Angela Ashmore: living the dream in IndyCar

The power of a dream is undeniable – but without hard work, a dream will remain just that. Lifelong racing fan Angela Ashmore (BSME '10, MSME '13) put in her work, and is now living her dream: working as an engineer for Chip Ganassi Racing’s #8 IndyCar team.

 

Start your engines

Angela grew up outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, with racing in her blood. “My dad was a big race fan,” remembers Angela. “He and my uncle used to race together, and my dad was the one-man pit crew!” The family spent their Saturday nights watching short-track contests at the local Berlin Raceway, and their Sundays in front of the TV watching NASCAR. “I loved it from the get-go. From a really young age, that’s all I wanted to do.”

It wasn’t until high school that she began to pursue her dream in earnest. “At that age, everyone is trying to figure things out: maybe I’ll do this, or maybe I’ll do that,” she says. “My dad suggested engineering, and the more I looked at it, I realized it was a perfect fit. That’s when I decided, OK, that’s how I’m going to make this happen.”

While she had assumed she would land at the nearby University of Michigan, a Purdue flyer in the mail changed everything. “We kind of joked about it at first,” Angela recalls. “wouldn’t it be cool if I could go to Purdue? Yeah, right! But after driving to the campus and visiting, I absolutely fell in love with it. I have to do this. This is where I need to be!”

Like many new engineering students, her early years at Purdue were challenging. “It was really a shock,” she remembers. “High school was always easy for me, but this was totally different. It took me a while to get used to the fact that I actually had to study, and plan ahead, and put in a lot of work in order to do well. Everyone struggles with something. I actually ended up retaking one of my electrical classes, because I just didn’t feel like I understood it. It’s pretty funny, because that’s primarily what I do now for Ganassi!”

Of course, Angela excelled at anything to do with motorsports. She worked with Purdue’s Formula SAE team, building a single-seat open wheel race car every year, and competing against other university teams. “I was the suspension lead,” she says, “and spent so much time in the machine shop building parts for the car, I became the lathe specialist!” She learned to how manufacture with carbon fiber, and made composite control arms that shaved 10 pounds of weight off the car.

She also drove the car in competitions, where her years of racing involvement gave her a finely-tuned intuition. “One year I was doing the skidpad test,” she remembers, “and I felt the car was not performing the way it should... almost like it was out of gas. My teammates swore up and down that they had filled it up. We pulled over to check the tank, and sure enough it was empty! I think we all learned a lot that day.”

“Formula SAE was a great experience for me,” Angela continues. “It helped me hone certain skills that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It also gave me a lot of experience to put on my resume, and helped me get my foot in the door. It’s one thing to be interested in something like motorsports, but only a small subsection of people actually go out and do it.”

Angela took that initiative even further during the summer. While working an internship at a steel stamping shop in Michigan, she decided to look for motorsports-related opportunities in her free time. She showed up at Ponstein Racing, a local team competing in the CRA late model series, and offered to work for them at night, for free. “I worked at my normal job from 5:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.,” says Angela, “and then I’d go directly to the race shop and work on race cars. I did whatever they asked: sweep the floors, swap engines out, rebuild brakes. I just wanted the experience of being in a race shop, and would learn whatever they were willing to teach me.”

Unfortunately, part of her education in motorsports was economic. The 2008 economic downturn in America had caused many racing teams to downsize or be eliminated completely, leaving very few opportunities for motorsports newcomers like Angela. So after graduating from Purdue, she decided to take a job with Fiat Chrysler Automotive (now Stellantis), serving in multiple divisions as part of their Chrysler Institute of Engineering.

Chrysler also offered their employees a chance to get their master’s degree, and for Angela, there was only one place she trusted with her education.  “I talked with Chuck Krousgrill at Purdue, who was helping to get their online master’s program up and running,” says Angela. “I presented this option to Chrysler, and they told me to go for it. So I took online master’s classes in mechanics and dynamics from Purdue, while working at Chrysler.”

She had planned to enter Chrysler’s NASCAR program, but three months before her rotation, Chrysler pulled out of NASCAR. So instead, she joined the SRT (Street & Racing Technology) team, working on the first ever 700-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. “That was really fun,” she says, “I got behind the wheel for a lot of testing. I did hundreds of dragstrip passes in the Hellcat.”

Green flag

While it was exciting, even working as an SRT engineer didn’t fulfill Angela’s passion for racing. Her first big break came from a friend who worked at Roush Fenway’s NASCAR team. “It happened really quickly,” remembers Angela. “They offered me a job, we sold the house, and we moved to North Carolina. But once I got there, I really felt like a duck in water. It was so natural for me to do motorsports; this was where I was supposed to be.”

She started at the bottom of the totem pole – “the assistant to the assistant,” Angela jokes. Much like her summer internship, she happily did any task assigned to her, which mostly involved compiling data on tires, and preparing reports for the other engineers. Within a year, Angela was managing her engineering team. The year after that, she began working on Roush’s Xfinity team (the second level of NASCAR), as a race engineer for Bubba Wallace. She soon graduated to the top-level NASCAR Cup Series, working as a race engineer for Trevor Bayne, and then promoted to lead engineer for David Ragan.

Then came a difficult decision. “I was progressing so quickly, it seemed like any moment I might become the first female crew chief in NASCAR,” says Angela. “But the NASCAR schedule is so grueling – 36 races a year – and the offseason is so short. Plus, we really missed being in the Midwest. If we wanted to move on, now was the time.” A Purdue classmate of hers worked at Chip Ganassi Racing, who are based in Indianapolis. When they offered her a chance to join their IndyCar team, she decided to go for it.

Unfortunately, this also meant another trip to the bottom of the totem pole! But she soon came to love the series. “In IndyCar, I have a lot more time and a lot more freedom to dig into the problems,” she says, “and to do whatever is necessary to fix them – whether it’s a physical fix here in the shop, or working with computer simulations.”

As the data systems engineer for Marcus Ericsson’s #8 IndyCar, there is no typical day for Angela at the shop. She may be wrangling data from the most recent race event, or making plans for the next race. She may be uploading programs to the steering wheel’s control screen.  She may be on the shop floor, working with mechanics on the hundreds of components of the race car. “My job really varies day-to-day,” says Angela. “I don’t like to sit at a desk all day. But I do whatever is necessary to get ready for a race.”

Race day

On a race day, Angela’s day starts early. “My first job is to help get the pit box set up,” says Angela. “I run cables to the timing stand, and make sure our Internet and TV signals are working. Setting up pit lane properly is a pretty physical job that takes a few hours. Then I’ll head to the car and zero out all the sensors, to make sure we get good data during our first practice run.”

Driver Marcus Ericsson gets behind the wheel to drive some practice laps, with Angela observing through her laptop setup on the pit box. Once his practice laps end, Angela’s job really begins. She downloads the data, shares it with other engineers on the team (as well as the driver), and determines if they’re hitting their marks for that specific race’s strategy, or if they need to make adjustments.

During the race itself, her primary job is fuel strategy. “I develop a plan during the week,” says Angela, “and so I’m monitoring our fuel mileage in real time, and calculating exactly when we need to stop, or if Marcus needs to save fuel to meet our window.”

Before every pit stop, Angela hops out of the pit box and does double duty with the pit crew. “I control the dead man’s switch, which is basically a safety measure during fueling,” explains Angela. “Fuel flows fast in IndyCar – we deliver 18 gallons of fuel in just 6 seconds. So if there’s ever an accident or a fire, letting go of that switch instantly closes the valves to prevent further fuel flow.” After the frantic 6 seconds, Angela measures exactly how much fuel was delivered, and returns to the pit box to update her data accordingly.

While race day can be extremely stressful, it also offers obvious rewards. In 2020, Chip Ganassi Racing led the IndyCar championship wire-to-wire with driver Scott Dixon. But Angela’s driver, former Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson, had not won a race of any kind in 8 years. At the Detroit Grand Prix on June 12, 2021, Ericsson was sitting second when another driver’s crash led to a course-wide red flag. When racing resumed, leader Will Power’s car would not start.

“That’s something I am always preparing for,” says Angela. “I am always looking at the telemetry, ready to take action. It was a hot day, and the car has so many sensitive electronics. If this certain box overheats, here’s how we fix it. If we need to swap batteries, here’s where the batteries are. If I need to go find something, here’s the fastest route I can run down pit lane. I always have those contingencies in mind.”

Marcus Ericsson took over the lead, and held on to it for the next five laps, crossing the finish line in first place. “It was incredible,” says Angela. “It was everything I wanted since I was five years old. We all jumped into the fountain to celebrate. Of course, then I forgot we had to dry off, because we had another race the next day!”

Ericsson’s next victory, in Nashville on August 8, was equally manic. Early in the race, Ericsson’s car went airborne after running into a slow car in front, destroying his front wing. The pit crew replaced the wing, and after serving a penalty for causing the crash, Ericsson sat well back in the field. After several caution flags, Angela’s fuel strategy came into play, as Ericsson had pitted far earlier than many of the leaders. He preserved his fuel to the end, and finished in first place, with his Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon finishing second.

“I never appreciated how hard it is to win a race,” Angela says. “My first year, I always felt that we were just seconds away from that podium.  But even if you are really good, and you’ve done everything right, and your car is fast, and you’ve got a great team, and you’ve got a great driver... even with all that, everything has to go right for you to win a race. In Detroit and Nashville, everything finally came together.”

Checkered flag

Angela Ashmore has put in her work, and has proven herself many times over – a female race engineer in the male-dominated field of motorsports. But continued success has made that distinction less important. “When you first start out, people might not give you the benefit of the doubt – that you know what you’re doing, that you have skills, and are qualified,” she says. “They might not even know they’re doing it at first. But once people get to know me and understand my experience, it quickly becomes no different, because we all have the same goal.”

Angela joins a host of Boilermakers who are thriving in professional motorsports. One of her Purdue classmates, Chris Gabehart, has won multiple Daytona 500s as the crew chief for NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin. Another Purdue classmate, Jon Hassler, was recently appointed crew chief for NASCAR driver Matt DiBenedetto.

“The biggest thing I learned at Purdue is how to think, and how to problem-solve,” says Angela. “That’s what makes a good engineer, whether it’s here in Indycar, or in any other field. Having that master’s degree gives me something extra... something intangible that most people in this industry don’t have. When it comes to solving complex problems, my Purdue education gives me the edge.”

 

Writer: Jared Pike, jaredpike@purdue.edu, 765-496-0374