Life in the Pits: There's a Lot More to Racing than the Driver
When you watch motor racing on TV, there’s a lot that you see. Television cameras capture every important lead change, every off-track excursion, overtaking maneuver, and near-miss; it’s all there. Or is it? You see, cameras – for the most part – focus on half of the sport: the driver. And as exciting as he or she may be, drivers can’t win without a stellar team to back them. I spent the weekend at the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen (part of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship) with Ferrari teams Scuderia Corsa and AIM Autosport to find out just what life in the pit lane is really like.
To be frank – quite demanding.
Truth be told, the race weekend starts days and weeks before the cars line the grid, with engineers analyzing data and setting up the car for each individual racetrack. One week it’s Watkins Glen, New York and in less than a fortnight the paddock reconvenes in Ontario. That makes shipping cars, trailers, personnel and new components an absolute juggling act. And for a team like Scuderia Corsa, which feature international drivers in a purely North American series, travel logistics are paramount.
But as can be expected, the biggest challenges for each team’s pit crew and engineers present themselves when the cars start rolling on race weekend.
The level of communication between a driver and engineer can either make or break a team’s chances of a win. Throughout the race, qualifying sessions, and even practice sessions, the driver and his or her engineer are in constant contact, which might seem a bit overkill to the layperson; that is until you consider the mountain of data that the crew accesses.
The better question would be, ‘what doesn’t the crew look at?’ The guys on the wall monitor tire pressures and temperatures, engine heat, cockpit temperature (kept at a toasty 95 degrees Fahrenheit), real-time telemetry and pace, fuel consumption, tire wear, maximum driver time, among many other pieces of data that frankly we wouldn’t know what to do with. Oh yeah, they also do that whole change-the-tires-and-fuel-the-car thing.
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While sensors and radio chatter relay much of that data between the driver and engineer, the engineer also communicates with spotters on the track to work out race strategy - whether to push hard or conserve - and with the pit mechanics to get everyone on the same page. It’s a delicate balancing act, performed for hours on end and usually under sweltering heat.
“There’s certainly a lot of things going on,” noted Ian Willis, team principal at AIM Autosport, which runs the 450-horsepower #555 Ferrari 458 GT-Daytona car. “It goes in spurts and depends on what is happening in the race. It’s like being a quarterback, head coach…cheerleader sometimes too.”
The latter coaching point resonates across the paddock with Joe LaJoie, race engineer for Scuderia Corsa’s #63 458 GT-Daytona, who noted the challenges of racing in a series with professional and amateur drivers.
“It depends on the driver,” said LaJoie. “Sometimes you’ve got to kick ‘em in the ass, sometimes you’ve got to give ‘em a hug. For some drivers you need to figure out, ‘Okay, what does he need to go fast?’”
That speed can come from many avenues, whether it is a shift in the car’s technical setup or in something as simple as knowing how the driver likes to be spoken to. It takes a certain amount of time for drivers and engineers to begin to understand one another, but when they do, their ability to maximize their car’s entire package will lead to podiums, race wins, and eventually championships.
This past weekend AIM Autosport got it right. The #555 458 Italia took second place in the GT-Daytona class in the hands of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, while the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari recovered from an early accident to finish in fifth.
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But long after the race ended and the fans had left, the crew still hammered on, starting the whole cycle again in preparation for the next big race at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park on July 13. The next time you see your favorite drivers standing on the podium, consider the team of dedicated crew members that got them there – the unsung heroes of motor racing.
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