INSIGHT: The wide-ranging talent of the IndyCar paddock

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INSIGHT: The wide-ranging talent of the IndyCar paddock

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: The wide-ranging talent of the IndyCar paddock


So you want to work in IndyCar? You’ll need to spend years training as a junior mechanic or engineer working your way up the USF Championships presented by Cooper Tires, learning at an intensive rate at each step of the open-wheel ladder up through the series we know today as Indy NXT by Firestone. Right?

“We hired a guy a few years ago, brilliant young guy who had a master’s degree from M.I.T., had gone to Carnegie Mellon, came to us right out of school and he was working with our IndyCar R&D group, our think tank,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told RACER.

“He came in one morning and said to me, ‘Hey, if it’s okay, could I be a little bit late coming back from lunch?’ I said, ‘Sure, can I help you with anything?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got to go to the motor vehicle department.’ I said, ‘Are you going to license your car in Indiana?’ He said, ‘No, I have to get a driver’s license.’ I said, ‘You’re 22 years old, and you’ve never driven a car?’ He said, ‘No.’

“I said, ‘You do realize we work on cars here…’ He said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t really have interest in driving a car, so I’d never learned.’ I said, ‘Then why did you come to work here? What’s the deal?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I came here to work on technology. Technology is what inspires me, and you guys do a lot of work with all the different projects you have in the building.’ I said, ‘Well, how have you been getting to work?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’ve got my bike, or someone who works in my department gives me a ride.’

“So here’s a guy, as smart a guy as you’d ever meet, working for us in a racing engineering type of position, who’d never driven a car, knew nothing about cars, had no interest in cars, but was centrally involved in major projects and contributing to the success of our racing team. And he really knew nothing about cars until he got here. And then after a few years, he left and went to work for Space X!”

So that must be the exception, not the rule. The majority of the other new hires coming into recent IndyCar seasons, and particularly here in 2023, must be grizzled open-wheel, sports car, or stock car veterans. Right?

“One of my guys is from go karts and one is from World of Outlaws,” Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi said of the mostly new crew that was onboarded to run his No. 7 Chevy. “And with that, they bring not only motorsport experience, but they bring a completely different thought process and methodology.”

Prior to the talent shortage that swept across IndyCar, a high-caliber karting mechanic would have never been considered to go straight to the shop floor and turn wrenches on a Dallara DW12. The same goes for a WoO mechanic.

But in this new era, the elitist and self-important attitudes of old – ones that kept applicants from non-traditional backgrounds out of the series – have largely been abandoned. If you possess the raw mechanical or engineering skills an IndyCar team can build upon, and have the drive to learn everything about the world’s fastest circuit racing cars, there’s a solid chance you’ll at least get a call or email back from a team with a vacancy to fill.

“It’s obviously a battle for experienced talent,” said Arrow McLaren team boss Gavin Ward. “The ethos we’ve got here is getting not necessarily just pulling from with IndyCar, but trying to pull people from diverse backgrounds, people that are passionate about the sport where we can put them to work where their passion lies. [New WoO mechanic] Travis Peck, his brother races in World of Outlaws and at the Chili Bowl, and he’s just awesome. Super young, but those guys are doing 90 races a year. He’s 19 going on 29.

“We got a performance engineer who joined us from NASCAR Cup. We’ve got one who’s joined from Williams F1. We’ve got someone who joined from McLaren’s Heritage [vintage racing] Program. And on the engineering front, we’ve also hired from Boeing – a data strategy specialist. We hired one from a more business analytics background, including Salesforce background, really passionate about IndyCar racing.

“We’ve definitely been trying to be creative and pulling from a broader pool. It may not be a plug-and-play situation, but everyone’s getting up to speed and jelling pretty quickly. It’s interesting. It’s fun.”

And if you’ve made a living as a giant who smashes into people or learned how to throw touchdowns, there’s definitely a place for you in IndyCar.

“I have an NFL offensive lineman that we hired,” Ed Carpenter Racing team president Tim Broyles said of former Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, and Denver Broncos player Ben Braden. “He’s like 6-foot-7, played six years in the NFL, and was a car guy, had done a lot of project cars and was looking for what the next thing was going to be in his life. He had enrolled into a tech school and Ed met him at the gym where he trains.

“Ed talked to him a little bit, we invited him in to do some pitstop practice, and initially, he was going to come on in a part-time role and finish school, but then we asked if he wanted to go full-time. Mechanically, he’s really strong. So he’ll refuel for Rinus [VeeKay], and we’re deciding what crew position he’ll have on the car. We have him working in different areas for a couple weeks at a time so he’s learning about every aspect of the car instead of assigning him to one job where he only gets to know that little area.”

Rinus VeeKay’s pitcrew includes a NFL offensive lineman. Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

Like Ganassi with its straight-from-M.I.T. engineer, ECR has one of its own in former Florida Gators backup quarterback Jack Ruskell.

“He’s one of our new performance engineers and he’s plugged in really well, too,” Broyles added. “The guys like Ben and Jack with these elite athletic backgrounds, their work ethic is incredible because that’s what they’ve been training to do all their lives. Studying playbooks is another thing they’ve done their whole lives. Like Ben, he read the entire ‘mechabook’ that comes from Dallara.

“It’s mundane information that breaks down every single part of the car, down to every nut and every bolt, right? We gave it to him on a thumb drive. And he would come in the next day with questions. And I remember Bret Schmitt, one of our chief mechanics, said, ‘He’s actually reading it and comes in and wants to learn more about it every morning, and like, nobody does that.’ But he knows it’s important, and he and Jack are so accustomed to being team guys, in a team atmosphere, that they fit right in with an IndyCar team environment. Different type of sport, but the same thing, basically. It’s been pretty cool.”

For Hull, recent recruits at CGR have been found in familiar places and in disciplines that are as far removed from IndyCar as possible.

“We’ve gotten a lot of mechanics from closed-wheel racing, anything that has a fender on it, whether it be Trans Am, SRO or IMSA,” he said. “And then for us with hiring on the engineering side, for quite a while we’ve been involved in apprentice programs with engineers from Purdue and other universities.

“[CGR technical director] Julian Robertson has been heavily involved with writing the curriculum for some of the motorsports engineering classes they have, and that’s introduced us to a number of really bright young candidates who’ve done internships and some who’ve stayed on with us afterwards. And now that I remember it, we’ve also hired mechanics from the NHRA!”

Once denied the opportunity to pursue their IndyCar dreams, today’s pit lane is filling up with amazing new crew members who are bringing fun and fascinating stories and wildly different experiences to their teams. Welcome to the series, family.