CART FedEx Championship Heading into this weekend's Shell Grand Prix of Denver, three of the top four teams in the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge are powered by Ford-Cosworth. The crew for Alex Tagliani's No. 33 Player's/Indeck entry leads the ...
CART FedEx Championship
Heading into this weekend's Shell Grand Prix of Denver, three of the top four teams in the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge are powered by Ford-Cosworth. The crew for Alex Tagliani's No. 33 Player's/Indeck entry leads the competition following last weekend's race in Montreal, with the crew for Jimmy Vasser's No. 8 Shell Ford in third and the crew for Michel Jourdain's No. 9 Gigante Ford in fourth. The year-long contest is designed to identify the best pit crew in CART by awarding points to teams based on their performance throughout the season. Using CART's timing and scoring system the total time each team spends on pit road during the race is recorded and points are awarded using the same formula that determines the series champion; less time means more points. The competition is important to the crews because not only does it bring some recognition and bragging rights, but faster pit stops also help win races.
YOU AND YOUR GUYS DON'T GENERALLY GET A LOT OF RECOGNITION, BUT THE CRAFTSMAN PIT CREW CHALLENGE IS DESIGNED TO REWARD YOU FOR YOUR HARD WORK. HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO YOU AND YOUR CREW TO WIN IT?
LARRY ELLERT - Crew Chief, No. 33 Player's/Indeck Ford
"It's important but quite honestly we'd rather win races than focus on it. That might mean some longer pit stops to adjust the car or making four stops instead of three but I think deep down inside we just want to win. It doesn't matter whether we're the quickest guys in the pits or not because we want to win (races). For example, last weekend in Montreal, we did four pit stops instead of three. That doesn't necessarily help us in the pit stop competition, but that's what we needed to do. The priority for us is to win races, but if we manage to win the pit stop competition it would be a nice bonus and we'll take it."
BHARAT NARAN - Crew Chief, No. 8 Shell Ford
"Oh, it's very important because that's probably the biggest recognition for us. It means a lot. It says at the end of the year that you were the best at what you do for the entire season. I don't think the points system is the best because if you don't finish the race you don't get any points. You know, we've struggled this season because we haven't finished a lot of races but I think every race we have finished we've been pretty high up in the points."
RICARDO NAULT - Crew Chief, No. 9 Gigante Ford
"It's really important. You work all year at it, this is our chance to shine and bragging rights for the whole year are on the line. The guys try really hard to win this competition because it means a lot to all of them and if you win it's something they can't take away from you. The driver gets to win the championship and we get to win the pit crew challenge. Even though the driver is a part of that, he's about as much a part of that as we are to him winning the championship - very important, but the recognition goes to the people that are doing a majority of the work."
WHAT GOES INTO MAKING A FAST PIT STOP?
NARAN - "I guess everything just has to run smoothly. If we don't have any problems it's usually a good pit stop. Some of the big problems we might have is how the drivers come in and out and the fueler plugging into the car as soon as he can."
NAULT - "Well, consistency is the biggest thing. Making sure that the guys do their job the same way every time. If the guys practice the way they're going to play with nice, smooth stops every time, the guys will be fast just because of adrenaline. They've just go to be smooth, precise and not try to rush it and the speed comes by itself."
HOW BIG A ROLE DOES THE DRIVER PLAY IN GENERATING A FAST PIT STOP? "
ELLERT - "The role he plays is enormous. We emphasize a lot with the drivers that he comes in and hits the marks during pit stops, which makes it much easier on the fueler because it's difficult to get that fuel nozzle in. If he goes a couple of feet too long or stops a few feet short it makes that part of the stop very slow. We also can't have the driver coming into the pits too slowly or the end result is still bad, so we try to get him to come in during practice the same way he would during the race."
NARAN - "The drivers are really important because depending on what he does and how he comes in is important. In a perfect world you'd like him to hit the marks every time but they rarely ever do."
NAULT - "A very big role, especially considering the way the pit stop challenge is set up, which is from pit in to pit out, so it makes a huge difference how fast a driver gets from zero to 60 (mph) and from 60 to zero. Michel (Jourdain, Jr.) is very good at hitting the marks fast and is pretty good at leaving, too. He also has to hit the marks because it takes so much longer if he misses them for the fueler and the tire guys to set up, although it's a much bigger deal for the fueler. If the driver misses the marks, the fueler goes from a single stab (at the buckeye) to a double-pump, which slows everything down and totally throws everyone's rhythm off. The driver has to come in hard, hit the marks and then leave hard, which means when I wave him out, he's gotta go."
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU DEDICATE TO PRACTICING PIT STOPS? DO YOU WORK AT IT THROUGHOUT THE SEASON? DO YOU WORK AT IT DURING THE OFFSEASON?
ELLERT - "When we're in the shop, we practice twice a day, both in the morning and before we leave at night. We don't spend a lot of time on it but the focus is to try and do six stops and make each one good. If we make six bad ones then we do more so it gives us all incentive to make sure they're done right the first time. When we're at the race track, we go out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and practice every morning. We also have a program called PitFit that's close to the shop here in Indianapolis and the whole traveling team goes over there Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when we're in town. We spend a lot of time working to improve agility and flexibility by playing some games like soccer, basketball and frisbee football. We also spend some time doing exercise programs and some days we do weight training in order to keep in from becoming repetitive and boring for the guys."
NARAN - "From the end of the year to the beginning of the next season we practice at the shop pretty much every day for probably an hour, when we can. During the season, we practice every morning for about 30 minutes at the track before the session starts."
NAULT - "We work at it throughout the whole season and try to work on it every day. When we're in stints of three or four races in a row we pretty much just practice during race weekends so the guys can get in and get out and try to get home for a little bit. But we try to practice every day during a race weekend."
DO YOU WORK ON CORRECTING SPECIFIC MISTAKES THAT MIGHT'VE BEEN MADE OR DO YOU WORK ON IMPROVING OVERALL SPEED?
NARAN - "We just try to go over every possible scenario that might occur. We practice quick jack failures, air jack failures, air gun failures, the driver overshooting the pits, all that stuff. We try to work on the problems that might creep up so if they happen they're not that big of a deal and we know how to react."
NAULT - "It used to always be the fuel ... you used to always have to wait for the fuel (to go into the car). However that's not so much the case this year because you don't have to full fill every time because you're not trying to stretch your fuel window on every stop. It's really the whole package - everybody has to do their job exactly right or you're waiting on that one guy. If somebody makes a mistake then that's the guy you're going to wait on. Right now we're to the point where everybody is just as fast as each other so it just comes down to mistakes. We try to minimize the mistakes during practice so we minimize the mistakes during the race."
HOW DO YOU CRITIQUE YOUR PERFORMANCE FROM RACE TO RACE?
NAULT - "We actually have a camera that sits on our fuel rig and tapes the whole stop. After every race we go through it and watch it frame by frame to see what the driver is doing and what each crew member is doing to make sure that we're optimally set up in our pit. We look to see if the fuel hose is as straight as can be and let each one of the guys see what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong. A couple of weekends ago we were watching our stops and figured out that if we move the car out just a little more to get the fuel hose a little bit straighter and give the guys a little bit more room to work, it helped us out a little bit. Pit stop practice is one thing, but during the actual race you get to see things like how close are the guys to the tires. Sometimes the guys changing the tires are too close and they bind themselves up taking the wheels on and off. I look at how long it takes me to wave the car out, what the driver does when you wave the car out. You go through this with the driver as well and show him that I'm waving and waving and waving him out so why isn't he going? But how well they hit the marks is a big thing. It's one thing to do it in practice but it's another thing to do it during the race when everyone's adrenaline is all pumped up. If you practice your pit stops methodically and make sure that each one is right, you'll do them solidly in the race."
HOW MUCH CAN A GOOD OR BAD PIT STOP HELP OR HURT A DRIVER IN THE RACE?
ELLERT - "A lot. If you lose spots in the pits that's very frustrating for a driver. If he's out there driving as hard as he can ... he might work half the race to try and gain one position and if you lose two in the pits it kind of takes the wind out of his sails. But at the same time, if you make gains in the pits it puts a little pressure on him because we're doing our job and now he needs to make a few passes out there on the track."
NARAN - "We can definitely help him out. I think right now the race strategy is winning races and if everything goes right on a pit stop we can really give our driver an advantage."
NAULT - "We used to have a saying, 'You can't win a race in the pits but you sure can lose one.' You can maybe gain a couple of positions in the pits but you can definitely throw away a race in the pits. You can be out there leading the race and have a bad stop and lose three positions on the track and it's hard to come back from that. Our job is damage control, more than anything else. If we can get him done and out there faster than somebody else that's great, but mainly we have to get him out in the position where he came in from. And if he can gain a position or two, that's great, but that doesn't happen nearly as much as you'd like."
DO YOU FEEL MORE PRESSURE BECAUSE THE NEW RULES PLACE EMPHASIS ON FASTER PIT STOPS?
ELLERT - "Most definitely. The passing on the track has diminished so pit stops are where you can gain some positions. And I think you've seen that with a lot of mistakes being made in the pits where people have tried to rush their stops and get out before they were ready. We've seen quite a few wheels fall off this year and I think that's because guys are trying to gain positions."
NAULT - "At the start of the year that seemed to be the case and a lot of teams felt that way because there were a lot of mistakes with people leaving tires loose. I've never really pressed the guys to try and cut it to the edge. The first job is to get the job right and then to get it done as fast as you can, but you've got to be sure it's done right. You've got to be sure that it's done right and that the car is safe before you send him out."
YOUR POSITION AS CREW CHIEF IS A VERY IMPORTANT ONE WITHIN THE TEAM. TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK MAKES A GOOD CREW CHIEF.
ELLERT - "It's important to have organizational skills and be able to mold the team together. You have to be able to take the varying personalities and get them to all work together, which is a management-type skill. You have to keep track of what each guy is responsible for on the car so you don't have things going wrong without knowing who's accountable for it. And managing the parts and pieces is a big thing. Keeping track of all the pieces is important because if you crash a car you have to get a list together, get pieces repaired or buy new stuff. We make a lot of new stuff here in the shop and I make sure that's all coordinated. It's also my job to carry out the setups on the car and make sure they're done properly and to make sure the car is reliable so we don't have a lot of little things going wrong during the race."
NARAN - "I guess it's important to have faith in everything we're doing. I kind of become a mediator between the engineers and the guys and try to keep everybody in a positive mood if we're not going fast. I really can't take sides between the two even if I know what's going on, so I'm really the buffer."
NAULT - "More than anything, give the guys the ability to do their job well like the way they know how to do it. Make sure that the tools are available and ready for them and make sure they have the parts to fix the problem. Make sure that if there's any questions they have you can answer them, make sure they know that you're there for them and treat them fairly and give them the respect they all deserve. They're all competent men doing their jobs and the hardest part about this thing is that you're together so often that at times you get on each other's nerves. Trying to dispel that energy and make it work towards a positive goal, like winning races, is the key to making everybody happy and the team successful."
YOU GUYS ARE PERHAPS THE HARDEST-WORKING PEOPLE IN RACING. WHAT DOES A TYPICAL RACE WEEKEND LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
NARAN - "It hasn't been bad. I think the team has been pretty organized since I came here. We haven't been working really late and the drivers haven't been crashing the cars so I think it hasn't been bad. Compared to a lot of teams you see in the paddock, we actually manage to keep some decent hours. On a typical weekend we'll leave the hotel at 7 a.m. and we're usually out of here by 7 p.m. at the latest, even with engine changes on Saturday night."
NAULT - "On a typical race weekend you can easily say that we put in 12 hours every day. We usually come in at 7 a.m. and if everything goes well you leave by 7 p.m. at night, but if things don't go so well you leave later. Yesterday was a perfect example. We didn't stop ... a couple of guys didn't even get to eat breakfast. Sometimes during a day you'll get a chance to stop for 20 minutes or half an hour, but yesterday there wasn't a moment from the time we showed up to the time we left the track that the guys weren't thrashing all day long. We got here at seven o'clock in the morning and we got out of here at seven-thirty last night and that's fairly typical. It's hard work. It's not really hard work really so much because we love it, but it's time consuming."
HOW MUCH DOES THE THREE OR FOUR RACES IN A ROW ADD TO YOUR WORKLOAD?
NARAN - "It gets you. If you don't have any problems at the track and you're finishing races it's not bad, but if you're crashing cars that's when it gets hard and becomes difficult to keep morale up. I try as much as a I can to keep everyone's spirits up, but sometimes it can be tough to keep everyone happy."
NAULT - "It's really in the preparation. If everything is set in place it's not much worse but you don't get much time off in between. We'll get maybe a day off each week, but if it wasn't for the four in a row this season you could build three or four days into it because it only takes so long to rebuild the cars. But we have a saying, 'Work expands to fill the time provided,' and with the lack of time we condense the work. We try to prep the cars in advance so all the things that take a lot of time and that you usually do only every three races are done before we left so we can get done with it and go home."
YOU MAKE A LOT OF PERSONAL SACRIFICES IN THIS PROFESSION, SO WHAT MAKES IT ALL WORTH IT TO YOU? "
ELLERT - "I think I'm a pretty competitive person and for me technology is a big interest of mine. I've always been interested in cars, I've always been a mechanic and I've always been interested in the technical side of things and racing is all about that. I also like to travel. I have a wife and two kids and that can be difficult in a stretch like now where there are four races in a row. I don't mind the travel but I don't like doing it nonstop either."
NAULT - "I ask myself that a lot (laughing)! I just love competition and love racing. This is fun. I work with a great bunch of guys and I get to see the world, but the best part about it is you get to compete. I'm not a driver. I never was and I never will be and that's fine. I've always liked working on cars, I like tinkering with mechanical items, I like pit stops and I love going over the wall. That's just a thrill. If I didn't do this, I don't know what I'd do. Maybe I'd be a firefighter or something, you know, jump into burning buildings, I think that'd be great. This is sort of the same thing. The cars come rushing at you going 55 mph, slamming on the brakes and sliding into their pits, it's a big thrill. And when you win a race, there's nothing greater."