It’s not every day that we start working with a driver new to the team. When we do though, it’s always an adjustment for everyone involved—the driver, the crew, engineers and the whole team. The driver relies on not only his skills on the track during a race; he also puts his life into the hands of the team’s crew, engineers and equipment every time he straps into the car.
It starts with building the relationship between the driver and the team. There are usually 10-12 new faces, from the strategist to the engineers to the over-the-wall guys. Because the driver is in constant contact with the strategist during races, it’s always helpful to make sure everyone is on the same page before even getting into the car. The same goes for spotters and me—the crew chief. We, as a team, talk to the driver a lot about his expectations and what he wants to get out of the season.
There are physical differences for the driver, too. Each IndyCar team operates in its own way and sets up its cars slightly differently. The layout of the cockpit and even the placement of the steering wheel may be specific to the team. We spend a lot of time with the new driver to make sure he is comfortable with the car so he can control it on the track.
For example, Mike Conway came into the shop this week for his seat fitting. The seat fit is a big part of adjusting the car for the new driver. Race car seats aren’t ‘one size fits all.’ If you’ve ever had the chance to sit in a race-ready IndyCar, you know what I mean. Each seat is designed and molded individually for the driver. We also check the height of the seat, the position of the pedals, and the position of the mirrors.
For the team, it’s not just the driver-crew relationship that has to work. All of the crew members must gel together in order for a good team to form at the shop and track. It takes time and sometimes rearranging to get the right mix of guys. Our team manager Kyle Moyer looks at a lot of aspects to build a good crew: experience, practice, over-the-wall timing and the general chemistry. Some mechanics go over the wall while some don’t, and vice-versa. From season to season, Kyle typically keeps the same guys on the same crew for consistency. However, when a new driver is added to the team lineup, there can be some shuffling necessary to get the right mix.
This year, I will be working with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Though he’s not new to the team this year we haven’t worked together as crew chief and driver, which means we’ll go through some of the same adjustments as Mike and his crew chief, Jeff Simon. Even though there’s always a learning curve, I think we’ve got the right tools and people to get good results right away.