One of the highlights of any year at Indianapolis is looking at the newest batch of rookie drivers – wide-eyed, enthusiastic and chomping at the bit to make their first 500 starts.
Less heralded but no less important are the fresh faces from an engineering perspective. And thanks to IUPUI's Motorsports Engineering degree program, the first and only program of its kind in the nation, young engineers looking to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors are populating the IZOD IndyCar Series paddock at a much higher rate.
This year, nearly 15 students and recent grads are working at the Speedway with five teams (Panther Racing, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Andretti Autosport, Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing), and in IndyCar Tech Inspection.
The longest-standing relationship between team and university has been with the two acronyms – SFHR and IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) – for several years. Yet this year, the biggest footprint of IUPUI grads and interns is at Panther Racing, with two grads hired as engineers (junior engineer Ryan Corso is above, LEFT), three motorsports engineering interns, and one grad also hired to assist with Panther public relations.
Chase Kaufman serves as a damper technician on Panther's primary No. 4 entry driven by JR Hildebrand. The 2012 graduate has primarily worked with the team on simulations, damper work and other projects. Unsurprisingly, he says working on the team's 2011 effort as a backup fuel strategist – including the Indianapolis 500 – was his greatest highlight thus far.
“I learned a great amount in school, but I have to admit I've learned roughly 1,000 times more on the team!” he says. “I've been really happy to work on this new car, because with the previous one at the end of its life cycle, it made it a bit difficult to see what the engineering was like.”
Indeed the Dallara DW12 is that fresh face for engineers, and its presence has opened the floodgate of opportunities more than the venerable Dallara IR03 which served from 2003-'11. Scott Raymond, an IUPUI professor in his second year, Andretti Autosport consultant this month (with Sebastian Saavedra) and an 11-year motorsports engineering veteran, expands on what the new car's presence has meant for burgeoning engineers.
“This year, it sort of exploded,” he says. “A lot of teams have been calling us and saying, ‘We need this type of person.' There hasn't been a lot of growth in the number of engineers, so there's been no growth for the new ones. The main technical people, you've seen go from team to team. We're working to where we create graduates who are ready to go.”
At Panther specifically, Raymond cites the calming, cool influence of chief engineer/technical director David Cripps in trying to cast a wider net in finding future all-star engineers.
“What he had said to me was, ‘I just want to bring in some youth and fresh ideas in engineering,' and now, he has five students!” Raymond notes. “What people are after now requires specific attention and detail to the IndyCar culture and how it's grown. Having a young, eager person who understands the technical aspects is really important.”
One of Raymond's teaching activities that allows his students to get hands-on training without the expense of testing is in-class simulations. Raymond teaches two classes on data acquisition and analysis, and has built test sessions into his curriculum. Using a simulator, Raymond acts as driver while students are split into groups of three or four to serve as crews, changing setup based on Raymond's feedback. His most recent semester, Raymond provided four such simulations, but wants to expand that number to six.
“Each group has to come up with a setup, and the quickest theoretical lap times get more points,” he says of the scoring process. “It's real, practical experience that they get that sense of pressure. I'm really excited by it, it keeps students going and it's a fun way to learn.
“The way the economy of racing has changed, you can't test nearly as much as you used to,” he adds. “It needs to be simulated and calculated. The expectations are different. With the testing and expense limitations, you have to be creative in your preparation.”
Kaufman says the simulations help to provide a good baseline setup for race weekends where track time is limited – as he describes it, most weekends outside Indianapolis given there's more than a week's worth of running over the month of May.
“The sims help you to figure out all the parameters of the car and then put them into action,” he says. “You're trying to work on setups prior to events. It helps to provide better optimization of the car and get a good feel of the car.”
Regarding the IUPUI program itself (logo above left sidepod on Bryan Clauson's car), Raymond says the university is determining what critical mass it needs to hit before maxing out with the number of students.
“We've grown and developed to where we're now graduating our first class of five students with the first set of degrees,” he says. “The program is growing to where we can reach a critical mass of about 20 per year. You can't graduate 50 or 60 per year because there's not enough positions for that many graduates. But as it grows, you can maybe have 30 to 40 the first year, with the expectation not all of them will graduate.”
There isn't an award bestowed on the top rookie engineer every year at Indianapolis, but rest assured, for as much of the accolades a driver will receive, they'll note a large part of their success comes from the crew behind them. Thanks to this program, IUPUI seems determined to keep churning out potential race-winning wrench tuners with every passing year.