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Speed, luck and sweat: Inside the life of a pro race team

August 1, 2013

As a spectator, it’s easy to watch a race without caring about the outcome. You want your favorite driver to do well, and when that doesn’t happen, at worst you might resort to mild blasphemy. But for the race teams and their legions of mechanics, truck drivers, engineers and of course racers, the results on Sunday determine the fate of their jobs come Monday.

Of all of those people, race mechanics rank as some of the hardest working. With motorsports suffering from dwindling sponsorships and rising operating costs, team owners run a thin business. Employees are kept to a minimum and drivers with personal funding are needed to offset the costs. This holds especially true outside of stock car racing, where sports car and open-wheel teams fight for survival. For mechanics, it means long hours working jobs done by three or four people on well-funded teams. And if the car crashes, there simply aren’t enough hours or hands.

I spent the past weekend following the Michael Shank Racing team at the Grand-Am event in Indianapolis. Racing at Indy, for any series, remains special. The history within the famed 2.5-mile oval, whether you’re a race fan or not, seeps through your veins quicker than a shot of epinephrine. Everyone wants to win at the Brickyard. For the Grand-Am race, the MSR team would be racing their Ford-Riley Daytona Prototype on the infield road course, the track once used for Formula One races.

With the race weekend not being a weekend at all, running from Thursday to Friday before the NASCAR Sprint Cup racers hit the oval for their 400-mile race, the teams load into the paddock Wednesday morning. Naturally, the preparation for Indy, like with any race, takes place the moment the truck arrives back at the race shop after the previous event. There are no days off for team members. Not even weekends.

The drivers, who enjoy a far more relaxed schedule between races, arrive the same day to engage with their engineers and practice driver changes; in sports car racing, there are two (sometimes more) drivers per car.

For the Indianapolis race, the #6 MSR car would have a new occupant behind the wheel. Joining Gustavo Yacaman, the team’s regular driver, would be NASCAR driver A.J. Allmendinger. Allmendinger is not new to Grand-Am, having competed in many events over the years. But for the American-born racer, this remains an opportunity to restart his career.

Last season, Allmendinger signed a dream contract with Roger Penske Racing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series, the pinnacle of American racing, to fill the #22 car vacated by Kurt Busch. Unfortunately, Allmendinger failed a NASCAR drug test leading to the termination of his Penske contract. Now, Allmendinger is leaping in every car he can, ranging from Sprint Cup, to the secondary Nationwide stock car series, to IndyCar (oddly back with Penske) and to Grand-Am. His NASCAR issues haven’t slowed him down, though, as Allmendinger mentioned he was racing every weekend for the foreseeable future, including the NASCAR race after his Grand-Am duties. But being busy isn't a replacement for a full-time contract.

Yacaman is a different story. The 22-year-old Columbian racer is attempting to build a name for himself. Last season he won races in the Indy Light Series and is now after a career in sports cars. His debut season hasn’t gone to plan, however, as the youngster got into trouble for pushing a fellow racer wide and into the wall, leading to him being placed on probation. Yacaman prides himself on aggression and tenacity behind the wheel, and sometimes that works in his favor. Other times, it doesn’t — but his team knows he's always committed.

Team owner Michael Shank has the daunting task of keeping the doors open year after year. Every season it’s a constant battle to find sponsors, keep them happy and source drivers with funding to help replenish the pot; budgets for a team like Shank's top out in the several millions per year. He's already looking for money for next year's races.

For Shank, the drivers and his 20-odd employees, every race puts their world at stake. The drivers have something to prove, the mechanics and engineers need job security, and Shank must prove the team deserves the sponsors to keep rolling throughout the long off-season — often race teams low on funding cut most of their staff during the winter to save costs.

With that, many mechanics must save enough money during the season to keep the lights on during the winter. Working 20-hour days can be a common occurrence, and the stress doesn't make the off-hours that enjoyable.

So why do it?

Simple. Because they love it.

The practice sessions occur without a hitch: “You gotta drive slow to drive fast,” said Allmendinger, talking after his first laps on the flat course. “It’s like ice out here.”

For qualifying, Yacaman took the wheel for the 15-minute session. Despite getting stuck in traffic, costing him valuable hundredths of a second, Yacaman put the MSR #6 in third, just a tenth and a half off pole position, held by Jordan Taylor.

For Yacaman, this was big, as to date his adaptation from light, nimble open wheel cars to the closed Daytona Prototypes has been sizable. The balance of his racecar at this track seems to suit his driving style. The mentoring and advice from his vastly more experienced teammate also plays a part, with Allmendinger offering tips on how to extract the maximum performance from the car, based on his experiences during practice.

Despite the team leaving the track that night in high spirits, the big day was still looming. And as race morning comes, focus becomes a premium. The mechanics strip the car after qualifying and rebuild it entirely, ensuring the quality of all its parts. It’s this level of detail that separate the top teams like MSR from the lower rung efforts, and gave MSR its first 24 Hours of Daytona victory in January of last year.

Shortly before pre-grid, the team has a strategy meeting. The details are vast, and deciphering the optimal strategy can sometimes become a moving target as the race evolves: “If the leader is stuck in traffic, we need to pit early to make hay,” says Mike Colliver, team engineer. “Alternately, if we are approaching traffic, we may bring Gus in early and get A.J. behind the wheel. We need to remain flexible.”

For Yacaman, the race is about patience: “This is my last race on probation, so I need to stay cool and calm and hand A.J. a solid racecar.”

As the race begins, a tough start sees Yacaman drop from third to fifth. With some good passing by him and good passing by others, the #6 seems to yo-yo between fourth and six: “We’re getting killed on the straights,” says Yacaman, indicating that the downforce (and therefore drag) in the car was too much, costing valuable speed down the long straight while not gaining enough of an advantage through the twisty sections.

As Yacaman brings the car into the pits after a well-driven stint, Allmendinger slots behind the wheel to complete the three-hour race. The whole pitstop process is like a symphony orchestra, beautifully in tune and led by the conductor, Shank.

What makes Grand-Am sports car racing more difficult is that with two drivers, the car’s settings must be a blend capable of pleasing both. Perfecting it for one driver may result in the other struggling, and winning a race is a combination of consistency between the pair. Drivers, therefore, need the ability to compromise (an attribute they may not ordinarily possess) and engineers need an adaptive hand.

Shortly into Allmendinger’s run, he comes onto the radio with troubling news: “Something’s not right,” he says. The radio went silent.

“I have a flat, I have a flat!” he soon continues.

“Bring it in, we’re ready for you,” says an unfazed Shank.

There's no panic in the team pits. This is racing. Troubles are expected. And while it’s easy to think, “that’s it, it’s over,” in reality, the race is only halfway done. The team replaces the damaged tire and returns to the track, now nearly a lap down.

Just as I thought it was over, a yellow flag comes out and the safety car is deployed. Allmendinger had just pitted to top up with fuel. Instead of being at the back close to a lap down, he now jumps up to third in a stroke of luck. Game on.

Suddenly, the team can taste a victory, as Allmendinger wrestles into second place on the restart. Shortly after, Ryan Dalziel passes Allmendinger, pushing him back to third. In an effort to stay with the rapid Dalziel, who had just taken the lead, Allmendinger launches down the inside of Sebastien Bourdais in a maneuver to snatch second. Bourdais shuts the door and the two touch, causing Bourdais to spin out.

“Sixty second drive through penalty for number 6 for avoidable contact,” says race control.

Now, it was almost certainly game over; you don't find two four-leaf clovers in one day. No further yellow comes out, and the team falls a lap behind. The race ends in a disappointing tenth-place finish for MSR.

For the team, the agony of defeat was evident. For the drivers, an opportunity for a podium finish was missed. In racing, you learn to live with disappointment, as bad times happen far more often than good. You deal with the bad because you know that when the good does happen, the feeling of ecstasy makes the hours, the sacrifice, the dedication worthwhile. For Shank, he’ll live to race another day, and will undoubtedly be chasing victory again at the next event at Road America.

For the entire MSR team, the grind continues. The season's closing push is key to build for next year, and the quest for success remains endless. When things go well, it’s the drivers that get the accolades and the team leader that gains respect within the paddock. But it’s the unsung heroes that amaze me the most. The ones with grease so deep under their fingernails no form of cleaner can ever remove it. The ones who don’t race for the money: They race for their life. It’s the mechanics that keep the wheels turning. And come Monday morning, they’ll up before the sun, ready to wrench again.

Photo: Yesid Pamplona, Getty