What it takes to be an IndyCar pit crew member

  • Insider spent the week with an IndyCar pit crew ahead of the Indianapolis 500.
  • Along with pit stop-specific training, the team undergoes intense physical and cognitive exercises.
  • During a pit stop, a crew changes all tires and fuels the car in less than seven seconds.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Grant Richey: A pit crew generally consists of six people over the wall, and you get about 18 half gallons of fuel.

Mike: Fuel flows out of the fuel rig into my hose, then into the car.

Grant: And then the air jack.

Kevin: When I plug that hose in, all that air pressure goes through the hose into the jacks, raise the car up.

Grant: Change four tires. You change your tire, put it back on, and away the car goes.

Grant: In hopefully less than seven seconds, if you’re good.

Kevin: We are at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the week before the race. We are doing pit stop practice. We are getting in shape, lifting weights, and we are prepping the car to make sure everything’s perfect for the race.

Jessica: A lot of people, when they look at a pit stop, they’re like, “Man, that looks so easy.” But people don’t realize sometimes the hours that we have to put in to make it look so easy.

Bob Perona: From the outside, a pit stop looks like chaos, but it’s really very coordinated. We practice pit stops because consistency is key, right? It’s really working on technique more than speed. There might be a way a guy wants to put the tire on, two hands versus one hand. We’ll work those kinds of techniques in and try and get that done here so that when we go to the racetrack, we know what we’re gonna do.

On my first day of training, I admittedly wasn’t very good. There was potential there, but I’ve improved significantly. It went from probably, like, a seven- or eight-second stop to cutting it in half to, like, a four-and-a-half-second stop now. It all seems slow motion. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. So if you’re consistent and you just go through the motions and you don’t make any mistakes, then you’re going to be faster than somebody who goes out there and just rushes through the whole process.

Jessica: We practice every day. We do at least five sets each. Somebody goes back and forth with the car, and you just keep doing repetition and trying new things if you have an issue, and work it out until you’ve got it perfected.

My name is Jessica Mace, and I am the inside rear tire changer. I first changed a tire at the Indy 500 in 2014. I saw the guys practicing, and that was something I was like, “Man, I really want to do that.” I didn’t touch a car for months. I just worked on a stationary machine and just kept going and going and going. I was like, “This is something I really want to do.” And I was able to change tires that year. And ever since then, I’ve been part of numerous pit crews. To make a successful pit stop, I gauge it on nobody’s dropping a nut, air jack goes up when it should, and everyone’s done before fuel. If you finish before fuel, then you know you’ve had a successful pit stop.

Jim Leo: To be an effective pit crew member, you need to have a lot of explosive power, upper-body strength, lower-body strength, and also have a very strong ability to focus and maintain your cognitive awareness. You have to be able to get in and out of the pits as quickly as possible, not just for effective pit stops but also from a safety standpoint.

Grant: Going to PitFit, like, that’s huge. You’re doing these hand-eye-coordination things that a lot of the other teams aren’t doing.

My name is Grant Richey, and for pit stops, I do the inside front tire.

Trainer: So strong.

Jim: The drill with tire changing is using strobe glasses, which minimizes the ability for the pit crew member to see what he’s doing. It breaks up the vision. And so when he takes the glasses off, their vision is that much more acute. The Vector reaction-ball drill is a visual recognition and decision-making drill where the athlete has to quickly respond to the color of the ball and then put it in the appropriate bucket. That helps them with the decision-making in a pit stop. It’s cool because you’re working out your mind and trying to improve your reflexes, which is half of what a pit stop is.

Oh, boy! There it is! [laughing]

An IndyCar pit crew is an incredibly physical job. The longevity of a crew member depends on their physical health and their wellness. If they don’t have these qualities, then their career is going to be very short.

Rolando Coronado: I’m 51 years old. If it wasn’t for this kind of training, I would be limping home every night or walking on crutches or probably already in a wheelchair.

Trainer: Good, that’ll work, Rolando! Switch, right arm up. You look at the duration of what they’re doing, and it’s extremely short. It requires a lot of precision, a lot of strength, and speed. These guys are walking 20,000 steps a day during a race weekend before they even get to the pit stops in a race situation.

Grant: So, with today being Carb Day, it’s really the last chance for teams and pit crews to prepare themselves for the race. The biggest thing is making sure your car is set up properly for the race. Is the car handling well through the corners, behind cars, in front of cars, passing cars?

They make sure that everything is under its life, everything is crack-checked. Most teams put a new, fresh engine for the race.

I’d say the biggest differences between an IndyCar pit crew and a NASCAR pit crew — so, in an IndyCar team, the guys changing the tires are also the ones building the car at the shop.

When I strap into the race car and go into turn one at 230 miles an hour, you know, you have full confidence that the car is built right. And then on his side, like, we gotta trust him, that he’s going to come in the pit box safely and hopefully quickly, but mostly safely, and not going to hit any of us.

Fortunately, I have a great pit crew that hasn’t made any mistakes this year yet. They obviously need to be on point with their pit stops, just like I need to be on point with my driving. The coolest moment of the whole month is coming in race morning and then coming out on-grid and seeing usually not a seat left in the house. That’s the coolest part of the year, honestly.

Drivers, start your engines. [engines revving]

In a race like this, you’re going to make anywhere from five to eight pit stops, depending on your strategy.

You have to start hydrating weeks before because you just sweat and sweat and sweat.

A good pit crew is important just because of the competitive level of IndyCar, everything’s measured in tenths of a second, hundredths of a second. It’s hard to imagine that we see, like, a 6.5-second stop versus a 6.4-second stop and that tenth of a second could be the difference between winning and losing.

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2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi breaks down why the race is so difficult

  • At speeds of over 220 mph, drivers tear around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 500 miles, or 200 laps.
  • But while driving an oval racetrack may seem fairly straightforward, surviving just one lap requires an expert behind the wheel.
  • We talked to the Indy 500 2016 winner Alex Rossi who took us turn by turn through the track.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Alexander Rossi: Hey what’s up guys I’m Alexander Rossi. IndyCar driver for Andretti Autosport. I drive the #27 NAPA AutoNation Honda and I won the 2016 Indianapolis 500.

So you roll off on what is kind of four pace and parade laps. The first one, you do a salute to the fans. So the first lap is very slow and you’re just waving to the fans. Then the second and third lap you go single file and that’s when you get the engine temperature, the tire temperature, the brake temperature all to the levels that you want. And the team’s kind of talking you through that. And then the final lap you form back into the grid formation, eleven rows of three.

You know what you’re trying to do is just maintain the speed off the car on your inside because he’s really the one setting the pace. And then from that point you’re just waiting until the row in front of you accelerates, and you try to go with them. You know, you want to get a jump on the cars around you, but ultimately it’s a 500 mile race. There’s so much that’s gonna happen in the next three hours that the last thing you want to do is throw it all away going into Turn 1.

As we’re going into Turn 1 this is the first time you’re actually seeing the grandstands full. Because of that, it looks a lot narrower than it has the previous few weeks that you’ve been practicing because the light’s not coming in, there’s different kinds of shadows and reflections that you see. It’s actually kind of intimidating the first time that you go through there. It takes your mind three or four laps to adjust to the visual sensation.

So going into Turn 1, there’s cars that are taking a bigger risk than other cars for sure. Going two wide, or three wide you can only do on starts and restarts. And the reason for that is you’re accelerating from such a slower speed out of Turn 4 that by the time you get to Turn 1 you’re only doing 180, 190 mph. While that’s still fast, it’s a lot faster when you’re going 240 mph. So your margin for being able to explore different lines only exists on starts and restarts, and from there you see it kind of fall into more single file racing.

As much as geometrically Turns, 1, 2, 3 and 4 are identical, they’re all very different. So you’re using the short chutes to kind of change the balance of the car based on how it was through Turn 1 that lap.

The typical kind of balance you have is you have a bit of understeer exit of 1 and into 2. Between the short chute of 1 and 2 you are usually stiffening your rear anti-roll bar, softening your front anti-roll bar, or putting left front weight. So you can change the cross weight of the car. You can move up to 150 pounds from the right front tire to the left front tire. This obviously changes the balance of the car quite a bit.

So in terms of the easiest places to crash, it’s usually Turns 2 or 4. And that is because the tires are at their peak temperature exiting Turns 1 and 3. So when you go into Turn 2 and 4 you have much less margin for error. Whereas when you go into 1 and 3 they have the entire straightaway to cool down and center themselves. The short chutes between 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 don’t allow them to cool down enough so you have to be super precise with what you do or the price is just exponential.

These cars are so aerodynamically dependent, and they’re made to be run by themselves. So that means when the wings and the floor of the car are developed, they’re made in a space where the air coming at it is clean, and the cars go through it as if it was brand new virgin air. Well when you’re behind cars that are going through that air, they’re actually dirtying up the air and it’s coming at the car in a much more disconnected fashion so it actually reduces the performance of your car.

Where this comes back to your advantage is in the straights. So because they’re basically having to punch a hole through clean air, that means that you don’t have to do that anymore, so that’s where the draft and slipstream comes into play.

So the main goal of the Indianapolis is, how do you find a car balance that you can stay close enough behind the car in front of you to not lose a draft, but then still fast enough in a straight line to pass them. Because you can obviously put down force on, raise the rear wing angle, really glue your car to the track and be able to corner really well and follow someone super close. But then when you’re in a straight and you try to slipstream past them you don’t have enough straight line speed. So it’s all about finding that balance of “this is the least amount of grip I can get by with, while still being able to pass cars.

So going into Turn 3 you can see the sparks coming from the car in front. One thing to keep in mind in a race like this is that because it’s so long, the tire pressures are pretty low at the start of the stint. So what you have is the car bottom, it actually touches the ground. It’s what we call bottoming. So when that happens there’s actually less of a tire on the ground which is fine, but you have to be prepared for it because the car can actually move a little bit, and it’s hitting the deck so it’s not as composed as it would be.

And then going into Turn 4, as you’re completing the lap, this is the first time you’re able to get a balance check of what the car’s doing. That first lap you’re really seeing “Did I make the right call? Is everything as I expected it to be?”

But as I mentioned, it’s such a long race that even if the first balance check that you do isn’t quite what you were hoping for or expecting, there’s enough pit stops throughout the race where you can tune on the car, adjust tire pressures and wing angles, that theoretically if you play your cards right, by the end of the race you can dial in your car to be what you need it to be to win.

So as you start Lap 2 it’s at this point that you kind of start to have an idea of what the car is doing, and you start to analyze people’s strengths and weaknesses. And start trying to analyze your areas of attack as the day goes on.

And quite honestly that changes. It changes every 5 to 10 laps. As your fuel load decreases your car balance changes. Temperatures are always fluctuating, and a 2 to 3 degrees change in track temperature can make a big difference on the balance of your car. And it’s the guy that’s able to stay on top of it the most and make the right calls and obviously have a good car underneath him that’s ultimately able to win the Indianapolis 500.

The 2016 Indy 500 was my first 500. It was my second race ever on an oval. Throughout the race we were having a lot of problems refueling the car. Every time I came into the pits we’d kind of fall back, I’d lose position because we were taking so long to put fuel in the car.

My strategist and team owner, Bryan Herta, came up with a strategy, a high risk, roll the dice, we’re gonna do one less pit stop than everyone else and try to save fuel. So we’re gonna eliminate stopping one final time and stretch our fuel to make it to the end. We always knew we were gonna run out of fuel on the final lap, it was just gonna be a matter of when, and were we gonna have enough of a lead to basically coast across the finish line.

So we had enough fuel to get us out of Turn 2 into Turn 3, and as we were in the short chute between 3 and 4 we ran out of gas. So I just pulled the clutch in and just waited and literally just free-wheeled from the middle of Turn 4 all the way to the finish line. We started the lap with a 24 second lead and won by 3.8 seconds. Certainly a very strange way to win that race.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in May 2020.

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