Keith Rodden always knew he’d end up working in NASCAR. He just had to come up with a plan to get there.
The Denver, N.C., native grew up loving racing, and he says the plan was to always get a job working for a team. His curiosity of how machines worked gave way to a love for the sport when he would go out and watch his friends race at local tracks as a youth. But his parents weren’t completely sold on the sport. “They wanted me to get a ‘good’ education,” Rodden says.
So Rodden came to NC State, studied mechanical engineering and found time to get to races. “I would leave on the weekends and meet my friend who raced late-model [cars],” says Rodden. “There was the aerospace engineering department in Broughton [Hall]. I had older friends who were getting their master’s degrees. I would hang out with them.”
Taking his mechanical engineering degree he received in 2003 back to the track, Rodden caught on in NASCAR as a race engineer. That’s a hat he wore for much of his 12-year career in NASCAR before becoming a crew chief for the first time in 2013. And last month, he was named crew chief for driver Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports starting when the 2015 season begins in February at the Daytona 500.
It’s a move that Rodden has come to love despite the changes that come with it. “It’s different when you have the final say on everything,” he says. “Things like when the car is going to pit. What you are going to do for adjustments?”
Rodden says there are three basic components to being an effective crew chief, something he was for Jamie McMurray last season. He cites the problem-solving involved, the psychological aspect of leading the team and the competitive fire that drives him to want to win every race. Add to that that every condition at every track is variable, and a crew chief gets a very low percentage of time that things happen as he expects. “About one percent,” Rodden says, laughing. “Things never seem to go to plan.”
The move is a return to Hendrick for Rodden, and he’s worked with Kahne in the past, something Rodden says is a benefit in already knowing how the driver will talk about his car and the adjustments he’ll want to make. And while he hopes that relationship breeds Sprint Cup Series wins and championships, Rodden also hopes he can turn more Wolfpack engineers onto the sport.
“I think we can do a much better job working with the college to get students interested in the job and to come to it,” he says. “I have to do a better job of conveying that to Centennial Campus.”
Keith Rodden is one of many College of Engineering alumni who have made a name for themselves chasing speed in NASCAR. We profiled a few of them in the Summer 2013 issue of NC State magazine in an article called “Track Stars.”