PRUETT: The Indy Lights O.G.

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PRUETT: The Indy Lights O.G.

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PRUETT: The Indy Lights O.G.

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The guy with the silver hair and big smile, the one wearing a Global Racing Group/HMD Motorsports Indy Lights team shirt, has one heck of a story to tell.

Last season, he engineered Indy Lights rookie Benjamin Pedersen in his No.24 GRG entry, which presented an incredibly cool milestone for Mark Weida, who was there 35 years ago during the inaugural season of the American Racing Series. In 1990, the series name changed from ARS to Indy Lights.

Weida, working for the famed Arciero family, helped produce the first ARS champion in 1986 with Italy’s Fabricio Barbazza. He’d add two more titles to his long list of achievements as crew chief, engineer, and soon, team owner. Five decades in, Weida is still there, grooming the next generation of talent, watching as they’ve moved onto the CART IndyCar Series, Champ Car, and today’s NTT IndyCar Series.

If Indy Lights has a living legend who continues to ply his trade at the top step of the Road To Indy ladder, it’s Weida.

“It just worked out for me that I was one of the first guys there in the ARS,” he tells RACER. “I know I was the only guy that did the first 100 races because (series founder) Pat Patrick and (series president) Roger Bailey gave me an award at the 100th race in Cleveland.”

Weida worked for the Arciero Brothers for the first two ARS seasons, then bought the team’s assets and started his own program, Leading Edge Motorsport, in 1988. Based in Southern California, Leading Edge was an immediate front-runner in the series, claiming the 1989 championship with Mike Groff and the 1992 title with Robbie Buhl. In time, Weida moved away from team ownership and worked as an engineer for hire in IndyCar.

“We won the first championship with Barbazza, then we ran Jeff Andretti in ’97, and things just kept going from there; I think I did the first 11 years of Indy Lights,” he says. “And then things transitioned to where I was actually getting paid, able to keep my salary, as opposed to being the owner and putting all the money back into the team.

“When I was done with Leading Edge, I went to work in IndyCar and then even came back to the IRL’s Lights program, the Infiniti Pro Series, worked with Arie Luyendyk Jr and some others, and then branched out into sports cars, contract stuff engineering cars at the Indy 500, and keeping busy with formula cars.”

Weida earned his first serious bit of ladder series cred when he helped steer Fabrizio Barbazza to the ARS title in 1986.

It was a turn toward engineering Black Dog Racing’s rumbling Pirelli World Challenge Camaros where Weida found himself on an eventual return to Indy Lights. As part of the Illinois-based Black Dog team led by Tony Gaples, he also got to know GRG owners, and in time, he was asked to assist with the team’s Formula 4 and Formula Regional Americas open-wheel effort.

“Coming back has really been all about GRG, because I was doing the sports car stuff with Black Dog, we won three championships in a row, and then this opportunity happened with the new F4 series started, met Christian and Helle Pedersen and their son Benjamin,” he says.

“I’ve just followed my way back into Indy Lights with GRG, and then met the HMD folks, Henry and Daiva Malukas and their son David, and they’ve all been great to work with. So with GRG, we won two FRA championships in a row in 2019 with Dakota Dickerson and in 2020 with Linus Lundqvist, and then I worked with Benjamin in his first Lights season while David was second in the championship. Christian has been really loyal, a great guy to work for. I’m the dinosaur there. All these young kids weren’t even born when I was doing ARS!”

In Weida, the GRG/HMD Indy Lights team has an engineer with skills that few can offer. Looking back to the state of technology at play 35 years ago with the naturally-aspirated V6-powered March-Buicks compared to the turbocharged 4-cylinder Dallara IL15s in use today, Weida’s old school, pre-internet knowledge blends nicely with all of the cutting-edge tools at his disposal today. The state of driver preparedness also differs greatly from 1986 to 2021.

“That’s for sure!” he says with a laugh. “You know, early on, guys like Barbazza were fast and made the most of what you gave them, but he and the others didn’t train like these kids do now. There were no simulators back then. We didn’t have any data acquisition. We never really had what you’d call today an engineer. At that time, I was the chief mechanic and just made the chassis adjustments, but you weren’t called engineer at that time.

“The first time I had any data was in ’92 with Robbie Buhl, and it was a pretty basic Stack system. The whole thing was managed through a computer where everything was in DOS, way before Windows, so I couldn’t really figure it out and got some help with that. The engineering process was a lot different before we had data to look at. You talked to the driver, you looked at the tires, you looked at the skid plates, you looked at the tire pressures, and that was your information.”

Weida’s basic mission hasn’t changed during his decades in the sport, but the tools available to get the most out of both his cars and his drivers most certainly have.

Having the ability to look at the IL15 and know what it needs for setup changes based on visual cues is a lost art form, and while he’s been using data acquisition for decades, Weida continues to enjoy the evolutions in engineering practices and driver development found within the GRG/HMD Lights program.

“Back then, you had nothing to counter with if your driver said they were flat in a corner, because there was no data, and definitely no video to go by,” he says. “But nowadays, where I really saw it first was in F4 where I was engineering multiple cars. Usually, I stick my head in the cockpit or the drivers come out and they tell me what the car is doing. Well here, what they’ve been doing since 2016 with this program was so different; they would all go in with the driver coaches and watch their in-car videos.

“They wanted to see if they were messing something up with their driving before they would come out and talk about making an adjustment with the car. So that’s one of the biggest scenarios where the engineering process has changed over the eras I’ve been involved. And then the drivers are completely different; they’re always in the gym, really fit, and they all got sims. Their preparedness is pretty amazing.”

For Weida, and his wife Kathy, who runs All American Racers, the new plan for 2022 is a simplified schedule, as he will focus solely on Indy Lights and helping to train new GRG/HMD signing Christian Bogle.

“It’s been a lot of fun to do the thing I love and where I get to make my living for 40 years now,” he says. “I’ve kept busy with engineering in a few different series, but that’s been a little too busy, so I’m just doing the Indy Lights stuff now. It’s definitely cool to be back in the IndyCar paddock with Indy Lights, and cool that we’re still having fun and having success for all these years.”

 

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 8 – WATKINS GLEN

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