Driven to Race: A Team of Graduate Students Persistently Pursue a Grand Prix Win

Four graduate students posing on the Purdue Grand Prix race track Team Herrick Labs at Purdue's 2023 Grand Prix Race

Ramin Ansari, a 56-year-old Ph.D. candidate in Civil Engineering, had a long and successful career before starting graduate school. He has worked in the chemical industry for 30 years, raised two college-aged kids, and was contemplating retirement when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “I realized that sitting on the couch was not healthy, physically, and mentally. I just felt awful. So, while I would love to retire and be on a beach, that would probably last two weeks before I would mentally and physically unravel…,” said Ansari.

With that realization, he was faced with a choice – continue working in the chemical industry for another 10-20 years or take a leap and try something new. “My thought was, there are some cool things that I’ve done in my career that I would love to teach…,” shared Ansari, “but I also want to do research…” So, he decided to pursue graduate education at Purdue while working full-time for the next few years.

But this wasn’t the first time Ansari thought about attending Purdue – that happened 25 years ago when he saw his first Grand Prix race. “I’ve been into motorsports since I was 16. Even before then, I played around with engines before I was a teenager, and I thought, man, it would’ve been cool to have gone to Purdue…so I could do Grand Prix,” said Ansari, “Fast forward 25 years, and my wife said, ‘Hey, you’re a Purdue student now, can you run Grand Prix?’… I asked around and, sure enough, graduate students can do Grand Prix.” 

Ansari mentioned this to Dr. Eckhard Groll, the Reilly Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and William E. and Florence E. Perry Head of Mechanical Engineering, who was able to supply Ansari with an existing older kart. Kart and dream in hand, Ansari only needed one more thing to make racing in Purdue’s Grand Prix a reality, and that was a team. Luckily, Dr. Groll was able to connect Ansari with three graduate students from Herrick Labs that shared his need for speed - Andreas Hoess, Aaron Farha, and Junyan Ren.

Andreas Hoess, who studies performance degradation of industrial chillers as a 2nd-year Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering, is from Munich, Germany. He first came to Purdue as a visiting scholar in 2017. “I really liked the work environment at Purdue and at Herrick Labs,” he shared, “So, I decided to apply for my master’s and stayed here for my Ph.D. now because it’s a really special place.” Hoess was a crew member for the team and managed their finances.

Aaron Farha, another crew member, is also a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering. Hailing from San Diego, California, Aaron came to Purdue as an undergraduate student before deciding to stay and study thermal storage integration in residential homes in graduate school. He puts his research to the test in the DC Nanogrid House, a 1920s West Lafayette home that was retrofitted to run on its own DC-powered nano-grid.

Junyan Ren, the final graduate student member of the team, is also a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering. He studies HVAC, specifically thermal system engineering, design, and testing. Ren, who is from Chengdu, China came to Purdue in 2014. “When I was a kid, I was very interested in cars, and we all know that America is a nation built on cars. My dream was to go to America and have the American dream. So, after I graduated from high school, I came to the U.S. for my bachelor’s at Purdue,” he shared. Ren’s passion for cars drove him to compete in several other Grand Prix races, which made him the perfect candidate for crew driver.

Together, Team Herrick Labs was born, a team of graduate students with the passion, expertise, and drive needed to shake up the 2023 Grand Prix. With Ramin Ansari as their crew chief and head mechanic, the team worked tirelessly to perfect their kart before race day. “Ramin is like our sponsor right now. He’s pushing us to do everything and he’s passionate about what he’s doing, and we are getting affected by that fire,” said Ren, “When a group of passionate people get together, you know it’s going to be a good time. We all want to have a good time, but Ramin wants to win.”

Team Herrick Labs building thier 2023 Grand Prix cart. From the left: Andreas Hoess, Ramin Ansari, Aaron Farha, and Junyan Ren

After 25 years, Ansari finally got his chance to compete. Team Herrick Labs finished 16th in the race, “We had fuel issues with the engine. We climbed as high as 9th halfway through the race, , but after the one mandatory pit stop, we had to pit two more times,” said Ansari, “We won in our minds.”  To put this performance in perspective, only 33 of 63 teams qualified fast enough to participate in the race, and Team Herrick labs qualified back in the 24th position on the starting grid.

“I’ve always liked to learn things, I’ve always liked to challenge myself, and, to me, that’s kept life exciting. I would say if you have those interests, pursue them regardless of your age,” shared Ansari.

Ansari and the rest of Team Herrick Labs perfectly capture what it is to be a Boilermaker – especially a graduate student Boilermaker – driven, collaborative, and in persistent pursuit of the next giant leap. Learn more about Team Herrick Labs and hear their experience firsthand by watching the video below.

Writer: Brittany Ledman,
Source: Aaron Pearson,

July 24, 2023

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