Bioengineer by day, sports car tinkerer by night

Omar Ishak transforms broken down and beat up cars bound to be scrap metal into fast and furious machines

April 17, 2024

Omar came to the Lab as a master’s student to research mutations of the DNA in the flu virus.

Omar Ishak was 13 when he got his first car — or rather, the pieces of his first car. He had helped in his dad’s auto shop in the summers from age 10 to 12, but the vehicle that his dad presented, an Acura Integra, was a challenging first car. Missing most of one side and without a working engine, it seemed to Omar as if it were better off as scrap metal.

"If you can piece together all the parts," Omar remembers his dad saying, "you can have it."

Omar, now a technical project manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory, at first felt overwhelmed at the enormity of what needed to be finished. As a child, he’d played with Legos and liked to tinker and take broken things apart. Then he’d become fascinated with building smaller-scaled model cars and, by the time his dad owned that shop, the fascination had manifested into real cars.

By his teens, he already knew what engines powered what makes and models to his favorite vehicles, and how best to extract power from them. But he’d never taken on such a large task on his own.

He began with research, looking over car part manuals and reading online forums written by people who’d repaired similar cars of the same vintage. As he learned, the hesitation of a large-scale restoration project became excitement for what the vehicle might become.

"A lot of people let fear stop them from even beginning a new or daunting task, especially with cars," he says. "It helped, for me at least, that the car was already broken so I couldn’t make it much worse."

Omar transformed this battered car into a gleaming race car.

Today, what started out of necessity — fixing up his first car — has become a hobby that helps Omar relax and channel his creativity.

More to it than horsepower

Since that first car, Omar has completed 12 full restorations from start to finish, plus countless others that required less than a complete overhaul, sometimes for himself and sometimes for friends.

He’s rebuilt suspensions and added entirely new engines, transmissions, supercharger systems and turbo systems. When done, the car might be recognizable superficially but is practically a different animal underneath the hood. "It’s pretty common to start on a car that has about 215-wheel horsepower at our elevation," Omar says, "and by the time it’s finished it will push something like 525- to 600-wheel horsepower."

Omar works almost exclusively on Japanese imports from the 1990s and early 2000s, mostly Hondas, Toyotas and the occasional Subaru, which he appreciates for their simplicity and modularity. "Japanese cars are iconic, and when it comes to the bang for your buck they’re unmatched for how they handle and the power they produce per liter, meaning you can take a factory configuration, sprinkle in some simple modifications and watch the car become quite competitive on the racetrack."

Lately, Omar has picked up a curiosity for some European makes such as BMW, Volvo and Mercedes Benz.

What started out of necessity — fixing up his first car — has become a hobby that helps Omar relax and channel his creativity.

Omar has come to find the tinkering therapeutic, for the most part, but as the popularity of this genre of car has grown, it’s become increasingly hard to find parts for them. And that’s when his growing circle of car-enthusiast friends comes in handy.

"It’s kind of funny to think about, but I have friends all over the world because of this hobby," Omar says. "I’ve sent parts to friends in Australia because they couldn’t find something they needed, and friends in the United Kingdom have done the same for me. Once, while I was in France, I met up with someone I met on the car forum, someone I’ve talked cars with for more than a decade."

One of Omar’s favorite rebuilds was in honor of a deceased cousin of a friend. The young woman had passed away and left behind a Subaru Impreza WRX STI, which she’d intended to fix up but never got the chance to finish. When Omar brought it back a year later, the parents were ecstatic to see their daughter’s dream car in perfect condition.

By far, the greatest feeling when Omar has completed a build is taking the car out to the racecourse and driving it fast around the turns. Performance on a road course is a good indicator of the car’s ability, testing not only horsepower but everything from its handling to its brakes.

"Anyone can put a big engine in a car and overpower it," he says. "But what really counts is how the vehicle functions holistically while balancing other aspects as well. That attention to detail separates the pros."

Motorcycles are Omar's new challenge.

Not quite apples to apples

Omar came to the Lab in 2014 as a master’s student in the Biosciences group to research influenza A mutagenesis, which are mutations of the DNA in the flu virus. When that work had finished, he was tapped to work on the Lab’s Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer project, or ATHENA.

This happened in part because of his work on cars.

Started as a means to test new drugs and toxic agents, ATHENA was a Lab collaboration to build miniaturized bioengineered organs that simulate those found in the human body, such as the lungs, liver, heart and kidney. The research was a little outside of Omar’s specialization, but he says much of the team, including team leader Jennifer Harris, were aware of his hobby.

"The logistical issues behind fluid mechanics are surprisingly transferable from cars to organs," he says, laughing. "When we were building the liver, it was very metabolically demanding and complex. It required various fluid circuits as well as a dedicated gas supply to help control fluctuations in pH. With a car — it’s not exactly apples to apples, of course — but you’re essentially fighting the similar issues, which is how to manage fluid flow and heat through various complex systems. So, I was able to bring a different approach to solving our issues at hand.”

These days, outside of the Lab, Omar has taken up a different but related hobby: working on motorcycles, specifically a Triumph Daytona 675. He found one for cheap that needed a total overhaul. Omar knew little about motorcycles when he started, he says, but he’s enjoying this new challenge.