Navigating the tech track at Hendrick Motorsports

In the realm of precision and high stakes that define NASCAR, Megan Horn plays a pivotal role as the Manager of Operational Excellence at Hendrick Motorsports. This distinguished organisation in the racing world is celebrated for its 301 Cup Series race wins, 14 Cup Series championships and a roster of legendary drivers, including Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

Horn is instrumental in ensuring the demanding quality, safety and productivity needs of multiple NASCAR teams are consistently met. Her engineering acumen and process-conscious methodology bring a unique dynamism to the fast-paced world of motorsports. We sat down for a chat with Megan to learn about her history, the work that has propelled her to the forefront of her industry and her thoughts on how more women like her will contribute to the future of the sport.

Your job title is “Manager of Operational Excellence”. That’s very impressive and very specific!

This group was created as a result of a proposal that I had put together to address what I felt was a gap in our organisation, to provide a centralised type of support that could be offered across campus to help us work through change, which as you can understand is pretty constant. Over time, we’ve observed that work groups tend to operate in silos, developing their own distinct approaches. Some opt for a broad, shotgun approach, while others prefer a more targeted strategy. Each has its place, given the nature of our work; every week presents a new opportunity to innovate.

When I presented the idea for this group, the Next Gen car was coming up in 2021, which was a significant change for the industry, and I saw that as an opportunity to ensure we approached this change in the best way possible. Then COVID happened, and action was delayed a year, which allowed us to pivot some of our work groups or skill sets towards contract manufacturing. Since then, my team has shifted quite a bit towards that side of the business.

So, was that position created especially for you?

(Laughs) Yeah, I suppose it was! My background is in industrial engineering, so I have the mindset that everything we do should be in the continuous pursuit of perfection, but the way that we approach that can be done in a number of ways.

I tend to be systematic by nature. Every personality test that I can take will tell you that I’m very structured, and that’s what I try to bring to the table — to give everybody a framework to help support and guide and coach people through problem-solving, whether it’s to fix a process that isn’t working or to create something new.

There are times when what looks like a single problem is really comprised of several distinct problems, and if you throw only one thing at it, you’re probably not going to eliminate the problems; you’re just going to reduce them. We look to make sure that we are solving appropriately scoped issues to eliminate those things from coming back.

What drew you to engineering as a career path, and how did that turn into working in motorsports?

In school, I just really enjoyed and excelled in math. I also took some technical drawing classes in high school as electives that I enjoyed as well. I’m a creative with a little bit of math in there.  So, I would say those two things led me towards pursuing mechanical engineering, but my first co-op experience exposed me to industrial engineering.

I was introduced to Kaizen, the Toyota Production System and Lean Engineering and became fascinated with their systematic, structured approaches that use data to inform decision-making. This fascination prompted me to return to school and switch my major from mechanical to industrial engineering.

When I graduated, I worked for Norfolk Southern Railroad as a Lean Process Improvement Engineer. There, we created a framework similar to the Toyota production system.

Coincidentally, a friend forwarded me a position for a process engineer in the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports, and what I had done at Norfolk Southern was precisely what they were looking for.

You mentioned the Lean process, which is focused on the interdependency of decision-making and problem-solving. Has that been useful to you in the NASCAR world?

This is the magic behind Hendrick Motorsports. Although our processes support repeatability and reproducibility, they are designed for agility and adaptability, which seems counterintuitive, right? I think what’s important is to make sure you truly understand the problem that you are trying to solve so you can make sure that the things you do next are appropriately scoped and are going to take you down the right path. The people we have here are good at using that mindset, and everyone’s experience and knowledge help us work through those challenges.

I think that when people watch a race at home, they might not be aware of the massive amount of data collection and interpretation going on before, during and after the event. How do you and your team use all that information?

On the competition side, the amount of data we see and is available to all teams is significant — to the extent of millions of rows over a three-hour race.

That is a lot of numbers.

Yeah. And the challenge is, “How do we consume that data and turn it into actionable, real-time changes so we can take advantage of it before somebody else does?” We have a lot of developers and other people working hard to ensure that we are turning our data into friendly forms of consumption because everyone consumes different data differently, too.

Given the pivotal role of data in shaping racing strategies, what do you think is the most significant technology that is going to keep impacting the racing world going forward?

I think machine learning and AI are certainly things that can be pretty powerful. It’s new and emerging, but it’s also something that you can take advantage of. We have a lot of data that lends itself well to machine learning because it helps to prove the predictive analytics when you have such a large sample size. With the things that they can do now, I’m not sure how anyone, regardless of their industry or role, would not benefit from some deliverable out of AI. It’s the future. It’s faster, and it’s just something that can’t be replicated by a human.

Is there one track in the circuit that you have had particular trouble with?

Well, every track presents its own unique engineering challenges. I think Darlington tends to be a challenging track in general because of the track surface and corner configurations that all play a role in its uniqueness to the circuit. But although each track is different, our schedule is pretty predictable, so it’s not like we get surprised. You look at what you brought to the track last time and all the factors that were present, then see what worked and what didn’t and use that information to adjust for the next time you go back.

In addition to the business of winning races, you’re an ambassador to the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program (NDIP), which is in its 22nd year. What general differences do you see coming around to the industry with that focus on diversity, equity, access and inclusion?

The one thing that sticks out the most is awareness of the opportunities that exist here. Without awareness, you’re not going to get a diverse set of applicants. So, the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program — as well as motorsports and NASCAR in general — is focused on awareness and visibility. For me, being a female in what most would consider to be a male-dominated field, I can understand that if someone doesn’t see someone like themselves in racing, they might not realise that it’s something that they can do.

This has been a great chat, but we’re almost out of time. So, let’s wrap up with an important question: what advice would you give young women or anyone thinking about a career in tech or motorsports?

You don’t know what you want to do until you’ve tried it. I would encourage them to try and find opportunities to shadow people in industries they’re interested in and volunteer to work in that space. Applying yourself to the work might reveal that you’re interested in something else, like how I entered college with a mechanical engineering degree and ended up taking a completely different direction that I didn’t know existed before. You don’t have to pick something to do for the rest of your life on the first day of college.

The more exposure you have, the better equipped you will be to understand if that is the right path for you — and it’s good to do that as early as possible.