Nayana Suvarna has several unique distinctions heading into Saturday’s Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Suvarna is the lone female captain of the nine teams entered in the competition, as well as being the only undergrad captain (actually, co-captain) and the youngest (22 years old) team captain overall.
But there’s one distinction that is perhaps the biggest irony of all.
In a competition utilizing specially-prepared driver-less Indy Lights cars that are expected to exceed 100 mph, Suvarna, a senior engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh who has spent the last two years working on the four-wheeled autonomous vehicle, doesn’t even have a driver’s license.
“I learned how to drive in high school but never actually took the test,” Survana said with a laugh to Autoweek. “Then I came to school at Pittsburgh and parking there is horrible. So I don’t have a car and I’m not driving for like 11 months in a year. So I really have no use for a car. People find it very funny.”
But even without a driver’s license, Suvarna is at the helm of one of the most significant contenders in the Challenge. Her teammates come from some of the most prolific technological schools in the world, including MIT, Rochester Institute of Technology and Canada’s University of Waterloo.
“One of the great opportunities of this team has been the ability to bring together so many people from many different communities,” Suvarna said.
Suvarna’s team, as well the eight other finalist teams that hail from around the globe, will be competing for $1.5 million in prize money, with the winning team taking home $1 million of that amount.
However, getting to Indianapolis wasn’t easy by any means. While the University of Pittsburgh spearheaded the program originally, the $1.2 million price tag to buy the car and outfit it with the latest technology, after securing sponsorship, still left Suvarna’s team about $300,000 short. At some point, there was a true fear that Pitt’s team would not be able to continue competing due to lack of money.
“If I’m being honest, we were ready to quit,” Suvarna said.
But then MIT, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Waterloo rode to the rescue, seeking to join forces with their counterparts from Pitt. Not only did the other schools contribute great minds, they also brought in the additional funding needed to get the combined team over the financial finish line to reach Indy.
“They bring different aspects to our team that we were missing, and I think it’ll really help us,” said Suvarna, who is co-captain of the combined team with MIT student Andrew Tresansky.
Known as the MIT-PITT-RW team, Suvarna and her teammates are all undergraduates and are the only team competing that does not have a faculty professor/advisor that will be on-site with them at Indy.
In essence, they’re doing everything themselves, and have even picked up an unofficial catchy nickname of the “underdog undergrads.”
“(They) have even picked up an unofficial catchy nickname of the “underdog undergrads.”
But don’t undersell this group in the Challenge. They’re definitely in it to win it.
“It would really mean the world to us because we’ve gone through so much to get to this point,” Suvarna said of hopefully winning Saturday’s competition. “Compared to other teams, one, we’re all undergraduate students and, two, we had to go and raise the money ourselves.
“It’s just been a very long journey to get to this point and if we won, it would sure show that hey, we could do this, we are capable, these are some of the great things we do with the sport and of all the people, we did better than everyone else.”
The team had a good preparation event back in May, finishing fourth in a simulated competition.
“We’re hoping to keep up those odds and hopefully podium Saturday,” Suvarna said. “Hopefully, win first place and a million dollars.”
While all members on Suvarna’s team are undergraduate students, they’re going up against several teams that have a strong graduate student base, not to mention on-site professors/advisers.
But that won’t stop or be a hinderance to the underdog undergrads. Sure, there’s a competition factor of team vs. team, but in the instance of the IAC, everyone winds up being a winner in some form or fashion.
“That’s part of the reasons why I love the field,” Survana said. “There’s so much in terms of things to explore, the wealth of knowledge from all the people involved and to learn from each other.”
A native of Fairfax, Virginia, Suvarna is president of Pitt’s Robotics Automation Society. She’s set to graduate this December and is planning on either going to grad school or beginning a career in robotics. The path she and her team have followed to Indianapolis will be featured in an upcoming Netflix documentary about the IAC.
“I feel really honored to be able to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Suvarna said. “Also, being the only female captain and the youngest one, I feel really humbled by the respect and the cooperation and the support that I’ve gotten from everybody. Nobody treats me any differently. Everybody has supported me to help me get to the point where I’m leading the team. So I feel real grateful.”
Ironically, Suvarna wasn’t a motorsports fan prior to her and the team attending this year’s Indianapolis 500. Even though they couldn’t hear each other talk because of all the noise from the Indy cars and the excitement of the 135,000-plus fans in attendance, from that point, Suvarna and her teammates were definitely hooked on racing.
And now, racing at one of the most famous race tracks in the world brings with it the prestige of potentially being called “an Indianapolis Motor Speedway champion” after Saturday’s event, putting members of the winning team in the same class as folks such as Rick Mears, Al Unser, Mario Andretti and this year’s Indy 500 winner, Helio Castroneves.
“Over the course of the past few years, I’ve really learned about the history and the prestige that comes with racing at IMS,” Suvarna said. “There’s only a subset of the population that has ever raced on this track, and fortunately, our team is one of them, even if we don’t have a driver in the car.
“So, at least for me, I’m going to be really proud no matter how things shake out on Saturday, Because at the end of the day, we’re going to be one of only nine cars that are probably ever going to race an autonomous car at IMS and I think that’s something to really be proud of, especially with our background.
“It’s (to be forever known as an IMS champion is) kind of wild to think about, to put it in perspective.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.
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