Pitt Magazine

A career in IndyCar has taken this Pitt alumna for a wild ride

Gundlach holds a tablet while standing on a racetrack
Kate Gundlach has been an IndyCar engineer for more than a decade. Photo by Tom Altany/Pitt Photography

Kate Gundlach stands on the sunbaked track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, bracing a tablet against her hip. She’s debating with driver Pato O’Ward about the merits of maintaining momentum through turn seven.

She knows laying off the brakes is a gamble — drivers have crashed out for less. But it may be just what O’Ward needs to shave those precious tenths of a second off his time and challenge the rest of the NTT IndyCar Series for the coveted pole position — the most advantageous starting position on the track — on qualifying day at the Gallagher Grand Prix.

“That’s playing with fire, bro,” O’Ward says, grinning and peering down at Gundlach’s tablet. “How much are we losing?

“It’s just a tenth,” Gundlach assures him.

O’Ward sighs and grabs the brim of his baseball cap with both hands, still unsure: “Gotta pick your fights, you know?”

Gundlach does know. She’s been an IndyCar engineer since 2012 and O’Ward’s performance engineer at team Arrow McLaren for nearly four years. Her job is to use data and driving simulations to devise strategies that will improve his lap time and, ultimately, notch wins. Together, she and the fiery, unpredictable 24-year-old racing phenom have been through some really high highs — like contending for the series championship in 2021 — and some pretty low lows — like crashing out at the Indianapolis 500 on this very track in May. Every decision, every tweak, every tap of the brakes could be the difference between landing on the podium or heading back to the pit. In this seesawing 2023 season, they’re intimately familiar with both outcomes.

“Cool,” O’Ward finally declares after a long silence, seemingly having made his decision but giving Gundlach no indication of what he’ll do. 

Gundlach is unbothered. Being a performance engineer is as much about psychology as it is about mechanics, and though it’s taken time, she’s reached a level of communication with O’Ward that doesn’t always require words. She can decipher his body language and silences in a way that few others can, and she trusts his instincts. So, after making her pitch, she simply follows him back to the team’s track cart and climbs aboard, ready to continue their prerace inspection of the course. 

“I just let Pato be Pato,” she says. “The more Pato is Pato, the better we are — every time.”

O’Ward punches the gas, and the cart takes off with a sudden lurch. His surprised passengers quickly brace themselves to keep from tumbling onto the track. Everyone but Gundlach, that is. 

She doesn’t even flinch.

Gundlach’s interest in racing started at a young age. 

A toddler on someone's lap on a motorbike.
Gundlach as a toddler.

Her father hails from a family of tinkerers with a love of motorbikes. He was never particularly quick in the driver’s seat, but he knew how to get the most out of an engine. She relished the days she got to follow him to tracks near their suburban Pittsburgh home and listen to him explain the limits and possibilities of machinery. It didn’t take long before she, too, became captivated by anything on two wheels.

As Gundlach began looking at colleges and considering a career in racing, her father tempered that infatuation with some very dad-like advice: “I think there’s more money in four wheels.”

He wasn’t wrong. IndyCar — which races sleek, open-wheel vehicles (sometimes called Formula-style) that reach speeds of 235 mph — has an estimated annual revenue of $15 million. Its rambunctious cousin, NASCAR which uses slower, sturdier vehicles designed to take bumps from other drivers, can pull in more than $100 million per year.

Fortunately, Pitt provided the perfect combination for Gundlach (ENGR ’06). The Swanson School of Engineering offers a mechanical engineering degree and fields a student team through SAE International (formerly known as Society of Automotive Engineers) that designs, builds and races open-wheel cars powered by motorcycle engines. 

A teenage Gundlach uses a wrench on a motorbike
She began working on motorbikes as a teenager.

While “Younger Kate,” as Gundlach refers to her college-era self, knew she made the right choice when it came to picking a university, she “made maybe not the best decisions when it came to work-life balance.” Over her four years on campus, she tended to favor the garage over the classroom, a philosophy that brought her success on the track — with Panther Racing and a local Formula team — but didn’t earn her a standout transcript. That proved to be a bit of a hinderance as she neared graduation.

Race teams employ more than just daredevil drivers. Each team also enlists 15 to 20 engineers to generate and analyze vast amounts of data — including speed, brake pressure, throttle percentage and even steering wheel position — and then turn those numbers into ideas and simulations that will make the car perform better and go faster. If you’re looking to join an IndyCar team right out of college, Gundlach says, you’d better be a high achiever with stellar grades. Pitt instilled the former, but because she still lacked the latter, Gundlach would have to spend her early days toiling in racing’s lower ranks. So, while her former classmates were taking full-time jobs with Pittsburgh-based companies like Westinghouse and Airgas, she used her dad’s connections to land an internship with a small race team out of Trafford, Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t glamorous (“my first desk was a cardboard box”), but it gave her a big picture view of the motorsports world. In two years there, she worked alongside mechanics, data analysts and race engineers — and eventually graduated to a real desk. She even got to participate in what was then called the Star Mazda Championship, an open-wheel racing series that served as a rung on the ladder to the big leagues.

But breaking into the elite ranks of auto racing isn’t a linear process. It’s as much about what you know as it is about who you know and when you know them. Fortunately for Gundlach, she happened upon the right person — a mechanic with IndyCar — just as his team was looking for a data engineer.

In the spring of 2012, she joined driver Simona de Silvestro’s team at HVM Racing. That was the year de Silvestro piloted the green-and-white No. 78 car with what turned out to be an underpowered Lotus engine. The results were disappointing. De Silvestro was black flagged, or disqualified, from multiple races for not maintaining the minimum speed and finished 24th in the series standings. 

“It ended up being a very challenging season,” Gundlach says. “But it was character building.”

When the team disbanded at the end of the season, Gundlach left with a better understanding of IndyCar’s fickle nature. While that kind of unpredictability could frustrate a purely analytical being, Gundlach is an artist at heart. She loves all things messy and creative and chaotic. Her home’s walls are painted in vibrant oranges and purples, live plants cover her tables and dried flowers hang from the rafters. She lives with a turtle, four dogs and tanks of fish. The uncertainty of racing plays to her strengths.

“Art is quite an intuitive study,” she says. “You don't know all the answers going into it. And same with engineering — you don't know. You're given tools, and sometimes the tools are brand new, so you don't know exactly how to use the tools. And you’re trying to solve problems you don't know the answer to with tools you don't really know how to use. But you start to figure it out. You ask, ‘OK, what does my gut say?’”

She took that artist’s intuition to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team as a systems engineer in 2013 and, a year later, to series stalwart Chip Ganassi Racing as an assistant engineer. It was there that she won her first NTT IndyCar Series title with driver Scott Dixon, making her and teammate Danielle Shepherd the first female engineers to accomplish the feat.

The experience was a shot of pure adrenaline. 

“When you win the championship, you feel like, ‘I’ve finally done it. The job is done. We are the best,’” Gundlach says. 

But that feeling is fleeting. Each new year and each new race brings fresh challenges, unexpected obstacles and maddening flukes. You may have control over where you’re going, but you’ll never be able to predict what will happen once you get there. 

Sometimes you win the championship, and sometimes you drag the Lotus into 24th place.

Two racers look at Gundlach's tablet as she points at the track

Kate Gundlach is not pleased. 

It’s qualifying day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and O’Ward has just finished an anemic eighth in the first practice run. She hops down from the timing stand in the pit, grabs her tablet and immediately heads for the Arrow McLaren garage. She’s surprisingly fast for someone who stands barely five feet tall. 

“We have a lot of work to do in two hours,” she says. 

That’s when the qualifying race that will determine starting position for the Gallagher Grand Prix begins; she’s still hoping O’Ward can win the pole. And if he doesn’t?

“I’d take third, but nothing less,” she says.

Gundlach’s intensity and refusal to fail is a change from her early days in IndyCar. Back then, she stayed quiet, afraid asking questions or offering suggestions would reveal an inadequacy or weakness. It’s taken time and experience to overcome the imposter syndrome, but she’s arrived at a place where she trusts her ability to dissect and solve any problem that faces her, and then to offer her unreserved opinion. 

A fellow engineer calls her approach “very thorough.”

It has to be. Because IndyCar leaves so little space for error. But also, because the track has traditionally functioned as a boys’ club, where women — especially women engineers — are a novelty. 

Lauren Gaudion, the director of communications for Arrow McLaren, counts 16 women among the team’s 100 or so employees, but estimates that’s nearly double any other team at IndyCar — in part, thanks to Gundlach. She’s made it her responsibility to recruit and support women in racing. 

Lizzie Todd is one of those women. She was a systems engineer for Andretti Autosport when Gundlach texted her about an opening at Arrow McLaren. Though it was technically a lateral move, she saw it as a step up both because Arrow McLaren is known to promote from within and because she would get to work alongside Gundlach. The two have known each other since Todd joined IndyCar in 2017 and Gundlach “adopted” her.

“She’s phenomenal,” Todd says. “She’s super goal-oriented — she knows where she wants to go, she knows what she wants to be — but she’s also so willing to be helpful. Standing next to her on the timing stand has changed the way I look at data. She’s taught me different ways to approach things, which has made me more efficient and allowed me to take on more.”

The mentorship is even more remarkable when you realize Gundlach is training Todd to reach the next rung on the IndyCar engineering ladder — which just happens to be Gundlach’s own job.

“Women have a different set of expectations and different pressures on them,” Gundlach says. “And one of those pressures is [the perception] that you are not in control, that you don't have the means to operate at that level, that you need someone's permission to do that. I've suffered through that quite a bit. I see a lot of women come into the sport, and I'm trying to communicate this to them so that they don’t make the same mistakes I did. And maybe they can accelerate a little bit faster.”

Gundlach’s career acceleration, meanwhile, shows no signs of slowing down. “She’s already a performance engineer, she’s leading a team, and that’s not even the top trajectory of her career,” Gaudion says.  

Gundlach has two primary goals in her sights. The first is to become a race engineer — the pressure-filled top engineering spot on the team, responsible for working alongside the driver on race day and making all final decisions on car-related issues.  

Gundlach’s other goal is to win the sport’s most beloved race — the Indianapolis 500.

The orange No. 5 car races alone on the track
O'Ward takes a practice run ahead of the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As his No. 5 car rockets past the checkered flag and the ear-splitting, chest-searing roar of the engine finally fades, Pato O’Ward’s headset crackles to life.

“P3 buddy, P3. Great drive, man. Really proud of you.”

The O’Ward team’s Brickyard Weekend has ended with a third-place finish in the Gallagher Grand Prix. It’s the team’s seventh top-five finish of the season and their sixth trip to the podium. It’s enough to move O’Ward into fifth place in the NTT IndyCar Series standings, but it just barely surpasses Gundlach’s self-imposed minimum standard.

“Winning is such a hard thing to do because the series is so tight,” she says. “Everything has to go your way, and that only happens once in a blue moon.”

Fortunately, Gundlach believes O’Ward’s future is full of blue moons.     

On clear nights, as she’s leaving the garage and walking to her car, she tips her head back to stare into a starry sky and imagines what it might be like to watch O’Ward take the podium at the Indianapolis 500, knowing she had a hand in getting him there.

She may even take a celebratory chug of milk, one of those odd and endearing Indy 500 traditions that began in 1936 when driver Louis Meyer guzzled a bottle of buttermilk in Victory Lane. 

But because this is Kate Gundlach, she’ll have to do it her own way, of course.

“I’d drink oat milk.”