It’s not yet the month of May, but it might as well be in observing another time-honored tradition that provides an annual race for glory and a winner’s ceremonial swig of milk.
And the best part is the Purdue Grand Prix has an even stronger connection to the real thing.
So many go-kart team participants who competed in Saturday’s 60th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in College Racing” at West Lafayette, Indiana, have an ambitious eye toward the future. Be it drivers or team members, these Purdue University engineering students aspire to be a part of the Indianapolis 500, “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Bill Pappas was one of those students. He followed the Purdue path to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The longtime racing engineer is now INDYCAR’s vice president of competition for engineering.
“With Purdue being an engineering school in the state of Indiana and the connection to the automotive industry, the Indy 500 is the ultimate for all engineering students to be a part of at some point in their lives,” Pappas said. “Through the grand prix, it develops driver talent and engineering talent for people who could end up being in the racing industry.
“It was just a natural connection. If you wanted to be part of racing at Indianapolis, when I was growing up, I thought you had to get an engineering degree and there’s no better place to do that than Purdue. It’s right in our backyard.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles was grand marshal for Saturday’s race, which again provided its share of excitement as freshman mechanical engineering major Kyle Tilley of Cary Racing overcame an early flat tire to drive his No. 14 entry to victory. Runner-up Abby Willis was trying to become the second female to win the race.
“You think about traditions in May and how important it is here at the speedway, and certainly in Indiana one of the great traditions is the Purdue Grand Pix,” Boles said. “What a cool opportunity. We do a lot of stuff with Purdue here (at IMS) during the month of May. And my wife, Beth, is a Purdue grad, and was involved in the Purdue Grand Prix committee when she was in school.
“Just like us in May, this is their biggest race of the year and they take it seriously. Purdue is one of those schools that really has figured out how to embrace motorsport and they really showcase it well with the grand prix.”
Jimmy Simpson, who last year became the first driver to win the Purdue Grand Prix four times, has raced in Indy Lights and the Atlantic Championship Series in addition to midgets.
“There’s obviously the driver side that’s a direct connection,” Boles said. “But probably more likely is the number of engineering minds that come out of Purdue. Having an opportunity to help build, prepare and engineer those karts in that competitive environment, it’s a great foundation to begin the transition into professional motorsport as an engineer, a lead mechanic, data acquisition; there’s all kinds of things folks learn there.”
Boles spoke of the honor to be a grand marshal and mentioned others influential in racing who have observed the Purdue Grand Prix tradition. That includes the late Tony Hulman, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner who teamed with three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw to resurrect the famous venue and Indy 500 in 1946.
“It’s not just important now, it always has been important in maintaining that connection between Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Purdue University and the engineering students and other students that have an affinity for motorsports,” Boles said.
The weather is warming up, racing season is upon us, the Purdue Grand Prix go-karts have circled their track for 160 laps, and now the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28 is just around the corner.
“On the weekends, if I’m not at the speedway, I’m at some other racetrack,” Boles said. “There’s not many other places I’d rather be than hanging out with racers.”