It’s one of IndyCar’s great ironies that the segment of the race that can most dramatically affect the outcome occurs when the cars are going at their slowest. Or not move at all.
IndyCar pit stops only last a few seconds, but they have an outsized say in how a driver’s race will unfold. But despite their importance, they often go relatively unnoticed. Not a trace strategybut the pit stop sequence itself – the series of processes followed both in the cockpit and in the pit lane when a driver receives the call to come in.
One reason for this is simple pragmatism. As Meyer Shank Racing’s Simon Pagenaud put it, “There’s a lot of mystery there.”
But another reason why pit stops are overlooked might just be that the drivers and crews make them look so simple: car in, get fuel and tires, get back in, job done, right? But in reality, a lot is compressed into a tiny window of time. To better understand the whole thing, RACER has put together an all-star cast:
FELIX ROSENQVIST: Driver, No. 6 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet
MARCUS ERICSSON: Driver, No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
TREVOR LACASSE: Chief Mechanic, No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet
WILLPOWER: Driver, No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet
JOSH BOY: Chief Mechanic, #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
SIMON PAGENAUD: Rider, #60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda
Most pit stops are completed by performing a carefully choreographed series of actions between the driver and the six crew members walking over the wall. The reason most stops look so seamless is that the teams have spent an inordinate amount of time perfecting them. The 2022 season is only a few weeks over, but preparations for the first pit stops in St. Petersburg next March have already begun.
TREVOR LACASSE: Throughout the winter we have our (pit stop) car here, which we get into at least two or three times a week. And when we’re not working out at the pit stop, we’re also in the gym at least three days a week. So we spend between 7:00 and 8:00 in the morning either practicing pit stops or training. Some days we do both. It usually eases off a bit when the season starts because with our schedule it’s difficult to have that much time during the day.
JOSH BOY: The majority of people in the business – it’s mandatory for over-the-wall people – participate in our benefits program. We have a full-time trainer who is also our pit stop coach. There is a pit stop practice area built into the (new) shop that uses the electric car we use so we have a rolling car to stop with.
TREVOR LACASSE: We have a few stations where many of the new hires can work. There are hubs that are wall mounted so you can kickstart your hand-eye coordination to start building your skills there. That’s pretty good for us. From there you can actually move (stops) on the car. Then we have a guy who breaks down the pit stop practice video so you can watch it on your phone or your computer or whatever until lunch and see your stops and spend some time with it. It’s quite a good program there for us in the winter. You can see a lot of data and learn a lot.
The greatest thing is going from what we call a “camp warrior” to the track where the real live car comes at you. This is obviously the next hurdle. We’ve seen some guys over the years get a little bit stuck in the moment, you know, the car is coming, there’s 20 or more other cars passing you and all that noise… That’s the next hurdle you’re up against come over with some of these new guys – if it’s real, five seconds, six seconds, a lot happens.
Once the team arrives at a race for a race weekend, one of the first things on the to-do list is to get the pits ready. The positioning of the various markers that define the pits are largely dictated by IndyCar regulations, and teams use stencils to place them accordingly.
JOSH BOY: After that is done, it is only aware of what is around you. When rolling out for the first time, just take a look at the entrance to our pit lane and make sure there aren’t any bumps that will tip the car over. this will lock one of the front wheels. Or make sure there are no areas of rough ground where the feet of our air lifters are touching the ground.
You see that a lot on our street courses because they don’t get as much maintenance as the street courses and ovals. They can be a bit gnarly and you have to immediately raise your hand to (IndyCar) Tech so they can get someone there to fill the holes.
Another thing I focus on is remembering the six pit stands in front of us – knowing who’s in them – because there are situations that come up at certain times that can have a big impact, depending on when they come in. If someone comes in who’s two pits ahead of us, but I know he’s eight seconds behind us on the track, then we’ll start right as he turns into his pit lane. I try to do a lot of this homework beforehand so I can react quicker and more informed than just reacting in the two seconds I have between changing tires and actually releasing the car.
Drivers, meanwhile, are using the weekend’s opening sessions to lay their own foundations for successful mid-race stops.
MARCUS ERICSSON: Beginning with Exercise 1, you need to start working on your reference points for entering the box. Different tracks have different levels of difficulty when entering the pits – Laguna Seca is quite difficult because you have a really tight corner before you reach the pit lane, so from the start of the weekend you really have to work on all that and find your limits there. And then you also have to consider tire wear, which tires you’re driving on and so on. So it’s pretty tough and that’s where you can make a big difference as a driver.
Once qualifying is complete and focus is fully on the race, the chief mechanic begins preparations according to the strategy set for his car.
TREVOR LACASSE: One thing is just how your tires are stacked in your box. On a street course, whether it’s worn black, sticker black, sticker red, worn red, lay it out according to your order. That’s half the battle of making sure you get the right tire for the car.
Dave (Faustino, Power’s race engineer) usually has our plan, but as the race progresses those plans change so you have to mix things up. There I keep in touch with Dave and try to keep the crew up to date with as much information as needed and to make their job a little easier.
Once the race is underway, the Chief Mechanics remain in constant communication with the timing booth as well as the group climbing the wall.
JOSH BOY: I observe what they call the “marching ants”. (ED: the track map showing the position of each car in real time) and timing and scoring. Then I have certain different sets of numbers that I constantly monitor throughout the race for gaps and where people are on the track. Then, not only am I in constant communication with the timekeeper, I’m also the outside front tire changer, but also the chief mechanic, so I have to make sure we have the right tire set in the front. Or if they change a tire allocation, or if we do a tire pressure adjustment, or if we do a wing adjustment, I communicate with that person first before I do it with the rest of the crew.
TREVOR LACASSE: As we go through a run, I try to keep our tanker up to date, “Hey, you’re looking at a three-second fill versus a six-second fill here,” and to give them a glimpse of what they’re doing do are against. Honestly, drivers these days are so good at getting in and out of pit lane that your tanker is your quarterback of the deal because so much rides on them. If it’s a bad plug-in, you can turn a four-second stop into a seven-second stop pretty quickly.