How far can childhood enthusiasm for cars take you? You can become an engineer, or an automobile engineer or a race car driver. How about all the 3 rolled into one:)

Gowdham Murugan, our next pathbreaker, Vehicle Dynamics Engineer at Ford Motor Company, is involved in the development and testing of new cars.

Gowdham talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about juggling his racing career with his career as an automobile engineer, in a role that includes testing for high performance driving and many of the safety features like TCS (Traction Control Systems) at high speed to ensure stability and reliability of cars.

For students, nothing comes easy in life, but in the end, it will all be worth it when you get to do things that you dreamt of in your childhood!

Gowdham, tell us about your growing up years?

I was born and brought up in Coimbatore where I did my schooling and college. I was a shy kid at school and a much below average student throughout. College days were quite the opposite, where I did mechanical engineering and I was a busy kid leading small teams, organizing committees and competing in technical projects. 

The passion for speed was always there from a very young age, as far as I can remember. I started driving cars when I was just 11. I didn’t have a coach to teach me driving; I just watched my father drive and just somehow picked it up. He was someone who made everything that he did look easy. 

Even at a much younger age, I would spend hours just sitting inside an idle, parked car and imagine I was driving by actuating the clutch and other pedals. Even when I traveled by bus to my native or other places, I used to imagine/read what the driver was doing at that instant without looking at him, just by feeling what was happening to the bus, not to mention my imagination when the throttle pedal was full on.

Now, many years later, I am a professional race car driver who has done national/ international races. I also work in a car company in the development and testing of new cars

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my schooling in Perks MHSS, Coimbatore. 

I completed my UG in BE (BTech) Mechanical engineering in VLBJCET, recently renamed as Sri Krishna College of technology.

What drove you to pursue such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

My father was and is my first influencer. Though he was strict in enforcing discipline, he was someone who let me follow my heart which is a great thing. He did everything with passion and that’s possibly why I pursue my dreams in spite of the limitations in terms of money / un-influential background. There is literally no fear of failure in me, only the confidence to get back up after every fall, which helps me go after things I want, and that was very much seeded by him when I was growing up. 

Mr Swaminathan from Kari sports (he is no more) was my mentor who introduced me to Motorsports. He was such a lovely person that he would be readily available even to his fierce competitors when they

needed some technical support. He saw sports with special eyes. We met when I was working on an inter-college competition, SAE BAJA and it is through him that I came to know about the existence of Motorsports in India. Post college, when I started working in my first job, he prepped the first car for me for racing. He passed away in a road accident in 2014 and that left a void in my life. 

There have been events which have pulled me down (emotionally) as well as those that have been my turning points to raise me back up. Life could have been a little more kind, but one thing is very clear that there is no going up without falling down first. You fall down only when you try to do great things, you fall and then you get back up, repeat. The idle life is very boring – never settle down for it.

I have initiated clubs, organized Intra-department, inter-department non-technical, inter-college technical events. I also led teams in most of them, one such event was SAE BAJA where the student teams design and build an all terrain vehicle. Then they take it to Indore, Madhya Pradesh and race with it after clearing the prelims. That was the starting point. 

The Baja event made me look at the technical side in a more serious way. Though the other events that I was organizing at college level were more of ‘explore that too kind of thing’, when it came to SAE BAJA, it was a fierce competition. We were competing against the best brains of the country whom we haven’t met at all. The leadership role was an added responsibility as well. 

The work involved various kinds of tasks, from design thinking to getting the costs under control, to pitching USPs of the vehicle so it could be marketed to the world in order to make it more profitable. It was nothing short of coming together as a company to launch a car in a new market. Fabrication was quite a challenge back then. We were not even getting the tires we liked. It was difficult to source proper items. But the best part is, we procured most of the items from the used car market and so we were able to come up with a car at low cost – that’s the best trick I learned there, that you don’t need to have all the resources in the world to do something. You just need to have adequate items and an open mind and patience to explore and fit things in the right place. 

Baja shaped me up as a leader capable of leading teams. That learning could be the one that led me to commit to racing as a career. I go ahead with the bare minimum of things that I cannot afford – budget, practice sessions, fuel, lodging, time, and full throttle with things that I can afford – fitness, confidence, calm mindset etc.

I joined college with an open mind. I had this written on my notebook back then – I have got people to meet, things to do, places to be and times to cherish. I had no clue what Engineering was, no clue of what placements were. I just dived in and figured it out one by one. I did every work, no matter small or big, that was thrown at me. I liked doing different things. 

I was playful. I bet with a friend who was always afraid of the future. The bet was that I will have a failed exam and still see where life takes me. I did have an arrear. But I did finish the college with two job offers (didn’t have many on campus companies, had to go off campus too)

The point was to enjoy the present, do the right thing and leave everything else to TIME and not worry too much. 

How did you get into racing?

I took up a job in 2011- a car company, Renault Nissan. While it was a dream job for many, it was not enough for me. I wanted more from life. I got into racing in 2012. The first race I watched in life was the first race I sat in the car as a racing driver. Looking back – I should have spent a little more time on doing my homework before getting into the car! 

I didn’t have a clue as to what to do or what not to do back then. All I thought was – get the budget ready and that will do. I saved my salary for almost a year and borrowed some from a colleague. I then asked my mentor to prepare the car, that was easier said than done. We searched a lot for a good Maruti esteem car and found one at a decent price in Kerala.

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We had to remove all the items in it, from seats to door to anything that would weigh too much and wouldn’t help in racing. Though my mentor was in racing for so many years, it was quite an experience for me. It took a few weeks to get the car ready and then we went to the Kari speedway track in Coimbatore to do a lap. I had no clue as to what to do, and just went in the direction he showed me, which was the pit exit and into the track. Three corners later, I had my first spin – the car steadied in a bit though it took some time for me to get a steady head. It was as if you got into space and got lost without coordinates. Then I came out of the race track to the pit. My mentor explained to me details about racing lines, braking etc. which is completely different from what we do on public roads. It was a steep learning curve. The journey has been challenging and I loved every bit of the ups and downs.

Sometimes the money saved along with the loan taken will not be sufficient to add that practice session to my racing round, but everyone else would go for it. That was tough to watch and be left out, but I would have to catch up with others during the official practice and qualifying sessions. That could be the reason that I would always have a slow Qualifier but would always have a higher pace in races, surprising everyone (and myself at times) – more time inside the track means better lap times. Because of this, I may not get the best race results, but when people come to me after the race saying my race was fantastic and thrilling to watch, I feel it was worth giving it my best shot. You know you got to play with everything you have got even if it is not sufficient to win.

Fitness is a major parameter that would set your race pace. If you are not fit enough, you won’t have the best race pace. I have spent hours in gyms before work in the morning and after work in the evening. Also, my weekends would go in 100 Kms of cycling plus a bit of swimming. I don’t have many hobbies outside of these. Fitness is also very important to sustain crashes. I have crashed at very high speeds, due to my mistakes and mistakes that were not mine. Fortunately, I have been able to walk out, give it a day or two for relaxation, and move on to next preparation phases.

The racing event was way different too. There are regulations for the car, there are regulations for the driver and his overalls – fireproof suit, helmet, gloves, shoes etc. Then there are different sessions, dos and don’ts in each session and above all, getting composure. 

I had a lot of spin through the year, in 2012. The basics were not right. I got to meet guys who were practising from a very young age. There were bullies too. The rounds happened in Kari speedway – Coimbatore, MMSC- Chennai and Buddh international Circuit -Delhi. But I backed off from the Delhi round as I needed to sort my fundamentals right and didn’t have the budget to transport my car there. Though it was not a great year to remember in terms of results, I definitely had my share of fun. 

In 2013, I got trained by Akbar Ebrahim, another motorsport legend. A lot of technicalities in terms of driving got clear in my mind. I registered for Volkswagen Polo R Cup that year and participated in their selection program that happened over two days. It was a test for driving technique and fitness. This time I was prepared. I managed to top the selection process and was selected as number one driver for that year. It was evidence that I had the potential. But later on, getting the budget to compete in the series was a huge challenge. I didn’t have sponsors, the sports didn’t have spectators. The doors were all closed. It was a tough choice to make. In the end, it was either you do it and give it a try or just get out and regret for life. 

I did take more loans this time. Seeing the Buddh international Circuit for the first time – I agree, heavens do exist on Earth. Racing in front of 25000 people is nothing short of an emotional scene in anyone’s favourite movie.

In 2014, 2015, I didn’t have budgets for racing and came back to racing in 2016.

Tell us about your career in automotive engineering while you were racing?

Compared to the level of preparations I needed to make for racing, I felt that the engineering job was simple. There will always be people to help and guide you when you are struck somewhere in your work. At Renault Nissan, initially, I was with the diagnosis team – the team that writes work procedures for guys who do service for customers in case of issues. 

Then, the management felt that I was more fit for a vehicle testing role and moved me to the ride and handling department within the office. Racing helped me in handling a vehicle at high speeds, testing cars and analyzing data to help tune the car better to aid the driver while driving it. 

I lost my mentor to a road accident in 2014 and it struck me hard. I quit my job immediately to focus on racing. But that was the time when survival became tough as well. I set up a small scale, used gold trading office at Coimbatore. The office picked up, but I still wasn’t getting any sponsorship for racing. 

That’s when a senior of mine, Rakesh Kumar, who is a brotherly figure to me, invited me to join him in a start up – Charters Luxury mobile office. The idea was to develop cars with a separate passenger cabin and a video call facility on the go, in traffic. I was the co-founder there. Plus, I also headed the operations of QMAX Composites, a company that was providing composite solutions to automotive suppliers. 

He decided that we both needed to follow our dreams and so I got into racing again in 2016. That year was definitely challenging. Though I didn’t have the money to eat daily, I paid the amount to Volkswagen for racing that year. I lived with limited food, sometimes 2 meals per day, sometimes one… but ensured I hit the gym twice as I needed to get back in shape quickly after a two year break. On the fitness test, I ended up setting a new Plank record for Volkswagen – 8 minutes something.

That was the time we did the prototype of our product (QMAX) and were seeking out investors to invest in. When we were about to close the deal, demonetization was announced and raised a state of panic in the startup arena. The investors panicked and backed off. We had rising debts. Times were uncertain in the market, so we decided to focus on the problems at hand and parted off. I joined Mahindra Research valley. 

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I was transparent in my office. I told them that I will prepare for racing after office. People understood and supported me. Some felt that they themselves are part of this journey and that made me feel inclusive in the environment. 

Sponsorships are not easy anytime, especially at the start of the career. It was in 2016 that I got sponsors, and then the market changed again. Again in 2018 I got small sponsors. But the rest I had to manage on my own.

In 2018, I made my debut in F1300. F1300 is different from VW series or IJTC because the car is totally different. The cars driven in IJTC (Indian Junior Touring cars) and VW racing are all front wheel driven cars, just like the cars you see on the road. F1300 is rear wheel driven. So the approach to racing / instincts are totally different. I had my share of struggles. Though most struggles happen because of the budget constraints, it all happens in the head. 

In 2019, I made my international debut in the Saga cup – Malaysian Racing Festival. For the international events, one needs to talk to different teams around the world to see if the calendar is suitable, if the budget is suitable (you need to keep a window) and if they are willing to provide the opportunity. The fitness needs to be at maximum as usual. 

It is everyone’s dream in sports to carry the national flag on their shoulders, and I am glad I managed to reach that milestone in 2019. Since I didn’t have sponsors backing me, I could not continue anymore. 

I had RNTBCI experience (Renault Nissan Technology and Business India P Ltd), which helped in my engineering career as well. Also, people understood how much work I had to put in to make both careers possible (I was never idle). So, all together, I think that made it possible to get a job in spite of gaps due to my racing career

In 2017, I joined Mahindra RISE. I was part of the Marazzo, XUV projects. I was in the validation department. It was for Marazzo that I worked for 32 days completely without any break, including Saturdays and Sundays, working upto 14 hours per day. It was tough, but when you get into the flow, work just happens. I got to meet some great people in there. Dr. Goenka (responsible for Baja and was then the Head of Mahindra) asked me to meet him when he saw a flyer about my journey. It was a tough decision to leave Mahindra. After all, meeting Mr. Mahindra didn’t happen yet and wish that it could happen soon, hopefully.

I was maintaining my racing career (had breaks in between) and a job in engineering all these years. One is for survival and the other is passion. One does have monetary benefits and the other has life experience benefits. Both are equally important. 

How did you get your first break? 

I would say getting to know that motorsport existed in India is the first break. 

I got my first job – off campus.

First was Tata consultancy services. They took many people from my college. I was one among them. This happened while I was waiting for the selection results of Baja after the design phase.

The second interview was after Baja completion. That is the same day I reached Coimbatore, and there was a placement session in an off campus drive. Few from my college cleared round 2, but I managed to crack the final round and got placed.

I always do something or the other, like exploring new stuff. I know that if I sit down especially before an interview to prepare specifically for the interview, I would mess it up. Companies do look for kaizen – gradual increase over time. They don’t like one night preparation. Fortunately it worked for me.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: money

I work in a job to support my racing career. I also took loans to pursue a career in motorsport. Sponsors are rare for motorsport in India. 

Challenge 2: not the results I wanted

Often in our life we don’t get what we want. Still we live. That’s the approach. We have to be persistent. There will be mockery, self doubt, difficult situations etc., But you are your own best friend, chin up and handle yourself with care because you have a long way to go.

Challenge 3: skills and consistency

I always have gaps in practice because of budget issues. So I find that my consistency gets beaten up without adequate practice 

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Where do you work now? What problems do you solve? 

I currently work with Ford Motors.

I am involved in the development and testing of new cars. My work starts in design phase and completes just before the launch of new cars

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Theoretical knowledge of Vehicle Dynamics and knowledge of computer aided simulations is needed for design verification. But for validation testing, a high level of car driving and handling skills are needed in order to test the vehicle at higher speeds.

Global OEMs have several different licenses. One is for people who know to drive cars. Then there are higher level of permits to allow only trained professionals to perform certain kinds of driving maneuvers. These are required to test the cars at high speed so as to ensure safety and stability for customers who buy the car.

Since I am into racing, I am able to clear tests for such high performance driving. Most of the safety features like ABS, TCS (Traction Control Systems) are all first developed in Motorsports and then only they come to passenger cars. That is the scope for Motorsports and drivers in R&D roles.

I am also an automobile enthusiast, remember that I mentioned that I used to sit in idle cars for hours just observing the switches, steering wheel etc. I have travelled across India to test cars in different climatic conditions and approaching different altitudes. My work would involve recording data, starting from air filter to oil filter to what not in the car to ascertain the reliability of the car.

What’s a typical day like?

It depends on the phase of the project. If it is in the early phase, days are spent with computers and in meetings. If it is in the later phase, days are spent in the track, with the car, evaluating instruments, safety etc.

What is it you love about this job? 

I get to work with cars – isn’t that awesome? If you think that is not enough, then how about I top it by saying that you get to drive it in extreme conditions!!! 

How does your work benefit society? 

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It’s great to see safe cars everywhere on the road and sometimes those cars are the ones that I tested and signed off. People use it to take their family out, trusting our work in the background. A sense of satisfaction is there.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Many of us go through the memory lane then and there. But the first high that I had was when I was the selection list topper in Volkswagen polo R Cup 2013. That is special. 

Also in the global meeting in the company that I was working at, a video on me was played as the first event with a tagline titled ‘go beyond’ – that was special. Approx 2500 people were in that auditorium and I was there as well. 

I had to work continuously for 32 days without any leave, and in shifts running 16 hours per day easily, that too in a place where there was no common tongue (language). That was challenging, but I did it. It was in Nasik and tops the work I have done in my engineering career.

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Keep an open mind and follow your heart. It will be tough but in the end it will be all worth it. You can’t plan everything and there will times when things would go against your plans – just keep calm and keep rising

Future Plans?

Get back into racing this year again. Do nationals this year and one international series next year. 

Develop management skills by taking up courses on management studies. 

I also have initiated an NGO ‘Manidham Kanbom’, which I have been promoting on my racing cars, to support the children road accident victims and I hope that I could get some support in terms of funds & volunteers this year to proceed with adoption. The idea is to support the children of road accident victims with education & other career oriented guidance.