Juan Pablo Montoya, Emerson Fittipaldi and A.J. Foyt are legendary race car drives — and Purdue alum Bill Pappas (BS mechanical engineering technology ’83) has worked with all of them.
Thanks to his family’s relocation from Chicago to Indianapolis, Pappas’ love of racing began as a child, and his father encouraged his interests. But when he grew to 6 feet, 7 inches tall, he knew a career as a driver wasn’t likely.
“At a very early age, [my father would] take me and my brothers out to the speedway to watch the cars run, and we’d go back out on qualifications weekend,” said Pappas. “I would have loved to race, but I don’t fit in go-karts or race cars very well,” he says. “I had to go for the next step. And that was either as an engineer or engineering the race car itself.”
A neighbor had a machine shop where Pappas would see the mechanical aspects of race cars closely.
“When the guys had come to town, he would do repair work on uprights, wishbones and different parts of the race car,” Pappas recalled. “So, I’d watch this gentleman do his magic and was enamored with the mechanical end of racing.”
Purdue became Pappas’ “next logical step” to realizing the dream of a career in racing, but it took persistence. After graduating, he interviewed for a position in electronics at an Arizona company.
“I have a mechanical background, but I sat down with an HR person, and they looked at my resume and saw Purdue University. They basically moved me to the front of the line because of Purdue’s reputation,” he said.
A few years later, Pappas accepted a position with the Patrick Racing team as a support and design engineer, his first full-time job in racing.
“We won the Indianapolis 500 and the CART Championship with Emerson Fittipaldi, and it cascaded from there,” he said.
Pappas was a part of Fittipaldi’s Indy 500 win in 1989 and was chief engineer for Montoya’s win in 2000. Today, Pappas is vice president of competition and race engineering for the IndyCar series.
- Racing toward Indy 500 dreams (Stories of Purdue – The Persistent Pursuit)