Consistent gaffes in the pits. Costly blunders behind the wheel. Curiously inaccurate data entry by the most buttoned-up of engineers.
If there’s been a theme in the NTT IndyCar Series this season (aside from the seeming invincibility of Chip Ganassi Racing and its four consecutive victories), it’s been the preponderance of miscues and mistakes by even the best teams in the paddock.
The delayed 2020 season is nearing its midpoint during a grueling stretch of five races in 15 days with consecutive doubleheader race weekends at Road America and Iowa Speedway. And it seems the massive number of errors can be traced to the confluence of a lack of routine and the restrictions of working during the socially distanced era of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
WEEKEND SCHEDULE: What’s happening on track at Iowa Speedway
WHO’S RACING IN IOWA: Entry lists for Friday, Saturday races
INDYCAR IN 2020: How to watch the 2020 schedule
“Up and down pit lane, I don’t think anyone has been flawless from the pit crews to the drivers to the strategists,” Team Penske managing director Ron Ruzewski told NBC Sports. “Like anything, you get in a rhythm in the season and just get to where it’s second nature. Up until these last couple of weeks, it’s been pretty choppy. So I don’t think anybody has really truly found their flow.”
The exception might be Scott Dixon, who opened the season with three consecutive victories at Texas, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Road America. Though he had the fastest and dominant car in the opener, Dixon’s latter two wins came by capitalizing on others’ misfortune and missteps (namely, a fueling problem for Graham Rahal and problems on pit exit for Josef Newgarden at Road America).
But even Dixon ran into trouble Sunday when he finished 12th at the Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, road course after being hindered by two slow pit stops (the first because of a problem changing the right rear; the second for two stalls). Though teammate Felix Rosenqvist triumphed for his first career victory to keep the team undefeated in 2020, working through the pandemic has been just as much a slog for Ganassi as a raft of protocols have changed the commonly held best practices and workflow for preparing and racing in IndyCar.
“Nobody likes working the way we’re working,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “It’s very claustrophobic almost. You’re having to rethink every movement based on what the COVID requirements are upon each of us as a team of people inside this IndyCar bubble. It’s very restrictive. All our people in the building when we come to work every day and how we work in the building and how we travel and work at the racetrack and how we work in the pit lane. It’s so foreign to what we’ve ever done before, that it puts everybody at a totally different mental preparation level than they’ve ever been before.”
While there has been much focus on the compressed schedules (practice time has been severely limited; and IndyCar will limit qualifying at Iowa to Friday only to give teams a break Saturday), Hull said the number of hours being worked are roughly the same. Rather than being physically taxing, it’s a mental strain that might be affecting team members, who are wearing masks full time while trying to adhere to new policies foreign to the freedom of access and movement they typically enjoyed.
“Things you take for granted at the racetrack — reaching in the cooler and grabbing a drink – we have protocols now for that, and guys that are handing out drinks,” Ruzewski said. “We’re taking it really seriously and trying to put our best foot forward to protect our guys and the series.”
Said Hull: “You just have this thing hovering over you all the time that ‘Man, I hope I don’t get sick. I hope I’m doing everything right.’ You’re probably freaking out about that. You’re freaking out about going to the grocery store, to Target, about dropping your kids off wherever. You’re living a different life today to protect the group and team of people you work with, and it’s a different working environment.
“Frankly, I think to myself from time to time, ‘Is this worth all this? Should I just retire?’ It’s just provided such a different way to go racing.”
The COVID-19 limitations have been coupled with a lack of repetition this season as teams and drivers have wrestled with going from 0 to 200 mph literally and figuratively. With hardly any real-world testing since February and the absence of two weeks in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that provide teams with the daily at-track reps needed to work as well-oiled organizations.
“All of those things give time for people to get up to speed and mistakes and issues to get sorted out,” Andretti Autosport Chief Operating Officer Rob Edwards told NBC Sports. “If you look at any of the other sports leagues that have ramped back up, like soccer in Europe, they had preseason training and friendly matches before they got into competition.
“IndyCar, we haven’t had any of that, so I think in terms of the crews and drivers, the ramp up is different. Particularly at Texas for the first race. You’d normally have Friday and Saturday to work through issues that came up. Texas, you had often a matter of hours or minutes to sort things out. Oh by the way, in 97-degree heat when you’d been up since 4 o’clock in the morning. I think all of those things contribute.
“I think people were finding more cadence at Road America, but it’s a lot more like having a light switch than a dimmer in terms of ramping things up. I think for sure that’s a factor in some of the jumbling that we’ve been seeing.”
At Arrow SP McLaren Motorsports, managing director Taylor Kiel said “the general word we’re using is intensity from the moment you step in the car or on the plane to go to the track until the moment the checkered flag waves. You don’t have a lot of time to think. It’s very fast paced. The amount of time between sessions is reduced dramatically compared to what we’re used to, so how that’s changed us is the pre-event work, while always a priority for us, is an absolute necessity now. If we unload with a package that’s not quick, you’re not going to get any better by the time the race shows up.”
Kiel said the team has prioritized pit stop practice as important as our pre-event simulation work or our car builds or anything we’re doing from an R&D perspective, so we prioritize it and make time for it.”
Not all of the errors necessarily have been related to repetition. Edwards noted that Alexander Rossi’s prerace problem at Texas was related to series protocols limiting personnel in the pits (which since have been relaxed), and a mechanical failure for the No. 27 Dallara-Honda at Indy also was unrelated to the pandemic.
Ruzewski said Newgarden’s stall at Road America was related to “an engine issue. It was kind of a fluke thing. A lot of things we’ve seen this year at Team Penske have been these tiny, obscure things that have been pretty rare, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that happen before or I can’t believe that happened,’ but unfortunately as competitive as the series is now and the talent out there, you basically have to have a flawless weekend.”
In finishing second in the Saturday race at Road America, Power revealed he had to overcome being bogged down by a second car that was too tall because an engineer had entered the wrong ratio – something that likely would have been caught pre-pandemic with more time for Team Penske’s redundant systems to act as a failsafe.
“A guy that never made a mistake that I can recall clicks the wrong button on a screen, accidentally hits enter, and next thing you know the wrong bit’s in the car,” Ruzewski said. “It was an honest mistake, and arguably, it wasn’t completely detrimental, but you could also argue it wasn’t an A plus score, and maybe that was the difference with Scott (Dixon) getting the better restarts.”
There have been some teachable moments from navigating the logistics of new protocols as well. Andretti Autosport originally was planning to distribute cloth masks to its team members but discovered they were less practical in the heat of 90-plus degrees. The masks commonly found in the medical field were included instead in at-track PPE kits (which also included hand sanitizer).
“Would you believe there’s a reason that hospitals tend to wear the paper-type masks because they’re very breathable,” Edwards said with a chuckle. “I think a lot of teams had looked at trying to do something with branding and masks, and ourselves in particular. We had to just step back and say whilst it looks really good, it’s not the most practical. Having guys perform at their best is important for the sponsors and the performance of the car on track, so we’ll take the good, old paper-ish masks as the best solution.”
Edwards also sees other positives emerging from the pandemic, noting the efficiency of a one-day schedule (which is used by European-based Formula E Series that also is raced by Andretti) “will influence what racing looks like in the future for us in IndyCar.
“We’re happy to be doing it and enjoying the challenges,” Edwards said. “We’d 100 percent prefer to be racing this way than still be quarantined at home and still wondering what racing might look like. I’d say the mental challenges were as great or greater for a whole bunch of A types being forced to stay home for March, April and May. The whole COVID-19 pandemic is a mental challenge as much as a health and safety and physical challenge. Yes, there are mental challenges at the racetrack, but there were equal, greater mental challenges sheltering at home.
“It’s obviously challenging, but it’s obviously important to be out there racing and overcoming challenges is what people in motor racing do. You work your way through it.”