By Todd Travis
Growing up, Mike O’Gara was the kid that could tell you everything about every racer in the Indy 500. He would race home after school every day so he could finish his homework and watch the final hour of practice, which was televised in those days. “I knew every driver, every paint scheme, I was just a huge fan. At Roncalli, we would take school field trips to the Speedway Museum, and I would be telling everyone what car that was and who won that year – I was a huge student of the sport,” O’Gara recalled.
O’Gara started working on cars when he was about 6 years old. His dad was an auto shop instructor which gave him access to a garage and a good teacher. His first taste of working with racecars came in high school when he convinced his uncles to let him help them out. “This mainly consisted of sweeping the floors and doing grunt work and staying out of the way, but it was a dream come true to be able to be around those people and around those cars and just observe,” O’Gara remembered. After Roncalli, O’Gara attended Purdue and studied mechanical engineering technology.
By this point, O’Gara knew that he wanted to make racing his career. He started off working with Honda in Ohio for a brief stint before returning to Indianapolis with a company called Pi Research. Here he began to learn the electronics side of racecars and started to get to know people on race teams. One of his first big breaks came when his uncle asked him to come work with his team at Dreyer and Reinbold as assistant engineer. “That was my first real job in racing. I was responsible for the mechanical setup of the car which deals with springs, shocks and what wing angles you set,” O’Gara mentioned. From here, he would begin to build his resumé while he sought after the ultimate goal – to win the Indy 500.
In 2004, O’Gara got a call from Chip Ganassi’s team and got offered a job working with them on sports cars. With Ganassi, he won the 24 Hours in Daytona race three years in a row as an engineer. “I was proud of these accomplishments, but my heart was still in Indy car racing,” O’Gara said. In 2010, he decided to leave Chip Ganassi Racing and join his cousin to work for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, first as a race engineer and eventually as a team manager. “I really enjoyed working with my family and growing a small team, which is quite a different environment than working with a bigger team like Chip Ganassi,” he described. To O’Gara’s surprise, he received another phone call from Ganassi a few years later, asking him to return to the team. “Basically there was an unwritten rule that once you leave Ganassi, you don’t come back.” O’Gara said. He decided to accept Ganassi’s offer and return to the team.
His first job back with Ganassi was to work with Ford at the world famous 24 Hours of Le Mans race. In 2016, they won the race – 50 years to the day after the original Ford GT40 win, which is the win that the movie “Ford v. Ferrari” was based upon. In 2020, O’Gara moved to Ganassi’s Indy car program as race strategist with driver Marcus Ericsson. His big moment finally came this year as he was able to help guide Ericsson to his first Indy 500 win and achieve his own first Indy 500 win as an engineer. “Before a crash in the final laps of the race, Marcus had a 3 second lead over the other cars which is kind of unheard of in racing,” O’Gara said. The red flag ate up that lead, but Ericsson was able to hold off the other drivers and cement his victory. “This is something I’ve lived for my whole life. Me and my dad were just crying like babies together after winning the race,” O’Gara recalled.
The next big goal for O’Gara and the team is to win the IndyCar Series. The Indy 500 put Ericsson in the lead, and their hopes are high in accomplishing this next endeavor.