DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — On just the first day of her internship, Moriah Counts was intensely installing screws and other components on Larsen Motorsports' new jet dragster.
Counts, 20, of Columbia, Md., is a junior aerospace engineering student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University focusing her studies on propulsion systems with hopes of designing military planes one day. She hopes working on the jet engines in the dragster cars will give her an edge up.
She's one of about 15 new Embry-Riddle student interns and student volunteers working at Larsen Motorsports High Performance Vehicles Research & Development Center this spring semester.
About 50 students have worked at the center since the company moved its headquarters from Haines City in 2011 to a location off Clyde Morris Boulevard and Aviation Center Parkway, part of Embry-Riddle's Aerospace Research and Technology Park.
Larsen Motorsports, the first tenants at Embry-Riddle's park, is celebrating its 10th anniversary in business. Since moving to Daytona Beach, it has doubled in size from one driver to two drivers and expects to add two new additional teams in 2014.
In less than three years, the company plans to have eight teams, four jet dragsters and four jet funny cars, which have a different body style.
Its newest "Decade of Thrills" jet dragster, which Embry-Riddle students worked on and has a tribute to America theme, will be unveiled during the Daytona 500.
"We think we are impacting so many of these students. We want to see that continue to grow and we want to see the relationship with Embry-Riddle grow," said Chris Larsen, co-owner of the company with his wife, Elaine, who is president and one of the drivers. "Larsen Motorsports wants to be a key part of the racing community in Daytona."
The company's growth could mean expansion in the future at its current site or moving to the other part of the research park off Clyde Morris Boulevard that will soon be under development. Additional companies coming to the park are expected to be announced in February.
RESEARCH PARK GROWTH
Rod Casto, Embry-Riddle associate vice president for research and innovation, said having Larsen Motorsports "in the research park is more than a jet dragster marketing piece." He said the company has helped students and the university work on a host of research projects that "we couldn't otherwise do," including one where students are testing biofuel from waste cooking oil on campus to be used in a jet engine.
That type of partnership and using talents of Embry-Riddle students and faculty is what the university is planning to establish with other companies Casto is talking with about coming to the research park.
The university, which is in the design and permitting stage, hopes to start constructing the main entryway into the park at the end of February, officials said.
Casto expects to announce in February the names of two companies, in addition to Advanced Aerospace Solutions, which was reported in October.
In regard to Larsen, Richard Heist, chief academic officer and chancellor for Embry-Riddle's Daytona Beach campus, said the business is providing Embry-Riddle students with "hands-on experience developing solutions to problems."
"They are looking at new methodologies, techniques and fuels to be used (such as) how do you make a better vehicle safer and faster and environmentally-friendly," Heist said. "It's just amazing. They are in there doing it instead of sitting in a classroom wondering how to use differential equations."
Students on both Embry-Riddle campuses — Daytona Beach and Prescott, Ariz. — have worked on designing and building the cars. Larsen has a partnership with another company in Sarasota that builds the chassis. Students also help with analyzing the cars and with new safety features and technologies being built into future cars.
Larsen Motorsports' dragsters, which participate in about 25 racing events a year, are the featured exhibition events at drag races. The jet dragsters go a quarter of a mile down the track in 5 seconds at a top speed of 326 mph.
One of the Embry-Riddle-sponsored cars, worked on by students, was recently moved to the lobby of Daytona Beach International Airport to be on display for a year.
STUDENTS ARE THE STARS
Elaine Larsen, who drives the Miller Welding jet dragster, said the company's growth and its relationship with Embry-Riddle, which first started 10 years ago when the university became one of their sponsors, "is way beyond my wildest dreams."
"It's the students who are the stars," she said. "They are so hungry to get their hands dirty and learn something new."
Their second driver, Marisha Falk, 26, who drives the Embry-Riddle jet dragster, is an Embry-Riddle graduate. Falk said she "enjoys interacting with the kids at the race track" the most.