Engineering Towards the Checkered Flag

For most working professionals, terms like “competitive advantage” and “winning returns” serve as mere business goals, benchmarks against which company performance and improvement efforts can be measured. For ISD graduate Akilla Srikrishna and his employer, Chip Ganassi Racing, though, the words take on a far more literal meaning.

“Every test we do, every simulation we do is to somehow improve the car from what it has been or understand what went wrong with the recommendations versus the reality on track,” Akilla says. “There is a rush every day to work towards that one goal of winning races. The environment is extremely passionate…but pressurized, unlike a normal company.”

Such is life in the world of professional auto racing, a fiercely competitive, pressure-packed sport where the margin for error is razor-thin and the input of engineers like Akilla can make an enormous difference. Track design, loading conditions, banking angle, and countless other nuances play such a crucial role in car performance that by the time a driver buckles in, half the battle has already been won or lost. And for those who work in NASCAR—with its stringent design regulations and often grueling schedule—an even more critical element looms: time.

akilla at ISD showcase 2015

“The car has to be built from scratch, tested and then sent out for the race, and NASCAR usually races every week,” Akilla says. “That puts immense pressure on each individual to utilize the time they have with the car to learn as much [as possible] and report back to the team.”

Luckily for the Automotive Engineering graduate, he has the right set of skills for the job. Initially drawn to engineering by his love of physics (“fundamentally, everything is physics,” he says), Akilla knew ISD was the right fit after deciding to home in on automotive, since few other universities offer such a specialization. He was especially intrigued by the program’s Vehicle Dynamics course taught by Professor Gábor Orosz, which provides a fundamental understanding of vehicle handling and ride performance—knowledge he undoubtedly uses when making recommendations to his team.

Not merely a racing junkie, Akilla was also attracted to U-M’s research in autonomous transportation. He worked with Dr. Huei Peng and fellow classmates on a project dealing with decentralized integrated chassis controls, an effort to integrate safety systems like electronic stability control and anti-lock braking in order to increase performance and improve crash avoidance. For Akilla, the opportunity to “work on a topic which contributes to the future” was among his proudest accomplishments, made sweeter by the fact that his team achieved its goals in just one semester.

“[U-M] is in line with research towards autonomous transportation and this is clearly emphasized in the program curriculum, which places significant importance on controls and electronics,” he notes. “If you want to be part of the autonomous future, ISD is the place to be.”

If Akilla ever decides to leave motorsports and pursue other career interests—perhaps in autonomous vehicles—the ISD alum should be well-prepared to make an impact. He is an inquisitive learner with a tireless work ethic, manifested by his “sleepless nights in Duderstadt.”

But as for now? Auto racing seems to be a perfect fit.

“Racing has been my passion!” Akilla says. “There is an unexplainable sense of satisfaction to see the driver feel the updates and perform better. It is a validation for all the hours and effort the team has put into the car.”