kid straight out of central casting. "When they announced the winner," he said, "I couldn't believe it. I was stunned."

But his modesty belies Sloan's already extensive experience in and out of the classroom. During an internship at Tesla, he was part of a team that made sure a vehicle's computer modeling matched up with the actual manufacturing setup.

It's heartening to hear stories like Sloan's, to know there are more young people than we think who love cars and motorsports and who have a passion to better the automotive world. And kudos to Infiniti for providing an outlet to help a select few engineer their futures.