By Mike Garrison
Welcome to LiveRC's weekly column, "Talk-It-Up Tuesday!" Here we spend a little time talking with industry icons including racers, manufacturers, team managers, developers, promoters, and everyone in between! Sit back, relax, and go behind the scenes as we interview them all!
For this week's Talk It Up Tuesday we sit down and chat with the Team Associated's Design Engineer, TJ Eller, to discuss his career, his racing, life as engineer, and so much more!
LiveRC: Welcome TJ to this week’s edition of “Talk It Up Tuesday”! Let’s start at the very beginning by asking who, what, when, where, how, and why did you get started racing R/C cars in the first place?
TJ: Hey Mike, thanks for having me on! I got started in RC when I was probably 6 or 7. A cousin of mine had Zip Zaps from Radio Shack and I thought they were the coolest thing. I also always saw RC cars at the motocross track, so I saved my pennies and bought an X-Mod kit and played with those for a few years. Growing up near Trains and Lanes in Easton, PA, I always wanted a truck to go race with at their track and when I was in middle school, after almost 2 years of persuasion, my dad bought me a Revo 3.3. I basically just took that apart and broke it a bunch of times but it got me HOOKED on RC. My dad will admit now that it was the best thing he ever bought me. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I really got into racing. The summer before I graduated, I bought a Team Associated RC8.2e and did a few races at Trains and Lanes. My freshman year in college I raced at Crispy Critters in Fairfield, NJ about 20 minutes from campus and I raced a B4.1 Worlds Edition.
LiveRC: What are some of your proudest accomplishments as a racer?
TJ: My proudest ‘result’ is winning the 2018 A-Main Manufacturers Cup but I’m also very proud of what I’ve accomplished as an ambassador for Associated Electrics; being able to help racers through social media and at the track is very rewarding!
LiveRC: At what point did you decide you wanted to have a career in the R/C car industry?
TJ: I became a Mechanical Engineer because of my passion for RC cars. I loved tinkering, building, and understanding RC cars but working in the industry always seemed like a farfetched dream in the same way a young kid wants to be an astronaut and go to the moon. Dan Hissam (former AE Engineer) was also a largely influential in my decision to be a Mechanical Engineer. In high school, I reached out to a bunch of RC companies and asked what it took to be an RC designer. Horizon got back to me and told me to contact Dan (his employer at the time). He and I spoke on the phone for almost 2 hours about his career path and current role. I’m very thankful for that!
LiveRC: What is your current role at Team Associated, and how did that position come about for you?
TJ: My official role is Design Engineer. I had applied for the job in late 2015, with little hope of getting in because I had yet to finish my degree. When I graduated the following spring term, I started a full-time job in the defense industry, got my first apartment, and started my life. 6 months into that job, I got an email from Cliff asking if I was still interested. Duh!
LiveRC: You packed your bags and moved across the nation for this job, was it worth it?
TJ: It was one of the best decisions I have ever made and would do it again in a heartbeat (sorry mom). The weather is awesome, the people are (generally) very friendly, there are RC tracks around, and the infrastructure for cycling is amazing.
LiveRC: What are some of the most recent projects and products that you have been a part of developing, designing, and testing?
TJ: The new adjustable 4-shoe clutch was my last big project. A lot of work went into that baby! I also designed the tire balancer and several other tools and option parts. I’ve also spent a lot time doing things in background that help keep products coming in. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that we have product to sell. Working with vendors to price items, transferring parts from one vendor to another, bill of materials, figuring out how to package spare parts, CAD design, working with marketing for press releases.. it goes on. There is never a dull moment at the shop.
LiveRC: How much of your time is spent in the office, and how much of it is spent at the track testing?
TJ: It depends on the time of year. I just finished a busy few months of traveling. I went to Chico for the A-main race, Texas for fuel Nationals, and Las Vegas for Silverstate. In general, maybe 10% of my time is at the track. Often when I need things tested, I can reach out to our pro drivers for feedback. But sometimes I need to test secret things by myself 😊
LiveRC: Sometimes people tend to get discouraged in racing, life, and their own careers when they “fail”. How many “fails” go unknown to the public before a perfected new product is released?
TJ: It’s hard to put a number on that but sometimes it’s a lot. There are usually dozens of iterations of parts before we settle on a final design. Sometimes a part gets scraped after you’ve been working on it for 2 weeks. Sometimes the first design is the best. It can be stressful at times but managing your way through is critical so you don’t want to give up. Everything is a learning lesson. If you fail, you learn, and continue on.
LiveRC: What is the best part of your job?
TJ: Being in a position to spread the good word about RC cars! When I went home (NJ) last year for Christmas, I was invited to speak at my high school to students interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers. I spoke about my career path, my role as a Design Engineer, and generally about how great RC cars are. Throughout the day I talked to over 200 students. Knowing that I may have influenced a person’s life in a positive way; whether that’s getting into RC or deciding what to go to college for, is very soul fulfilling to me.
That same week, I held a Chassis Clinic class at DRP where I spoke to racers about the importance of isolating variables in setup changes, I gave tips on racing lines, and lots of other cool topics.
I also like to start my day by eating oatmeal and browsing the various RC news outlets like Live RC 😊
LiveRC: What is the worst part of your job?
TJ: “Just make this” or “just do that” are two common statements I get almost weekly. Like any business, we operate on a budget and must make smart decisions regarding the projects we allocate our time to. For those reasons, I can’t to get to every “just make that” part. I do my best to help and hear everyone and it stinks when I can’t!
LiveRC: Tell us a little about your involvement at the races. For example, what were some of your duties while attending the recent ROAR Fuel Off-Road Nationals in Texas?
TJ: It’s a blend of testing and helping racers. I usually have some parts or setup ideas that I want to try and I always have an objective checklist in my notebook (which I think everyone should have so they can keep notes!). I’ll help racers in the pits and wrench for them if they need it. I’ll help be someone’s pit man at a nitro race. I also always make time to walk around to Team Associated customers not on the “official” race team and ask them if they need help or have questions. That’s how I operate at any race but at the Nationals, it was five 10-12 hour days of this. RC racing is a lot of work!
LiveRC: Which do you prefer – 1/10 or 1/8 scale? Why?
TJ: 1/8th scale! The cars are so technical and nitro engines are awesome.
LiveRC: What is your ultimate goal for yourself in the R/C industry?
TJ: In 2.5 years with AE I’ve contributed to a World Championship victory, gotten my B3.1 on the cover of VRC magazine, and had my paint scheme on the box art for the T3.1. I’ve checked off a lot of my goals but there are always more!
LiveRC: This year hosts the IFMAR 1/10 Off-Road Worlds at Hudy Arena in Slovakia. Will you be attending this event, and if so, will you be going as a racer or as an engineer to support the team?
TJ: I won’t be there. I must have forgot to renew my passport 😊 If I ever go to a Worlds, it would likely be as Engineering Support.
LiveRC: Should we expect to see any major new products from AE leading up to the event, and/or during the event?
TJ: Great question! We did just release the B74 😊
LiveRC: Which of the professional drivers do you admire the most, and why?
TJ: I admire them all for different reasons but recently I have gained a ton of respect for Broc Champlin. Nationals was his third 1/8th scale race and he made BOTH A-mains. He was the last one at the track every night, wrenching on his cars making sure they were ready for the next day. Spencer is also very dedicated! As is Davide and so many other great drivers.
I also admire my sister Jodi a lot. I took her to her first race at DRP (Dunn Raceway Park, Scranton PA) a few years ago and she couldn’t even go straight, let alone go off a jump. Now she’s faster than a lot of guys she races with and I’m pretty sure she races more than me! Her boyfriend Cameron races with her too and it’s great to see when racing is a family affair.
LiveRC: Of all the AE products, which is your absolute favorite and why?
TJ: The new Element Sendero is the RC car I never knew I wanted so badly!! I started as a basher and when I became a racer, I forgot what it was like to not be competitive. The new crawler really brings me back to my roots of just having fun. It’s a whole new world of fun for me.
LiveRC: What is one thing most people don’t know about TJ Eller?
TJ: I’ve been vegan for since for 2 years. I care a lot about the health of our beautiful planet, so being conscious of sustainability and reducing my carbon footprint is a way for me to contribute. I commute to work on my bike most days and drive my car a few miles maybe once or twice a week. I put more miles per year on my bike than most people do in their car. I race road bikes on a team called Plant Power Racing and have my own cooking Instragram page @tjsvegankitchen.
LiveRC: If you weren’t working in the R/C industry, what would you most likely be doing?
TJ: Hopefully nothing that involves punching a clock and wearing a tie from 9-5 (apologies to those who enjoy that..). I love being an Engineer and would like to continue doing that in some capacity. I also aspire of one day opening my own coffee shop; friendly to all humans but with extra space for bicycle parking 😊
LiveRC: What advice do you have for someone who aspires to someday hold a position in the industry as you do?
TJ: For the young bucks: stay in school, stay in RC, and network! I won’t say it’s impossible.. but I think it’s difficult to ever hold an engineering position in the RC industry if you a) don’t have an engineering degree and/or b) are not in some way involved in RC. You need to have experience in both of those categories.
Working in the industry, it’s also important to keep a healthy work/life balance. When your hobby is your career it’s easy to get burned out living the RC life 24/7. I want to love RC cars forever, so I make time for my other hobbies. It’s good for your mental health to have that balance.
LiveRC: What events will you be attending in the near future?
TJ: I was supposed to attend E-nats this week but regrettably had to withdraw. We have a lot going on here at the shop this month and a week out of the office sets me back too far. I want to try and go to an east coast race sometime later this year. It will depend on how busy we are though.
LiveRC: Thank you TJ for joining us today, it has been great catching up with you! We are anxious to see what new products you will be working on next and look forward to seeing you at the races very soon. Is there anything you would like to add before we go?
TJ: Thanks everyone! I hope you enjoyed this small glimpse into my role as Design Engineer 😊 Remember to keep RC fun!!