The last time a veteran NASCAR engineer made the first-time switch to IndyCar, it didn’t take long for wins and a trip to victory lane at the Indianapolis 500 to follow. That was Team Penske’s Brian Campe, who applied his vast stock car knowledge to the new task of open-wheel racing when Juan Pablo Montoya returned to IndyCar in 2014, and with their win at the 2015 Indy 500, Campe demonstrated how technical talent can transfer between vastly different disciplines.
Cole Pearn, the man who helped Martin Truex and the Furniture Row Racing team author NASCAR’s big championship upset in 2017, hopes to emulate Campe as he dives into his first IndyCar engineering assignment with Conor Daly at the Indy 500. Drafted into the Chevy-powered Ed Carpenter Racing program, Pearn (pictured above) has been busy at the ECR shop with getting to know the team, learning about the engineering tools at his disposal, and figuring out the differences and commonalities in the open-wheel race engineering job.
“It’s fun to have a new challenge,” Pearn told RACER. “You get stuck looking at the same stuff in the week-to-week kind of deal in the same series, so it’s nice to look at the job in a completely new perspective. It’s still physics, but there’s still a lot of little nuances that are different and stuff. At least it’s a track where I’ve got a lot of experience at, and know how finicky it can be. A lot of the language we use is super similar; it’s just the details which are different.”
After landing in Indianapolis, Pearn dove into the various software tools, chassis and simulation data, and setup information associated with ECR’s Indy 500 effort and Daly’s No. 47 Air Force Chevy. Assisting with the onboarding process, ECR technical director Matt Barnes, and Peter Craik — a former Furniture Row engineering colleague with previous IndyCar experience — have been there to support the Canadian in the endeavor.
“They’ve been super helpful, and helping me more understand the procedural side of things,” he said. “Once you look at aero data, it’s different but it’s still aero. Yeah, there’s still optimum points and efficiency points, but it’s all kind of the same thing; just the way you’re getting there is different. So I’m just getting more comfortable with all the little details in it.
“The big-picture view is it’s not as different as people would think from Cup to IndyCar. It’s somewhat simpler in a way, just because Indy cars just don’t slip the amount of yaw and slipping all the tires — it’s just way less than what it is in a Cup car, so there’s less of a gray area. I’ll have telemetry to work with, and then it’s just getting used to all the aero tools that are there. But it’s similar; it’s still lift over drag. So I’ve been taking enough time to prepare myself with all the new or different things to work with.”
With the cancellation of the Indy Open Test and no opportunities to learn about the Dallara DW12-Chevy chassis or Daly’s handling preferences in an on-track setting before the start of practice, Pearn will have plenty to accomplish and digest when practice starts next Wednesday.
“Oh yeah, for sure, and the good thing is I’m pretty open-minded to it all,” he said. “Conor’s going to be my first foray into it, which is cool, so I think from that standpoint, I’ll be super keen on what he’s saying and I’m using his direction a ton. He’s in a situation as well where he’s had to work with a lot of different people and he seems to be doing well in that. He’s got a good understanding of how to communicate what he’s looking for and what he wants. That way, I feel pretty confident. Obviously, it all changes when we get to the track and you get in the middle of it, but all signs so far have been nothing but positive.”
Pointing to Campe as an example, stock cars are extremely different machines with significantly less cutting-edge technology, but the level of engineering knowledge possessed by the finer Cup engineers is certainly worthy of appreciation. In that regard, Pearn hopes the transition from the familiar world of NASCAR to something newer and faster at the Speedway will add to the legacy of his crossover predecessors.
“Totally; I think historically, the old view of NASCAR is it’s a little bit more kind of hands on, not so engineering driven as to what IndyCar has, but I know my approach was very engineering driven,” he said. “I think people that come from that side of it do better, or it’s more of a natural transition. The fact that other people from NASCAR have done it is a good sign. I haven’t worked with Pete Craik for a few years, but it gives me confidence — he’s able to talk things in my language at times to get up to speed. That was a huge part of me feeling comfortable enough to do this, having him involved.”
Pearn visited the Indy 500 during qualifying in 2014 when his NASCAR driver Kurt Busch made the race with Andretti Autosport. Having seen other teams’ cars at speed, and his own stock car machines in action at the Brickyard, watching Daly fly by for the first time in a car he’s engineering should make for a special moment in a celebrated career.
“Indy is always one of my favorite places, even on the Cup side,” he said. “First time they come down the front stretch, it’s such a cool feeling. With Conor and the Ed Carpenter team, you definitely want to soak in those moments a little bit, but then get to work.”