It was Sunday night at Pearson Airport in Toronto and the 175 men filing towards the charter flight back to Indianapolis all sported different colors and logos on their crew shirts but they all shared the same look of exhaustion.
When the checkered flag fell on the Honda Indy, it was the ninth consecutive weekend of either testing, qualifying or racing. Unlike NASCAR, which has a shop team to work on cars and another one that just goes over the wall at the races, these mechanics have do it all – assemble, rebuild, turn the cars around, service them during pit stops and then load everything up.
The ridiculous Verizon IndyCar schedule, which shoehorns 16 races into roughly five months, is more than half over and the men that wrench the cars are already fully knackered.
“This is the worst stretch in the 22 years I’ve been a mechanic on Indy cars,” said one veteran when asked the obvious question. “The last time we had two consecutive days off was in April and we’ve all hit the wall.
“There’s never a break and you don’t have a chance to ever catch up.”
Another veteran added: “In the CART days of unlimited testing it was never like this. Some of us have been on the road 21 straight days and I know one team that’s been testing the aero kit since Christmas.”
The norm for an IndyCar mechanic is a 12-hour day. “Usually it’s 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. unless it’s a setup day and that’s usually 14 hours,” said another lifer. “We had a double-header at Detroit, drove home and got to bed at 2 a.m. and were back in the shop at 9 a.m. to work until 9 p.m. and then come back again at 7 a.m to turn the car around for Texas.
“It’s lunacy. IndyCar talks about safety and it’s all on the backs of guys who work 12-hour days non-stop. Everybody is worn out and dead on their feet and that’s when mistakes get made.”
Now before anybody says something about these guys choosing this profession, it’s a glamorous job that takes them all over the country and they’re all making good money so quit complaining, zip it. None of them asked for this story to be written, nor did they seek me out to bitch, it’s just such an obvious flaw in the IndyCar system.
First off, a lot of quality mechanics have quit IndyCar and headed south or to sports cars because the money is just as good if not better and the schedule isn’t going to ruin their knees, back or marriage.
They also left because the short season forced some of them to be laid off for five or sixth months and even a few members of the Big 3 teams are concerned that might be next for them as well. “Penske has never done it and neither has Chip (Ganassi) or Michael (Andretti) to my knowledge but I think everyone is very concerned that could be changing,” said another longtime mechanic. “Our last race is August 30th and there’s a chance we won’t be racing again for at least six months, so what the hell are we going to do?”
The other misnomer is that mechanics are well paid for their long hours. They use to be in the CART days when they got a percentage of a win, a podium finish or the year-end prize money but since the Leader’s Circle emasculated the purses, the mechanics got screwed.
“We got $34,000 in bonuses one championship year in CART and now we’d be lucky to get $3,400,” offered another mechanic. “We had a guy last two weeks. He said he couldn’t believe how hard we had to work for the amount of money we were paid and he was going back to tuning up passenger cars.”
Of course Mark Miles and the people who help him create this monstrosity of a schedule have no clue about the hardships it creates, nor do they care. Going from Louisiana to California to Alabama in three weeks is tough on truck drivers and race teams but it’s hardly a concern flying first class.
I’ll admit I’ve got a soft spot and tons of respect for mechanics, dating back to Bill Finley, Jud Phillips and A.J. Watson. Sure, today’s group doesn’t have to do everything those guys did but they’ve got hundreds of moving parts to deal with and get right on top of trying to figure out aero kits. They also don’t knock off at 5 p.m. like Jud and Watson to have a couple beers – engineers see to that – and they’re also expected to deliver perfect pit stops in eight seconds or less.
It’s a dangerous and thankless job in many ways but it doesn’t have to be a chain gang if there was a little common sense in making out the schedule.
“There’s no way to have a family, you are never home,” stated a 20-year man. “And they are killing us and everything good about what we love.”
The single-file start in Sunday’s Honda Indy was another punch in the gut for the paying customers and TV audience and another black eye for IndyCar. The rain stopped 45 minutes before the green flag and the track was wet but certainly not dangerous.
A couple hours before, the Indy Lights kids started two abreast in a DRIVING rainstorm and pressed on for 30 laps.
The further wussyfication of IndyCar continues – take a bow, Race Control.