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Before Tampa’s Aric Almirola became a NASCAR Cup Series regular, he needed a backup plan.

So the Hillsborough High alumnus went to UCF to study mechanical engineering, in case racing didn’t work out.

He didn’t need that degree after all. Almirola enters Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega 11th in points. He won the last race at the massive superspeedway and will likely be one of the top contenders this weekend.

Nonetheless, the Tampa Bay Times asked the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford about his time as a student in Orlando in Ask Aric — a periodic feature where the NASCAR playoff contender shares his thoughts on racing, the season and his hometown.

What’s your favorite memory of your time at UCF?

I think one of my favorite memories or times at UCF was second semester of my freshman year. I took intro to engineering. Going through that class and meeting a lot of the other students that were going into engineering, and being able to work on projects with them…really that was the first time in my school career that I’ve ever been surrounded with like-minded people.

Obviously not all of us were headed down the same career path, but in that intro to engineering, all of my fellow classmates and friends that I’d become friends with were very like-minded. We liked problem solving, and we liked creating things in our mind and imagination and then putting pen to paper and trying to figure out how to create it and make it work, and all the problem solving and equations that go into it. And then working on group projects together with those people, that was a lot of fun.

I could directly relate at that time everything that I was learning to racing and what I wanted to do with my career and for the foreseeable future – working on race cars and figuring out how to make race cars go fast. Even if I didn’t become a race car driver, that was my goal…

So being in those engineering classes and specifically the intro to engineering, I think really just opened my eyes to how many other people there were out there that had ambitions similar to mine.

I feel like engineers are a special breed of people, and they’re always thinking about how things work and the things that many people take for granted when they walk into a building. Well, somebody sat down and figured out how to make that building structurally sound so that it stands on its own and can withstand the loads that are put on each floor and the building. If it has to experience a hurricane or tornado or earthquake or all of those different things, a lot of that is built into the equation.

There’s people that sit down and do a lot of math and a lot of engineering and a lot of studying to figure out how to make all that stuff work. Being around all those people, for me, in college was really enjoyable.

Originally written by Matt Baker for the Tampa Bay Times