Start your engines! Life in the fast lane with alumnus, Keith Edie.
With rows of semi-trailers filled with state of the art tools and facilities, dozens of sponsors paying top dollar for exposure, race cars screaming by at speeds in excess of 180 miles per hour and the legendary Mario Andretti standing and observing mere inches away, one might say that Keith Edie (M.E./2011) is living every little boy’s dream. For Edie, however, this is his job and it’s one he takes very seriously.
Edie is a Trackside Engineer for Ilmor Engineering, which is a company under contract to Chevrolet. He is responsible for supporting the Chevy race engine for the #25 Marco Andretti (Mario’s grandson) car in the IZOD IndyCar races. He travels with the race team and works directly with all the other engineers and mechanics, and Andretti himself. “It’s an endless cycle of discussing different calibration options, drivability options, and getting feedback on how the engine is performing,” says Edie. “My team works with the information we get from the race team and driver and we make the calibration changes that will improve the car’s overall performance.”
As it is with most engineering challenges, success at IndyCar is all about teamwork. Edie works for the Chevy team, which has 12 cars and 12 trackside engineers in IndyCar and they all work together to these engines perform well. As part of this team, his focus is on fuel calibration and consumption. This data is essential to ensuring the cars have enough fuel to finish the race but not too much as to weigh the car down. He is also part of Team Andretti, so his goal is to see the #25 car perform the best and has to be certain not to share any team “secrets” with the other Chevy teams. A difficult tightrope to walk at times!
Race cars run on E85, an ethanol-based fuel and there are anywhere between 600 and 700 horses under the hood. Race engines take a real beating. For example, the average engine in an average street vehicle is expected to last approximately 200,000 miles if maintained properly. Compare that to the expected life expectancy of a race engine of around 2,000 miles with maintenance. If a team doesn’t make that expectancy and has to swap in a new engine early, they are penalized and each team is allowed only 5 engines for the race season.
During practice runs, qualifying runs and races, most eyes are on the car and driver. Edie, however, is glued to a computer screen in the pit area. There he sees the car’s “vitals”: fuel pressure, oil pressure and engine temperature. He is also listening in on the communication between the driver, Marco Andretti, and his crew chief. If Edie sees or hears a problem with how the engine is performing it is his responsibility to tell the team to bring the car in. Not an easy call to make at times. “It can sometimes be intimidating if the car is in the middle of a race to say, ‘hey, you gotta stop, you’ve got a problem’,” says Edie. “But that’s when you have to buckle down and say ‘look we either bring in the car or we could lose the engine’.” What a responsibility!
Engineering plays a huge role in the success or failure of a race car. In addition to the in-race data Edie receives from the car, after the race he plugs into the car itself to download a huge amount of data collected by the car over the course of the race. Edie and his team analyze this data to see how the engine performed and if any changes are required.
So how does a prairie kid end up the trackside engineer for Marco Andretti? Edie admits that when he was in high school he did not have a career plan. Even when he decided to take Engineering at the University of Manitoba he still had no idea what he wanted to do. He had always enjoyed working on cars, but never saw himself working in the automotive industry. While studying Engineering, Edie got involved in the University of Manitoba Society of Automotive Engineers (UMSAE) and joined the Formula Race team. Upon graduation Edie designed medical instruments for IMRIS. Then he happened upon a cool job-posting on an on-line forum and without any expectations he sent in a resume. “It all happened so fast,” says Edie. “I sent in my resume and that same day I got a call, had a phone interview the next morning and one week later they flew me down for an interview.”
Edie owes a great deal of his success to the experience he gained as a team leader for the Formula SAE team at the University of Manitoba and to the hands-on practical experience he gained working at his dad’s construction company growing up. The combination of an engineering degree and hands-on know-how was precisely what Ilmor Engineering was looking for. “The fact that I was able to take a course on internal combustion engines while in school was vital,” says Edie. “Not every engineering school offers that, and our teacher, Ed Hohenberg, made it interesting and exciting. I understand not only the math behind the engine’s calibrations, but how that math is applied.” Edie’s UMSAE experience also taught him that come race time, you don’t stop until the job is done. As a member of the Formula SAE team Edie has had experience with all-nighters to prepare for a race. This experience has served him well as he now regularly encounters 15-hour work days leading up to a race.
So what’s it like to work with racing royalty, namely the Andretti family? Edie has been impressed with how focused and involved they are with the car. “If I have a question about how the car performed, I can text or call Marco directly and he’ll get back to me right away,” says Edie. “And if he has some feedback or questions he just texts me directly.” Clear and open communication is vital to ensuring the car is performing the way it should and Edie appreciates how accessible the Andretti’s have been to him and his team.
What has been the scariest moment for Edie since becoming a trackside engineer? “That’s easy,” Edie chuckles, “it was my very first race on my own. The race before I had been shadowing another engineer. This time I was the trackside engineer and at the moment the green flag dropped our car began to slow down. Every eye in the pit area was on me asking ‘What’s happening?’ My heart nearly stopped but when I looked at my data it said the engine was fine. After about 20 minutes of terror we discovered the problem, and thankfully it wasn’t the engine! I’ll never forget that moment!”
Being a trackside engineer is a lifestyle choice. There are 19 races per season consisting of 16 race weekends. Edie is on the road with his race team 175-200 days a year, travelling across the United States and one race in Brazil. A successful race-day for Edie is if all the Chevy cars perform well and the #25 car wins. “I like to think I’ve played a part in the team’s success,” says Edie. “If something I do leads to the car performing better for the driver, then that’s a successful day for me.”
When not on the road, Edie is back at his office just outside Detroit. Even when the team is not heading to a race, they are planning for the next season of racing. More in depth analysis of the race data and more in depth testing is done to ensure they have all the correct calibrations and tools necessary to make the required improvements and preparations for next season.
If you or someone you know would love to do what Edie is doing, tell them to get an Engineering degree from the University of Manitoba and make sure they get involved in UMSAE. While still a student Edie was very involved in the Faculty’s recruitment initiatives. “It’s a great program to be in,” says Edie. “The job opportunities are pretty much endless. You can wear a suit every day or get knee-deep in grease. With an engineering degree you can choose.”