Graduating AAE Student Wins Purdue Grand Prix
On his final semester at Purdue, Alex Kardashian redeemed himself for his previous attempt at the Purdue Grand Prix. Mere weeks before graduating and heading to work in missile defense at Northrop Grumman, Kardashian stepped out of his go-kart at the Purdue Grand Prix race track and accepted his winner’s trophy for the 65th running of the race.
Having been in motorsports for 17 years, the Aeronautics and Astronautics student hardly remembers a time when he didn’t know how to drive. His dad was involved in the Skip Barber Racing School, so he was eager to put Alex behind the wheel as soon as possible. Alex started driving go-karts when he was 5.
“I’m from Minnesota, and a lot of the car racing happens more out east, south, or all the way on the west coast. Go-karting was always the most accessible type of racing for me,” he says.
With most of his motorsport experience in open-wheel racing, he naturally jumped at the opportunity to borrow a friend’s kart for the annual Purdue Grand Prix (PUGP) in 2019 — what would be the last grand prix before the coronavirus pandemic.
The Purdue Grand Prix race series sets a minimum weight for the kart, specifies the engine to be used, and outlines requirements for the kart chassis and roll cage. Kardashian had a borrowed car, a borrowed garage, and a few friends recruited for the team. Kardashian and his team made use of his racing experience and his training as an engineer to take advantage of the flexibility in the rule set. Together, they prepped the kart and themselves for the race.
The roll cage, which is an unusual feature in kart racing, was an adjustment for him on the race track.
“Standard go-karts roll with a different safety strategy. If you flip, you get ejected from the kart and get your body away. Here, we're saying we want people say in the car and then get protected by the roll cage. It’s just different strategies,” Kardashian says.
Fully strapped in to the Purdue Grand Prix kart, he couldn’t use his usual tricks of leaning his body in turns, or lowering his head on straights to reduce drag. Still, he was able to adjust, and on that race day in 2019, Kardashian took an early lead.
But tragedy struck — one that may have made him grateful for the added safety of the inconvenient cage. “We were actually winning the race until I took myself out in a crash,” Kardashian says.
Thinking about his 2022 race, he begins to describe a similar situation as his prior experience — a borrowed car, a team of friends, and using his additional years of engineering classes to help inform decisions for the kart. He even had three fellow engineering students on his team: Hanyao Hu, Aaron Guo, and Justin Mickus, who are all in AAE, and Nicholas Gildenhuys, a computer engineering major.
“Everything we do is really following the engineering design process. We see a problem, we identify a way that we think we can change it, and we experiment with it. We analyze the results, then retest,” Kardashian says.
After qualifying in first place, Kardashian pulled ahead as the green flag dropped. He held his lead over 2021 champion Jacob Peddycord, and pulled ahead enough to maintain that lead even after the mandatory pit stop.
He credits his life behind the wheel for having the core and neck strength to endure. It was a demanding race, he says, especially with the race seat aggravating the prior injuries he’d had to his ribs — but he could see other drivers struggling more. “It's a very physical race, muscle-wise. You can go to the gym and train every day, but how do you work out your neck muscles to hold up your helmet?” Kardashian says.
At the end of 150 laps, bruised and exhausted, Kardashian took one more spin around the course – this time, holding the checkered flag. But to him, there was one surprise yet to come: a congratulatory message from Bill Crossley, the J. William Uhrig and Anastasia Vournas Head of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
“He sent me a congratulations email and I was shocked, because it's I'm aware of his schedule. So that was really cool for me,” Kardashian says. And though he officially raced as part of the Jimmy Simpson racing team – that’s his friend who provided the kart for 2022 – Kardashian still holds AAE in his heart.
“I got like a little trophy, that they call the traveling trophy, and I want to give it to the AAE department,” he says. “I was hoping that maybe if someone sees the trophy, they’ll want to start a team for engineering. It's become run mainly by the dorms to fraternities, and I think it would be really cool someday that if we could have an Aero team, or even a College of Engineering team in the Grand Prix.”