Iowa City Press-Citizen: Stephens Is Living His Dream

Monday, May 16, 2011

By Stephanie Wise
Iowa City Press-Citizen

UI engineering professor has a passion for race car driving

Ralph Stephens is what his daughter Kristen Sharma calls a "do-er."

"He makes things happen," she said.

So it's no surprise that, at 68, Stephens decided to pursue his dream of becoming a race car driver.

That was eight years ago.

"Since I was little, I always wanted to be a mechanic and a race car driver, and I turned out to be a mechanic for a year," said Stephens, 76, now a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Iowa. "But I used to drive fast on highways."

Stephens is a high-performance driving instructor for the Audi Club North America, the BMW Car Club of America and the Porsche Club of America. In the past three years as an instructor, he's taught 32 students how to drive safely in high-performance vehicles, he said.

As for the hobby aspect, Stephens "(likes) to chase rather than be chased," he said. He currently owns a blue Porsche 911, but in the past he's owned and driven an Audi TT convertible and coupe, Porsche Boxster S and BMW Z4 M.

His hobby costs him about $12,000 a year -- $1,000 a weekend, 12 events annually, he said. And that doesn't include the nearly $3,000 a year he spends in brake pads and tires.

"My wife (Barbara) talks about it to her friends and brags about it, but she has a (heck) of a time with it," he said. "Cost is not a concern to me."

In the span of his racing career, Stephens estimates he's logged about 15,000 miles on the track with a high speed of 140 mph. For him, driving fast and dangerously has always been a passion.

"Even going back as a kid, I was either the best driver in the neighborhood, or the worst driver," he said. "(Now), it's the excitement of driving fast and the pleasure of seeing people (I teach) improve."

One of Stephens' students in his 2002 mechanical systems design course encouraged him to finally take to the race track. The student was a race car driver, and a few classmates were part of his crew.

"The whole class permeated with racing excitement," Stephens said.

The shared passion fueled Stephens' childhood dream of race car driving, so he started to do research. Soon after, he began autocross racing with his Audi TT convertible, which involves timed competitions on closed courses marked with traffic cones. It's illegal to go more than 65 mph in autocross, Stephens said.

"I did that about 50 times, and then got tired of it," he said. "As I started getting better, it wasn't fast enough."

So he moved on to driver education.

"The driving we do is not teaching you to race, but to drive safe in high-performance driving," Stephens said. "It's a combination of getting the opportunity to drive on the track and at a safe, high speed. But it's not racing school."

Stephens said he's been able to incorporate his hobby into the classroom.

"With practicing (fast driving), I use it as a story on why we do our homework and why it's so important," he said. "It enhances student learning."

Stephens' family is supportive of his hobby -- one that's unusual for someone his age, he said. Sharma said her father's drive and ambition is something he's passed onto her and her brother and sister. Sharma owns the East-West School of Integrative Healing Arts and A Massage Oasis in North Liberty and Iowa City, and is the winner of the 2010 Iowa Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

"I attribute (my success) to my parents instilling in me excellent work ethic, confidence and assertiveness," she said. "And a belief that you can do anything you set your mind to."

One of Stephens' favorite sayings, Sharma said, is: "Age is what you make it."

It's a motto that Stephens has printed and posted on his office wall, along with photos of inspiring, successful older people, such as Joe Paterno and John Glenn.

Though Stephens is retiring from a 55-year-long teaching career next spring, he has no plans to stop driving fast. Nothing will get in the way of his hobby, he said -- especially his age.

"My age doesn't bother me a bit. All these things I do are not impressive," Stephens said. "I say it's fun. It's plain old fun."