“I got into racing officially at about 13 years old, when I started racing karts,” Kellett said in a recent interview with Jalopnik, “But I think the STEM side of it probably came first. I think I always knew that I wanted to be an engineer or a scientist or something along those lines. My dad went to Queens [University in Ontario] for engineering. My grandpa developed some of the early products for K-Line. We were definitely an engineering family. Then, when I got into racing, they combined.”
It wasn’t a difficult choice, then, to follow in the family footsteps. Kellett also attended Queens to pursue a degree in engineering physics. While in school, he began his open-wheel racing career in earnest in IndyCar’s feeder series, and he filled his free time by taking part in his university’s Formula SAE program, in which students design, manufacture, build, and race their own open-wheel car. FSAE has long been a proving ground for students interested in pursuing an engineering career thanks to the fact that they’re able to immediately apply classroom concepts in real-world applications — for better or for worse.
“[FSAE] was a great learning opportunity for mechanical design and vehicle dynamics,” Kellett said. “Being able to work on a real-life project with a budget and manufacturing constraints and schedules and deadlines — I can’t say enough good things about it.”
Kellett participated in Queens’ FSAE team during his four years at the school, ultimately being promoted to technical director alongside another student as he approached graduation. It wasn’t easy, he admitted: “I learned how to be realistic in terms of the scope of the projects that you want to take on, and I definitely paid the price in terms of my own time and probably the car’s performance by just trying to do too much in fourth year.”
Nevertheless, the experience gave him a new appreciation for the complex engineering tasks that go into building a race car — if Kellett was able to implement his classroom knowledge into his FSAE car, he was then able to implement his FSAE experience into his racing career.
“When I look at [open-wheel] cars now, I can look at the suspension and the overall design of the car, and understand some of the work that the engineers have gone through to come to that end product,” Kellett said. “But the engineering and Formula SAE experience really comes into play when we’re thinking about our testing plans in the off season, the stuff that we’re focusing on. I feel I maybe applied some of that engineering problem solving methodology to what I want to work on from the car development standpoint. I think that’s helpful.”
Now, Kellett is helping pay it forward. He’s partnered with multiple STEM organizations, including the International STEM Network, in order to reach out to young students. At the start of the season, he regularly hosts garage tours for classrooms and visits schools, showing kids onboard footage of his IndyCar, his helmet, and his steering wheel to start getting them excited about the many ways a STEM education can contribute to an exciting career.
As the kids get older — or, in some cases, if they already display an interest in STEM — then Kellett takes a different route: “I remember talking to one group, an AP-level physics and math group. When I showed them the stuff that would normally get people interested — cool on-boards and race highlights, they were lukewarm on that.
“But when I started talking about, ‘Hey, here’s how we use trigonometry and chemistry and the stuff that you’re learning in class in racing,’ then I got way more engagement.”
STEM and motorsport will always go hand-in-hand, but for Kellett, both are the result of deeply personal investments and interest that have defined his life. Combining both has allowed him to pursue yet another passion: opening up STEM fields to children like Kellett, who grew up playing with Legos and tinkering with machines but who may not have realized that could become a career.