The most grueling stretch of the Verizon IndyCar Series will come to an end Saturday night in Texas. Five consecutive weekends of practice, qualifying, and racing, all dating back to May 12’s Grand Prix of Indy, has every team ready and waiting for a much-needed break.
And prior to the five-week sprint, look back to a frenetic April where three straight races at Phoenix, Long Beach, and Barber, plus the make-up Indy Open Test from April 30-May 1 kept crews in constant motion. For most of the paddock, including IndyCar’s staff, having the weekend between Texas and the June 24 visit to Road America off to recharge minds and bodies is a personal finish line.
“Everybody was worn down going into Detroit,” Ed Carpenter Racing team manager Tim Broyles told RACER. “We try to do the best we can to plan ahead on car builds and prep work so our crew could have a day off. They got one before Detroit, and they’ll have one going into Texas, and they know they’ll have a long weekend after Texas, but it’s tough. You think about the month of May and everything that went into it with the test, the GP, building cars, the race, then two races in Detroit. It feels, for everyone in the series, I’d imagine, like it hasn’t let up since Phoenix.”
For Broyles’ ECR Chevy team and many others, the grind from April to May and early June has involved repairing crashed cars, which has only served to compound the work load. Drivers Jordan King, Danica Patrick, and Spencer Pigot found various walls in recent weeks, and of the three, only Patrick’s No. 13 Chevy has yet to be repaired.
“That’s part of it,” he continued. “We had five cars prepped for Indy, turned our two road course cars into backups for the 500 and had spares prepped and ready. The same thing applies for Detroit with a double event where you know crashes are likely, so when [King’s] No. 20 car hit the wall [on Friday, pictured above], the crew from [Pigot’s] No. 21 car came over when they were done to help get it turned around. We did all four corners [on the No. 20], so you use up those spares, but you try to have yourselves ready to react instead of being tired and waiting around for parts to get the job done. You don’t want to waste time when you’re running low on energy.”
As the races keep coming one after the other, ECR’s approach to maintaining sanity involves shifting the focus from long days at the shop to longer periods away from work.
“That’s one thing that we do that’s driven by the ownership group here,” Broyles added. “We all have families or kids in college or whatever, and we have to put so much of our lives on hold as it is. If someone comes to me and says, ‘Hey, my kid’s got a Little League game at 5,” we want to make sure that’s not a problem at this time of the year when the grind is going. We’re going to shut down early next week so everyone can go sit next to the lake or be at home or whatever they need.
“And we try and set goals each day for what needs to be done and then get everyone out at the right time; we don’t want people here until 8 tonight just for the sake of it. Get in, put your head down, knock out your work, and get out of here so you have some personal time in this grind. It puts a lot of stress on everyone and their families; during May, yeah, people were sleeping in their own beds, but they’re leaving before the sun’s up, before their kids are up, and getting home after dark and after the kids have gone to bed. So you try and give some balance as this schedule wears on.”
Although they enjoy the spotlight as the central players in each race, IndyCar drivers aren’t immune to the rigors of the schedule.
“It’s been exhausting,” said championship front-runner Graham Rahal. “Certainly, some drivers are busier than others with off-track activities. It’s been a nightmarish six weeks for everyone, but you take it as it is, and as a driver, you’re thankful people want your time.”
With an IndyCar test and his wife’s NHRA drag race to attend next week, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda driver is looking to July for relief.
“When we finish up at Texas, we test at Road America on Wednesday, I have events Thursday and Friday, and then I’m in Bristol with Courtney [Force],” he said. “My first real break is Fourth of July weekend, and that’s what I keep reminding myself about. You just have to keep the results flowing, and the adrenaline comes and keeps you up. Otherwise, you’d crash, mentally.”
Following a heavy crash during Saturday’s race at Detroit, the RLLR crew had to prepare the spare No. 15 car and worked into Sunday morning to complete the swap. Knowing how worn and tired they were, Rahal says their efforts, which allowed him to capture fifth in Sunday’s race, has been a big boost leading into Texas.
“What encourages me is seeing the guys do their thing,” he remarked. “I take a lot of pride from last weekend after my mistake on Saturday to see them put a great car on track for Sunday that ran flawlessly. That’s all I need to be motivated. We’ve had a lot of long nights lately, but that’s all I need. And I hope they feel the same way by seeing their hard work, when everyone’s dog tired, make great results.”
Adding to the feeling of reaching a finish line when the checkered flag waves over Texas, ambient temperatures are going to be extremely high. Rahal expects to encounter a punishing end to this sustained journey.
“It’s supposed to be hot as hell at Texas; something like 98 degrees there, so if you want to talk about deserving a break, the whole series will be ready for their break before Road America,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing — it isn’t going to be pleasant for anyone, but you’ll appreciate whatever time away you’ll have.”