A physics major built a car that goes from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds. Next is Harvard Law School.
Jonathan Laifman has been tinkering on cars since he was a kid, a hobby passed down from his father and grandfather. (Photos: Seth Krieger.)

A physics major built a car that goes from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds. Next is Harvard Law School.

Jonathan Laifman’s passion for cars remained a constant while he decided on a career path at USC Dornsife, an explorative journey that led him to both physics and law.
ByMargaret Crable

On a sunny day this past February, an unusual sound reverberated in the air around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: the rumble of powerful engines. NASCAR had installed a track inside the historic venue to kick off its racing season. Before any NASCAR rubber officially hit the asphalt, however, the USC Racing team got to give their wheels a spin around the track.

In the stands, Jonathan Laifman, a physics major graduating this year from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, watched as a driver put the car through its paces. As president of USC Racing, a chapter of Formula SAE, a division of SAE International that challenges university students to design, build and race Formula One cars, Laifman had guided the creation of the low-slung speedster, which can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds.

It was a highpoint for Laifman, who’d entered USC Dornsife uncertain of anything other than his enthusiasm for fast wheels. “I knew very few things coming into college. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to study or where I wanted to go after, but I did know I absolutely loved cars,” says Laifman.

This interest remained a constant while Laifman tried out a variety of majors, from economics to screenwriting, to find his academic passion. His chosen focus, physics, eventually became intertwined with race cars, too.

“It’s kind of astonishing the number of times that people on the team end up looking to me to help them figure out the basic science behind something,” says Laifman. “I feel like, because of the way physics is taught at USC Dornsife, I’m always ready with information on how to help build things and design pieces for the car.”

A new way of seeing the world — and engineering cars

Laifman likes to say he “grew up under cars,” tinkering with his father on a blue 1963 Sunbeam Alpine and a viper green 1973 Porsche 911. It’s a passion passed down from Laifman’s grandfather, a rocket scientist who worked on NASA’s Apollo missions and who was also a car enthusiast.

Before he even arrived on the USC campus, Laifman knew he wanted to join the racing team. “I emailed them to warn them that I was coming,” he admits.

He was less certain about his academic path. He enrolled as a philosophy major but also tried classes in mechanical engineering, economics and screenwriting.

An introductory course on physics with Gene Bickers, professor of physics and astronomy, convinced him the field was for him.

“He has this amazement with how the world works, and our ability to categorize it and describe it using math equations,” says Laifman. “I would come ready to learn, and also ready to be tripped up. Sometimes physics is exactly how you expect it to be, then other times you’re completely wrong. That whole experience was absolutely amazing.”

Physics gave Laifman a new way of looking at the world, which he could also apply to the challenge of building cars that would out-maneuver competitors and achieve a high speed quickly.

“When you’re in a competitive mindset, every single piece needs to be optimized, down to the nuts and bolts and how they fit together,” says Laifman. His physics training made him well-versed with the fundamental rules for things like gravity and momentum, helping solve puzzles like how to reduce the car’s weight or improve its turning radius.

Members of the USC Racing team stand behind a small race car on a track at the L.A. Coliseum..

In February, the USC Racing team got a chance to race their car around an official NASCAR track.

Race on!

USC’s flexibility in allowing Laifman to explore also led him to law. The course “LAW 210: Fundamentals of the U.S. Legal System” taught by Donald Scotten, professor of the practice of law at the USC Gould School of Law, drew him in the way physics had, by giving him a new way to interpret the world.

“There’s something about approaching problems from a legal mindset that I found very interesting,” says Laifman. He became a research assistant for Scotten and also co-founded The Trojan Review, USC’s first undergraduate law review, with economics major Marshall Amaya. Their first publication debuts this spring.

Following graduation, Laifman is headed to Harvard Law School. Like his first year at USC Dornsife, he’s not exactly sure what area of the field he’ll focus on. He’s confident he’ll find his way, however, after such a successful experience at USC.  

In the meantime, he’s gearing up for the final Formula SAE race of his career at the Michigan International Speedway in June. Laifman was selected as one of the drivers. He’ll be spotted easily by his racing helmet — custom-engraved with the “Fight On” symbol.