All roads lead to Indy
|Event Date:||May 28, 2022|
Alex Offenbach is an IndyCar systems engineer for A.J. Foyt Racing. This is a new position for Alex and only months into his role on the team. And like the generations of Boilermakers who have left a legacy at the Indianapolis 500, Alex is making his own impact one step at a time.
The persistent pursuit of becoming a race engineer
Bill Pappas said, “If you’re serious about being in racing, then you need to get out there and knock on doors and make phone calls to all the teams.” Alex laughs when this quote is repeated to him. “Yes, Bill is spot on and couldn’t be more correct. But I think you also need luck on your side and you must be persistent.”
At the start, Alex wasn’t picky and took any job that would get him started on his career. He knew it would take many roles, like Bill Pappas, to keep moving up step by step.
His first job closest to IndyCar was in open-wheel racing with Andretti Autosport in the Indy Lights series, helping the tire guys scrape wheel weights off the wheels. From there, he was an engineering assistant on the same team and then became a damper specialist on their IndyCar side for three years.
In order to move into the engineering world of IndyCar and his best chance to one day become a race engineer, Alex had to knock on doors again. “You have to look out for yourself. You have to push for the opportunities. And while I loved Andretti Autosport and wanted to work there a very long time, I also needed to chase my goals and was once again knocking on every door, making every phone call I could, talking to anyone who might know someone at a team who was looking. That’s how I ended up where I am today. So for me, as Bill indicated, it wasn’t just the first time knocking on doors. It’s every time.”
When asked, Alex states there isn’t a clear and defined path to become a race engineer, his ultimate career goal, but there are some steps that make more sense than others. When he took on his recent role as systems engineer, he felt this is his first firm step to get him on the right path. “A lot of race engineers have started as damper specialists, which is a great start. I think it is so important to know that part of the car inside and out. But at the same time, you need to know the rest of the car as well. By moving into the role as a data engineer, I’m learning all the systems on the car - the electrical side of the car. I work alongside the performance engineer, which is probably the most logical next step for me. They make the decisions on the gears and the calculations of the fuel as well as some of the driver comparisons to teach their driver where they can make up some ground. Becoming a race engineer is definitely the end goal but it’s a longer-term goal. I think there’s a lot to learn before I get there.”
So we asked, “what makes a great race engineer?”
Alex said the best race engineers he has worked with started as a mechanic. “They know what it takes, the amount of effort and time it takes to assemble the components of the car. They know what changes are worth the amount of time they’re going to have to spend, because when on the track we only have a limited amount of time. If you’re going to make a time-consuming change that’s only going to make a marginal amount of performance, it may not be the best choice to do right there in that moment but can be adjusted later.”
Alex said he feels like he has a little catching up to do because he didn’t start out in the industry as a mechanic but said there are other traditional or less traditional routes. “Given I was never a mechanic, I think it is important to interact with them a lot and understand what it takes.”
One such race engineer that started out as a mechanic, and who Alex worked under while at Andretti Autosport, is Purdue alumnus Nathan O’Rourke. “He was a really big part of my learning experience at Andretti Autosport. He was able to give me jobs that were a little outside-the-box of my position, which enabled me to learn more and evolve as a young person in this industry. One of my favorites things that I did with him at the lead was that I was part of the pre-race strategy meetings. Being able to contribute to the strategy of the race is my favorite thing in this business. We spend a lot of time building cars and preparing cars and such a small part of what we do is the actual race itself, but that’s what we do it all for. So I love the strategy of IndyCar, especially the 500 mile race. It’s a long race but you’re not just pounding around out there. Everything you do is calculated. You’re setting yourself up from lap 1 so you’re in the perfect position in lap 200.”
Telling Nathan he was leaving Andretti Autosport wasn’t easy, and in fact his most difficult conversation. “I had a hard time telling him. I loved working with him and I hope I can work with him again one day. He was really instrumental in giving me some of the skills that I was able to pitch when looking for other teams to move up.”
In Nathan’s persistent pursuit story from the grandstands to pit row, he talked about his advice for the young people in racing and the importance of making an impression by going above and beyond. “As someone who worked under him, it’s very evident that he believed in it based on the opportunities he gave me and really does want to see young people succeed in the sport,” said Alex.
The road to Indy
In May 2006, Alex attended his first race ever with his dad at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch the Indy 500. His dad received tickets from one of his clients and thought it would be something fun to do. “Little did I know that it would change the rest of my life.”
He recalled the day was very hot which he expected for Indiana, but it was during the first lap when the cars drove by that made an unexpected impression on Alex. “It was like something inside me changed. I felt that energy. I always knew I wanted to be an engineer, but that day and the first time I saw the cars go by, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
And let’s be clear. Alex didn’t want to race the car but to engineer the car. He said as a kid he was very hands-on with anything technical, played with Legos, and drew a lot of buildings. He even thought at one point he’d become an architect, but it was the hands-on experiences that he desired most.
“Engineering isn’t always hands-on but that’s why the engineering of race cars is the perfect mix.”
VIDEO | In 2018, Alex worked at his first Indianapolis 500 race with Andretti Autosport. It was a full circle moment with his dad and brother standing in the same spot from 2006, watching Alex make his way down Gasoline Alley.
Who can provide that perfect mix? When Alex was looking at colleges, he said one of the things that drew him to Purdue was their connection to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 race. “I remember reading an article about how a student organization at Purdue was teamed up with one of the IndyCar teams. And because my cousin went to Purdue, I knew Purdue was a good school. It was the combination of all of that made me realize that Purdue could be the perfect place for me to be able to accomplish what I want to do. Really, it was Purdue that helped me realize this could be a possibility because of their ties.”
Alex would one day end up becoming president of that student organization mentioned in the article, Motorsports at Purdue.
“I’ll never forget my first visit to Purdue. They take you through the Armstrong Hall (of Engineering) and just down the hall is the Multidisciplinary Engineering office. On the tour, I saw in the EPICS lab an electric go-kart. I looked at that and said ‘Wow, I want to do that!’ and fast-forward to the end of my freshman year, I actually got to drive that exact kart that I saw on my tour. My first year at Purdue brought everything around in full circle and really made me realize this could be a possibility.”
The forked road from West Lafayette to Indianapolis
Besides knocking on doors, Alex also said being in the race industry takes some luck too. “I was really lucky to break into this industry and I say that anyone who gets into this industry needs to be a little bit lucky. You can try all of you want but luck needs to be on your side.”
Alex said his connections through Motorsports at Purdue were very important. It was how he got his first internship with the United States Auto Club (USAC). He stayed on for three years and learned a lot about this entry level of racing, as it was youth racing and tasked with pushing off the cars because they couldn’t start themselves. He then took on learning to do minor technical inspections, and that role grew and grew.
It was when he graduated from Purdue in 2016 with his engineering degree from Multidisciplinary Engineering that the fork in the road appeared. “When I graduated, there was a period when I wasn’t sure if this was really a realistic possibility. I believed I could do it and I knew I had what it took but it was hard to find those opportunities. They didn’t come easily. I put all my chips into racing. I didn’t know anything else.”
He took a chance on himself and went to North Carolina to work on pavement midget cars through someone he had connected with at USAC. “That was good fun but like I say, luck is needed. The racetrack design company I worked for had a big project and they needed somebody. I was lucky at the time that I was looking while they were looking.”
This was the first step that Alex took to begin his career path in racing. His break into IndyCar would wait for him.
All signs point to Plan B
Alex was executing Plan B, but it turns out that it was really his best plan all along. “It was like my plan to go to Purdue. I didn’t want to go anywhere else but Purdue. I applied other places but once I got in, it wasn’t even a question. I didn’t even visit the other campuses of schools I had gotten into.”
Alex came to Purdue to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. He said while the Purdue engineering curriculum isn’t always the easiest, one of the best things about multidisciplinary engineering is when other programs aren’t necessarily there for you, MDE was for him. “One of Professor P’s (Dr. Mary Pilotte) quotes is if sometimes you don’t find Plan B, Plan B finds you. Admittedly, MDE was my Plan B, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me in my college career. I think that the staff and the size of the program helps to make it a really supportive program from within. If something does arise and you’re having trouble or want to take a class and can’t find a way to learn what you want to learn, they go the extra mile to get you what you want out of your college experience. While it wasn’t what I came looking for, it was the best thing that happened to me and I am a super proud MDE alum.”
Ironically and due to the nature of the multidisciplinary curriculum, Alex took many of his engineering courses in the School of Mechanical Engineering because it was where his interests were and what made sense for the racing industry.
Another big interest that stems all the way back to his younger days of drawing was CAD and 3-D modeling. He took every CAD class that Purdue had to offer as well as some manufacturing classes, knowing that a lot of the IndyCar teams manufacture their own parts. The understanding of those processes and being efficient with the resources available were important for his desired skillset and education.
He said the opportunity to pick courses from different departments led to even more opportunities to learn perspectives from the different engineering disciplines. “Therefore, I could really focus in on what I wanted to learn. My approach to my education was to learn the skills that would get me here and to not necessary just get the degree and run. I wanted to learn certain things and make sure they were things I would be able to apply and help me get to my end goal.”
‘All roads lead to Indy’
When asked about Alex’s story and some takeaways for the readers, Dr. Pilotte, director of the undergraduate program and his mentor, stated her thoughtful response, “For Alex, all roads lead to Indy.” When we asked Alex to consider that statement likely to become the title of this story, he smiled. “I think ‘all roads lead to Indy’ is the perfect title to my story. Though there were times when it didn’t look like it might happen, and it might be somewhere else in the racing industry was where I’d end up, I’m here now and there’s nowhere I’d rather be. I can’t picture it going any other way.”
Alex’s parents weren’t sure what would happen either but their moral support helped more than they could ever know. “I actually can’t thank them enough. They knew that this goal of mine – this dream of mine – wasn’t typical. They knew it may be tough on me mentally and financially, but they always gave me anything I needed to follow my dreams so that I could be happy.”
Following his lead, Alex’s little brother is currently trying to break into his career in sports. “My journey has somewhat prepared my parents on what he will go through but also inspired my brother to try something that he might otherwise not have taken a chance on like I did.”
More of Alex's persistent pursuit
May 25, 2022: Q&A with Alex
Alex talks in depth on his role as a systems engineer
The A.J. Foyt Crew at the Indianapolis 500