Graduate Dylan Cappello: Driving or building, senior’s passion for cars fueled his mechanical engineering studies

Dylan Cappello and Mini Baja buggy

By Heidi Toth
NAU Communications

Six-year-olds racing each other in their Big Wheels isn’t that unusual.

What is more unusual is that race is taking place at an actual race track during intermission, and those Big Wheels turn into go-karts and then those go-karts turn into race cars on a track with a determined no-longer-6-year-old behind the wheel with his eyes on the finish line.

Northern Arizona University senior Dylan Cappello’s childhood was all about racing—first watching his dad drag racing, then when he got old enough, doing it himself.

Since enrolling at NAU, Cappello has lived a double life—going to classes Monday through Thursday, spending weeknights studying and doing homework and projects, then leaving Friday for whatever speedway he’s competing at that weekend. It’s been a hectic and sometimes stressful juggling act that has gotten him to where he is today—graduating from NAU with a degree in mechanical engineering with a number of championship trophies on his shelf and a career connected to car racing in his future.

“Definitely, cars have been a big passion of mine,” he said.

His love for racing carried him through high school; as soon as the last day of school ended, his family would pack up their motor home and travel all summer to the big races and national events. His first year in college, Cappello took first place in the Lucas Oil Modified Series, a racing series that includes much of the West Coast. He accepted his trophy at a ceremony in Indianapolis when he was supposed to be taking finals.

Fortunately, Cappello said, his professors recognized that accomplishment and let him reschedule his exams.

“It’s something that you don’t want to skip after you worked all season toward that goal,” he said.

He continues to race in that series, generally finishing in the top 10, and also has raced in other series, including a prestigious NASCAR-affiliated series. Last summer he interned with a NASCAR team as well. He is an eight-time national champion and five-time Gasoline Alley champion.

Dylan Cappello driving race carHe also discovered that his passion for racing melded nicely with his chosen field of study. A year ago, Cappello joined the Society for Automotive Engineers’ Mini Baja competition, which pits teams from 100 schools throughout the world to build and then race a single-person off-road buggy type of vehicle. They spent the fall semester designing the car and this semester building. Cappello, who’s spent his life in cars, is right at home in NAU’s machine shop putting it together.

“It allows you to take your mechanical engineering degree and apply it,” he said. “As you’re working on it, you see all the things you learned in class come together.”

The team will put their buggy to the test at a competition in Portland from May 30 to June 2. He will spend some time behind the wheel, driving the team’s car during the endurance race, where his skill as a driver will come in handy. During the other four driving tests—acceleration, hill climb, maneuverability and suspension—they need the lightest team members behind the wheel.

His only regret? Not getting involved with Mini Baja sooner.

“Get involved with something you’re passionate about, so you can take what you learn in the classroom and apply it out of the classroom,” he said.

Cappello’s plans for the future could go in a couple of directions; he’s talked to NASCAR teams in North Carolina and interviewed with Orbital, a Phoenix-based aerospace company. As much as he loves driving, he also enjoys knowing the intricacies of engines and other machines—how they work, what makes them break and how to fix them. Once he gets a job, he may take some time away from racing to get settled in and spend more time on the mechanical side of things.

But he has no plans to abandon the driver’s seat.

“It’s been my passion forever, so I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” he said.

NAU Communications