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NASCAR project fuels local student’s passion for learning

Woodlawn School graduate headed to Princeton but won’t give up her love of racing

At the age of 3, Tori Rinker announced to her parents that she wanted to be a “’canical engineer” and build race cars for Jeff Gordon.

“We brought her to Hendrick Motorsports the next morning,” said her mother, Lynette Rinker, who is also the mayor pro tem of Cornelius.

And just a few weeks ago, Tori Rinker, now 18 and bound for Princeton University, crossed off an item on her bucket list: She got to be part of the crew while working on race cars at Hendrick in the wind tunnel at Concord’s Windshear, Inc. and at the NASCAR Research and Development Center.

It was all part of Rinker’s Woodlawn School senior exit project, called the Capstone Project, which entails a research paper, service hours, an internship and final presentation on a topic of the student’s choice.

Thursday, she will graduate from Woodlawn, an independent, nonprofit K-12 school near Davidson.

“She is a firecracker,” said Beth Helfrich, director of Woodlawn’s upper school. “She’s just magnetic and dynamic and funny, and she’ll turn the world on its head someday.”

Rinker said the Hendrick internship, the culmination of her yearlong study on the physics of NASCAR, was the chance of a lifetime.

“I had all these ‘oh my gosh’ moments,” gushed the senior. “I was in the wind tunnel with (Kasey Kahne crew chief) Kenny Francis, and I got to help test Jeff Gordon’s car that had just raced the weekend before.”

She became an honorary crew member, and throughout her project, examined the cars’ engines, aerodynamics, tires and just how NASCAR teams work as a cohesive unit.

Rinker said the biggest lesson she came away with was that the race cars themselves will only take drivers so far without teamwork.

Rinker would come home from Hendrick with stories about her work, some of which went over her parents’ heads.

“It was a moment of parental pride,” Lynette Rinker said. “Our little girl knows what a rear gear cooler is.”

But NASCAR isn’t the only thing that gets Rinker’s wheels turning.

She’s been acting in school plays since the eighth grade and has played violin since kindergarten.

She loves to sew and refashion cute outfits out of the ugliest Goodwill clothes she can find, and one of her guilty pleasures is watching shows on HGTV.

She’s been a tutor at her school and a four-year president of the Student Activities Club, which is essentially Woodlawn’s student government.

“She’s a doer in every sense of the word and has also managed to have a nearly flawless academic record,” Helfrich said.

Last summer, Rinker had some of her research on synthetic biology at Davidson College published. “She’d come home so excited about E. coli,” her mother said with a laugh.

At Princeton, Rinker plans on majoring in some sort of science, which she said she’ll figure out after taking courses in physics, chemistry, molecular biology and computer science. Her childhood ambition of building race cars for NASCAR is still a possibility, but she also has interests in math, Spanish, travel and international politics.

Still, Rinker, who will be attending a college famous for its vines of ivy, eating clubs and upper-echelon academics, won’t let a few raised eyebrows ruin her love of NASCAR.

“I’ll definitely keep up with the races up there,” she said. “I love it all a lot more because of what I’ve learned.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294On Twitter: @lruebens
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