Florida Tech and Larsen Motorsports have designs on greatness
Elaine Larsen, co-founder of Larsen Motorsports, spent almost two decades blasting down quarter-mile tracks in jet dragsters that reached speeds around 300 miles per hour. But along with her success as a two-time International Hot Rod Association champion, she has endured her share of setbacks: a head injury that had to be repaired with titanium plates, as well as the tragic loss of one of her team drivers. Nevertheless, her enthusiasm, work ethic and passion — along with her desire to share her experiences and knowledge with others — have kept racing toward the checkered flag.
“From the time I first jumped behind the wheel of a jet dragster, I just loved it,” she says. “I guess you could say I got the bug, and it felt good.”
But recently, her ambitions have changed lanes. “It’s now my mission to help people of all ages identify their passion, hoping to pair them with industry professionals and exposing them to what ‘real’ looks like, while providing training and assistance — as well as avenues to aid with financial support.”
Elaine and her husband, Chris Larsen, co-founder of Larsen Motorsports, have mastered the dual challenges of staying together [they just celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary] and working together to build their business from the ground up. Now 56, Elaine has taken a step back from being Larsen’s primary driver to focus on a more prominent leadership and marketing role in the company. She’s also devoting more time to Blazing Trails, the nonprofit that she and Chris founded to connect students to non-traditional careers via STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics].
Partnering with educators is nothing new for the Larsens. It was back in 2015 that their company became an affiliate of the Florida Institute of Technology, working with students at the school’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Innovative Design. “Our collaboration with FIT, here on the Space Coast, has enabled us to continue what we’ve always felt important: an avenue of educational development, along with mutually beneficial projects and interactive hands-on workshops,” says Chris.
Larsen Motorsports is now a leading research and development entity, with full concept, design, engineering and operational in-house capability. Their shop is a working laboratory that measures nearly 30,000 square feet. It’s part of a 100,000-square-foot off-campus center, located at 2495 Palm Bay Road, that is also home to two jet dragster teams, House of Kolor and Florida Tech. The workspace houses more than $8 million in equipment, tools, jet turbines and testing machinery. Among its cutting-edge offerings are the latest digital modeling, simulation and visualization technologies, computer-driven manufacturing equipment, 3D-metal and circuit-board printing, as well as welding and high-tech fabrication equipment.
NUTS AND BOLTS
A cadre of student interns and alumni are involved in key projects for Larsen Motorsports, where they are mentored by automotive and industry experts, accomplished engineers, drivers and more. Chris, who is an FAA certified aircraft technician in addition to his extensive experience in the racing world, works closely with the internship program. “My goal is to present the nuts and bolts of every nook and cranny of the concepts of digital design and production,” he says. “Whether an airplane, a space shuttle, or a jet dragster — the concepts are much the same.
“I’ve always had my eye on this university. It was the first in Florida to be a grassroots educator for many NASA engineers, after opening back in 1958. Since then, the Space Coast has become home to so many companies we are able to gain resources from. And many of those companies gain a select group of pre-trained prospective employees that we can give back in return.”
The partnership between LMS and Florida Tech centers on three areas:
• Workforce development geared toward local industries
• Projects to further academia, industry and motorsports
• Workshops on various topics for both high school and college students, as well as industry professionals.
In 2021, interns helped produce the Generation 6 jet dragster, which was the first to be designed, engineered, fabricated and tested at the Palm Bay facility. It is just as fast but far safer than previous models. Digital twin software, which allowed students to design virtual models of the vehicle, was donated by Siemens for students to work with under the mentorship of Northrup Grumman.
“It was a legitimate experiment to see if we could fill the gap between small business and large business in the global supply chain,” Chris explains.
Some interns have become part of the extended Larsen family.
Josette Roach, one of the drivers Elaine has mentored for years, is now the primary driver for the House of Kolor Jet Dragster. As a full-time employee with LMS, Roach’s role as development officer entails creating social media content and videos for upcoming projects, as well as wearing multiple hats, on and off the track. Growing up in a family in the motorsports industry, she had always had the desire to become more involved in drag racing. “I have found it to be very enriching to learn every aspect of the company — from getting trailers ready to head out on the road to creating awareness of projects via social media, to assisting interns and tours,” she says. “Life in the fast lane is so much fun. We continue to have amazing projects with all of the partners at FIT, all of which I am thrilled to be a part of.”
Zach Costello, a 2016 Florida Tech graduate who received a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering and is currently employed at L3Harris, is the crew chief and lead driver for Florida Tech. Though Costello points out, “Being a driver is just a small part of what I do. Not only do I get to reap the benefits of these new technologies as a driver on the track, but being a mentor and fabricator at LMS means I’m elbow deep in this work at the shop. I get to help at the visionary level, where we figure out what things could be improved with the technologies at our disposal.”
One of the most exciting aspects for Elaine has been watching the development of the digital technology that now exists to customize jet dragsters to fit their drivers like a glove. “Just knowing how far we have come during the past 20 years is simply amazing,” she says. “Gone are the days of having to just make-do with what was typically manufactured for you, no matter what your size. With the help of students from FIT — and mentors from Northrup Grumman and Siemens — we are able to take advantage of the wonderful talent here on the Space Coast and use it for our small business, allowing the crew and drivers to better focus on their jobs.”
Chris says the goal is to have students leave their 15-week program with the ability to apply their knowledge to multiple facets of multiple industries, graduating as “plug and play” engineers.
“We are building human beings that are better educated,” he says, “and the results are exciting.”
Sue DeWerff Panzarino
Sue is an avid surfer, shark attack survivor and storyteller who loves to write about the wonderful people and great organizations on the Space Coast.