Ohio State students fix up aging IndyCar racer

It would be weeks before the race car was ready to hurtle down the track in a glossy, white-and-black blur. But even as the car sat unmoving, unfinished under the warehouse lights, its racing team circled around to marvel.

The team, eight students from Ohio State University, had just assembled the car for the first time with its new engine. Axles, cockpit and a jumble of parts had come together into a sleek IndyCar racer, painted with a black No. 9.

“Do you guys realize that everything you designed is fitting perfectly?" Casey Putsch told the students. “That never happens."

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Last year, Putsch, 32, decided that college students have too few routes into the racing world. An OSU graduate who races vintage cars, Putsch had a remedy: He would gather interns and buy an aging race car that they could fix up in the Dublin warehouse where he runs a restoration shop.

Lawrence Lei, 21, was leaving class when he saw Putsch for the first time. Putsch had set up a booth in an engineering hall at Ohio State to pitch his internship idea. Lei, a car enthusiast from Knoxville, Tenn., headed to the table to hear details. He was sold when he learned about the “final exam."

The car will race in June at the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational, a new event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway accompanying the Indianapolis 500, held two weeks earlier. Putsch will drive, and the students will serve as his team for the 35-minute sprint race on the Brickyard’s 2.4-mile road course.

Later, they will race again at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, near Lexington.

“I just think it’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Lei said. “And as an engineering exercise, the car itself is fascinating."

After a round of interviews at his shop, Putsch chose eight students for the team. Lei and five others on the team study engineering. Two are art students. Most of them have tinkered with cars for years, but each one took on a specialty to master during the project, such as aerodynamics or brakes.

They call it the Genius Garage Racing Team.

Although the group has no official connection to Ohio State, it adds to a growing number of motorsport teams open to college students.

“It’s a complement to some of the things we have done," said Giorgio Rizzoni, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State. “There is a supply of young minds here that are interested in these kinds of things."

For example, students on the Buckeye Bullet team have broken several land-speed records for electric vehicles. Others in the EcoCar group have won awards for making ordinary cars more fuel-efficient. When Putsch studied at Ohio State, he was on a team that builds and competes with small, high-speed race cars.

At Putsch’s garage, students don’t earn pay or course credit for their work. Some call that a fair tradeoff for working flexible hours. Others said that employers will notice the project even if it doesn’t have a school’s stamp of approval.

“All of them really look for independence and being able to work and complete a project," said Mahesh Chigurupati, 19, a junior on the team. “And I just was really, really interested in learning more about this."

For six months, the students have been preparing for race day. The Chevy engine they installed will add torque to the 1997 Reynard Champ Car, making it a better fit for the winding road courses the car soon will face. But the engine also requires new systems to feed fuel to it and to cool it.

After studying how radiators cool cars, Chigurupati designed a new one and had it custom-made. He also installed steel brakes that heat up and respond to pressure more quickly.

Austin Wright, 19, crafted a rear wing that produces less air drag, so the car also can race on faster, oval courses.

The students plan to run the engine and test their work for the first time this week. They’re confident it will work. Putsch, who plans to race the car at speeds approaching 200 mph on the road course, said he is, too.

“I’m working with all the students carefully and seeing what they’re doing," he said. “We’re confident that everything they’re doing is being done right." Columbus Dispatch

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