An NTT INDYCAR Series team is much like one of a football squad. The driver is like the quarterback in that he gets all the attention. Win or lose, the driver is at the forefront of the coverage. The strategist is like the head coach. They make all the calls on top of the pit box and the one that does all the homework in planning each and every situation that could arise throughout a race weekend. The pit crew members, well they’re like the offensive linemen. They’re the more behind the scenes part of the organization.
The pit crew is really only noticed if they mess up. When they do their job to satisfaction, they don’t necessarily receive much glory. Same as the offensive line. You usually don’t know many of their names like you do the drivers. But when they show up to play, they do the dirty work and when they don’t slip up, you don’t even notice that they’re there.
In games that the quarterback walks off the field with a clean jersey and a grin on his face, it’s usually because the offensive linemen kept defenders out of the QB’s pocket. In most of those situations, the team is typically on the receiving end of an added number in the win column.
The quarterback gets the glory. The praise usually starts there and ends with the coach. The offensive linemen aren’t usually on the receiving end of the winning accolades.
It’s the same in racing.
A pit crew member changes tires, fuels the car, makes adjustments and any other necessary item to service this vehicle in a span of 6-8 seconds. They have no margin for error while doing so. They put their lives at risk hopping over a pit wall and doing so inches from cars in front or behind and feet away from cars traveling at speeds that you and I do on our normal daily roads.
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To have the focus to do so in such a quick time takes guts and skill. It’s a shame they don’t get the attention that they deserve.
“Yes, it does spotlight the people that actually have their hands on the product,” Mike Hull told me on Wednesday afternoon ahead of the weekend’s season finale. “All of us work really, really hard to have people that are physically and mentally fit, prepared to do pit stops.
“It’s funny, since I look after the 9 car on the race weekend, we’ll talk about the strategy for the race. If it’s a two-stop race, three-stop race, four-stop race, whatever it is, I’ll simply say, Hey, guys, we have three stops today. How much time is that?
“They’ll go, Oh, that’s 18 seconds. Three stops, six seconds apiece.
“All we’re asking for is six seconds of your time three times today. That’s all you have to do.
“But it’s a lot more than that. They put their heart and soul into getting the car prepared, then put their heart and soul into going over the wall, the people behind the wall that support them. If it’s six over the wall, it’s 12 people that do that stop.
“We don’t have people who fly in just to do pit stops. We have people who work on the car physically all day long, then what they do is go over the wall.
“I think it truly is a team sport. If they’re fast enough to be the fastest in the pits, they certainly pound their chests among themselves. It’s really cool they get to do that still in INDYCAR racing. That’s always been part of INDYCAR racing and I hope it always stays that way.”
It’s fascinating to look at it in that sense. In NASCAR, these crew guys are really weekend warriors and fly in on race day or the day prior to service the car. There’s a group of people back at the sport that prepare the car. Each have their own unique roles.
In INDYCAR, the guys and gals at the shop are the ones servicing the car on race weekend’s. They take it personal and hold a sense of pride that this car is truly theirs too. Their blood, sweat and tears are handprinted all over that Dallara chassis.
“It’s always a difficult balance. The more cars you have, the harder it is to equip all those cars with capable pit crews,” Tim Cindric told me on that subject. “It kind of goes back to the different challenges and balances there.
“The fact that most of the overall people in INDYCAR are also the ones that put their heart and soul into building those cars makes it a bit unique, especially relative to NASCAR.
“The design of the pit stops with what INDYCAR has put together really plays into that well because at the end of the day really everybody is stationary with the exception of the outside rear tire changer, the only one that moves more than a couple steps during a pit stop. That allows them to continue to do that.
“It’s not so much based on what age they are, in some ways not even their physical fitness. Sometimes it’s more of a mental fitness or muscle motion training, if you will.”
Cindric also added a wrinkle to this factor in a sense that pit crews are really the only other portion of a race team that you can separate yourself in meaning that in a spec series, there’s not much different that one car has than the other. The human element of a pit crew is really one of the last things left that you can truly make a difference in time during a race.
The cars are almost always within a second of each other. So in a series that the margins of victory are less than a second on most cases, how do you get from green flag to checkered flag in the least amount of time than others?
Less time on pit road….
“At the end of the day when you’re trying to differentiate yourselves, I think Mike (Hull) touched on it earlier with what essentially are race cars that we all have access to, engines that are all randomly distributed throughout the series, the human factor, whether it be the driver, the decisions that are made, or the pit stops, how you execute those, really become as important or more important than the physical parts on the cars themselves because it’s a matter of the decisions and the decision processes that are made,” Cindric continued.
“There’s certainly a lot of pride in pit lane in terms of what they are. But every team takes a different approach with how their pit crews are put together, whether it’s a so-called All-Star team within the people that you have or you try and put together multiple teams that are all A level.
“I think both of our groups have been able to achieve that. I think there’s a certain amount of pride in being able to put pit crews out there that are all capable of winning races on all your cars. It’s certainly a challenge that I think a lot of people don’t see how difficult that is to be consistent across all of your cars, not just one of your cars.”
It’s also not a fluke that when you look at the pit crew standings that are provided each week from the NTT INDYCAR Series, that the top teams are the ones that are fighting for a championship this weekend.
4 of the top 5 pit crews listed are 4 of the 5 teams in the hunt for a title.
Scott McLaughlin has the best pit crew. Will Power’s is 2nd best. Scott Dixon’s ranks third. Josef Newgarden’s is 4th.
They’re points position?
5th, 1st, 3rd, 2nd respectively.
Alex Palou’s is 5th. He’s 6th in points. Pato O’Ward is 7th in points and his crew ranks 7th. Marcus Ericsson’s is 8th.
That’s 7 of the top 8 in the drivers standings having 7 of the top 8 pit crews. Rinus Veekay’s the only outlier with his crew ranking 6th.
That’s not a coincidence.
INDYCAR pit crews also differ from a NASCAR one in the fact that NASCAR races feature way more pit stops. An INDYCAR race only has 2-3 of them on most weeks. Mess up 1, you face a deficit that you can’t really come out of. There’s not enough time.
It’s why to win an INDYCAR race, let alone a championship, you have to be on your A-game in every phase. One could say the pit crew is arguably the most important part of this process then.
In a day and age to where thousandths of a second separate a win from not, an extra second on pit road can take you from first to outside the top 10 and a day you do that, you’re entering a territory to where you may not win a championship.
Newgarden has 5 wins this season. He has more than 1st, 3rd and 4th in points do combined (4). So why isn’t he in the points lead?
He has 5 finishes of 13th or worse too. That’s why a pit crew can really make or break you. Luckily Newgarden’s problems on those finishes weren’t pit crew related. But this is a prime example on a bad race can ruin your hopes down the line.
It’s also why these drivers are up front because we don’t ever talk about bad pit stops for them. Take last weekend as a prime example. All 3 Penske cars entered pit road at the same time. It was a race between pit crews for the win.
Pit crews are the unsung heroes of this sport. They devote so much time to these cars, spend most of their springs and summers on the road away from their families and making a large sacrifice for the good of the team.