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Greenup County native Michael Armbrester plays key role in Takuma Sato’s win in Indianapolis 500


By Rick Elmore
Special to KyForward

Takuma Sato was in the spotlight for winning his second Indianapolis 500 race on Sunday, but behind the scenes he had help from a strategist with Greenup County ties.

Sato’s performance engineer for his team is Michael Armbrester of Russell who finally got his first Indy 500 championship in his ninth year working the open wheel racing circuit.

“It’s incredible. It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” the 42-year-old Armbrester said. “As soon as the car crossed the line (Sunday), I had to sit down and cry. It hit me pretty hard in that moment. I tried to take moments to soak it all in.

“Certainly, what we did is memorable.”

Armbrester speaking at Russell Middle School during a visit several years ago — he’s a 1996 grad. (Photo from Greenup Beacon)

Sato, a Japanese-born driver, won his first Indy 500 in 2017 but Armbrester wasn’t part of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing team at that time.

While his first job with the IndyCar circuit came in 2012 when Rahal racing added a second car, the team soon dropped that car. Armbrester spent the next four years with another team before being brought back in 2018 when Rahal added the second car again.

In his job as performance engineer, Armbrester said he analyzes data and scoring from IndyCar to develop a strategy to help him predict fuel economy, how the tires will wear during the race and how to run the race.

The team’s fuel economy wound up playing a big role in Sunday’s win.

Scott Dixon led for much of the race with Sato being able to stay ahead of traffic. Sato took the lead late in the race and held off Dixon at the end.

“Our car was stronger than they realized, and we made better fuel economy than what was thought possible,” Armbrester said.

With a solid strategy on the fuel usage, the rest of the race fell into the driver’s hands and Sato delivered.
As Dixon “reeled Sato in,” Armbrester said his driver would ramp the power up and let the gap increase and decrease, as necessary.

“It was 100 percent a team effort and that gets overlooked a lot,” Armbrester said. “The mechanics put together a reliable car. There were some small incidents in the race that could have potentially hurt us, but the race mostly went the way we wanted.

“If we were first in line, we could do about 30 laps on a tank of fuel. We made last pit with 32 laps left. We were just able to balance the fuel economy to finish it out.”

Armbrester mostly works behind the pit stop area wall and isn’t part of the crew of mechanics who keep the car running. Armbrester said while he has influence on how the race is run, he said he’s a small part of what happens on the track.

His job, Armbrester explained, involves a lot more math and science skills than mechanical skills.

A graduate of Purdue University, Armbrester said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he was a student at Russell High School.

Since middle school, he was a member of the academic team then became captain of that team as a senior. Armbrester’s science and math skills helped him lead the Red Devils academic team to a state championship his senior year in 1996.

Holly Ross, Michael Armbrester and Bobbi Harris (Photo from Greenup Beacon)

“He was one fantastic kid,” said Holly Ross, who coached Armbrester on the academic team at Russell Middle School and sent a congratulatory message after Sunday’s win. “It’s not surprising. He’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever seen.”

Once he arrived at Purdue, Armbrester majored in chemical engineering and planned to follow in his father’s footsteps working at the Catlettsburg refinery. Then, he found mechanical engineering.

“Once I found that, it engaged me a lot more than chemical engineering,” Armbrester said.

Then, through connections he said he established through the dean’s office, Armbrester got connected with auto racing.

His first job was with the now defunct Champ Car, where he worked for two years before that series dissolved.
Armbrester then moved to IndyCar and two stints with Rahal sandwiched a four-year stent with Andretti Autosports and a third-place finish at the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

Coming into this year’s event, the team was feeling pretty confident, he said.

“I didn’t end up wearing any milk,” Armbrester said of the traditional beverage consumed at victory lane by the race’s winner. “But I did get a lot of hugs and high fives. There were some other celebrations we went through.”
The celebrations didn’t last long. Armbrester and the rest of the racing team had to dismantle its garage and begin the move to the next race in St. Louis.

Armbrester said he doesn’t get a chance to return to the area often but misses it. Armbrester, however, returned at the request of Ross to speak to her class a couple of years ago.

“His schedule is really busy, but we took him when we could get him,” said Ross. “He brought a $35,000 steering wheel and let the senior class pass it around. I wanted him to come so my kids could see an example of the endless possibilities for them.

“A small town didn’t hold him back and shouldn’t hold them back either.”

Although the win on Sunday was the first for Armbrester, he said he doesn’t believe it will be the last for the team which jumped from 17th to sixth in the series standings.

Armbrester said he’s happy with Rahal Letterman Lanigan and anticipates continuing to work there.

Armbrester is married to, Stephanie, whom he met at Purdue. He has a son Edison, 10, and a daughter Nora, 7. The family resides in Indianapolis.

This story originally appeared in the Greenup Beacon. It is republished with permission.


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