Errors plaguing IndyCar teams in the ‘very restrictive’ era of COVID-19


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.

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“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.”

Socially distanced celebrations have been the norm in victory lane this year (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

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).

Marcus Ericsson’s mask-clad crew at Texas (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

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.

A Team Penske crew member deals with the heat at Texas (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

“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.

A member of the Andretti Autosport team of Zach Veach pushes the car through tech (IndyCar).

“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.”

Team members of the Arrow McLaren SP Motorsports team follow COVID-19 protocols by wearing PPE while in the garage (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

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.

Alexander Rossi (left, talking with teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay) said because of this season’s condensed schedules “very rarely are you able to answer all your questions in practice, then it’s straight into qualifying and the race.” (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar)

“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.”

Graham Rahal, who had a win get away last Saturday at Road America because of a fueling problem, watches practice with his team from the pit stand (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Tony Kanaan at peace with IndyCar career end: ‘I’ll always be an Indianapolis 500 winner’


INDIANAPOLIS – Few drivers in Indy 500 history have been as popular as Tony Kanaan.

Throughout his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with his first Indy 500 in 2002, the fans loved his aggressiveness on the track and his engaging personality with the fans.

The Brazilian always got the loudest cheers from the fans during driver introductions before the Indy 500.

Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 would be his last time to walk up the steps for driver introductions. Kanaan announced earlier this year that it would be his final race of his IndyCar career, but not the final race as a race driver.

He will continue to compete in stock cars in Brazil and in Tony Stewart’s summer series known as the “Superstar Racing Experience” – an IROC-type series that competes at legendary short tracks around the country beginning in June.

Kanaan was the extra driver at Arrow McLaren for this year’s Indy 500 joining NTT IndyCar Series regulars Pato O’Ward of Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of northern California.

He had a sporty ride, the No. 66 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet that paid homage to McLaren’s first Indianapolis 500 victory by the late Mark Donohue for Team Penske in 1972.

Because Kanaan has meant so much to the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series, the 2013 Indy 500 winner was honored before the start of the race with a special video.

It featured Kanaan sitting in the Grandstand A seats writing a love letter to the fans of this great event. Kanaan narrated the video, reciting the words in the letter and it finished with the driver putting it in an envelope and leaving it at the Yard of Bricks.

Lauren Kanaan with daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Bruce Martin Photo).

Many in the huge crowd of 330,000 fans watched the video on the large screens around the speedway. On the starting grid, Kanaan’s wife, Lauren, who bears a striking resemblance to actress Kate Beckinsale, watched with their four children.

Kanaan’s wife is an Indiana girl who was a high school basketball star in Cambridge City, Indiana.

Kanaan proposed to Lauren in 2010, and after a three-year engagement, they were married in 2013 – the year he won his only Indianapolis 500.

She has been Kanaan’s rock, and this was a moment for the family to share.

After receiving an ovation and the accolades from the crowd, Kanaan walked to his car on the starting grid and exchanged hugs with people who were important in his career.

One of those was Takuma Sato’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, Eric Cowdin.

Tony Kanaan shares a moment with former engineer Eric Cowdin (Bruce Martin Photo).

Kanaan and Cowdin shared a longtime relationship dating all the way back to the Andretti Green Racing days when Kanaan was a series champion in 2004. This combination stayed together when Kanaan moved to KV Racing in 2011, then Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2018 followed by two years at AJ Foyt Racing.

Kanaan returned to run the four oval races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 in the No. 48 Honda that was shared with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2022, Johnson ran the full IndyCar Series schedule, and Kanaan drove the No. 1 American Legion entry to a third-place finish in his only IndyCar race of the season.

Kanaan knew that 2023 would be his last Indy 500 and properly prepared himself mentally and emotionally for his long goodbye.

But one could sense the heartfelt love, gratitude, and most of all respect for this tenacious driver in the moments leading up to the start of the race.

Tony Kanaan gets emotional during an interview after the Indy 500 (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“The emotions are just there,” Kanaan said. “I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made Rocket (IndyCar Technical Director Kevin Blanch) cry. I mean, that is something.

“Yeah, it was emotional.”

Kanaan started ninth and finished 18th in a race that was very clean for the first two thirds of the race before ending in disjointed fashion with three red flags to stop the race over the final 15 laps.

“Yellows breed yellows and when you are talking about the Indianapolis 500 and a field that is so tough to pass, that happens,” Kanaan said. “It’s the Indy 500. Come on. We’ve got to leave it out there.

“Every red flag, everybody goes, I’m going to pass everybody. It’s tough to pass. It’s the toughest field, the tightest field we ever had here. It was going to happen. We knew it was going to happen.

“I wouldn’t want it any different. We left it all out there. Everybody that was out left it out.”

At one point in the second half of the race, Kanaan passed Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin by driving through the grass on the backstretch.

“That was OK, right?” Kanaan said. “That is one thing I have not done in 22 years here. Even (team owner) Sam Schmidt came to me and said, ‘That was a good one.’

“That was a farewell move.”

On the final lap, it was Kanaan battling his boyhood friend from Brazil, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, for a mid-pack finish.

“Helio and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead,” Kanaan said. “It was like, who’s playing pranks with us.

“We both went side by side on the backstretch after the checker and we saluted with each other, and I just told him actually I dropped a tear because of that, and he said, ‘I did, too.’

“We went side by side like twice. A lot of memories came to my mind, and I even said how ironic it is that we started it together and I get to battle him on the last lap of my last race.

Tony Kanaan is embraced by his wife, Lauren, after finishing 16th in the 107th Indianapolis 500 ((Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“It’s pretty neat. It’s a pretty cool story. He’s a great friend. My reference, a guy that I love and hate a lot throughout my career, and like he just told me — I was coming up here and he just said, who am I going to look on the time sheet when I come into the pits now, because we always said that it didn’t matter if I was — if I was 22nd and he was 23rd, my day was okay. And vice versa.

“It was a good day for me, man. What can I say? We cried on the grid.

“Not the result that we wanted. I went really aggressive on the downforce to start the race. It was wrong. Then I added downforce towards the end of the race, and it was wrong. It was just one of those days.”

After the race was over, Kanaan drove his No. 66 Honda back to the Arrow McLaren pit area and climbed out of the car to cheers of the fans that could see him. Others were focused on Josef Newgarden’s wild celebration after the Team Penske driver had won his first Indianapolis 500.

There were no tears, though, only smiles from Kanaan who closes an IndyCar career with 389 starts, 17 wins including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, 79 podiums, 13 poles, and 4,077 laps led in a 26-year career.

Kanaan came, he raced, and he raced hard.

“That’s what we did, we raced as hard as we could,” Kanaan told NBC “It wasn’t enough.

“The win was the only thing that mattered. If we were second or 16th, we were going to celebrate regardless.

“In a way, being 16th will stop people wondering if I’m going to come back.

“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to enjoy the time with my family, with my team and doing other things as well.”

Kanaan’s face will forever be part of the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

“I won one and that is there, and it will always be there,” Kanaan said. “It was an awesome day.

“The way this crowd made me feel was unbelievable. I don’t regret a bit.”

Tony Kanaan hugs his son Max before the Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

Kanaan actually announced the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would be TK’s last ride because he wanted to say goodbye to the fans.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, the Indianapolis 500 was moved from Memorial Day Weekend to August 23 and because of COVID restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend the Indianapolis 500.

Three years later, Kanaan was finally able to say goodbye to this fans that were part of the largest crowd to see the Indianapolis 500 since the sold-out gathering for 350,000 that attended the 100th running in 2016.

“That’s it, that’s what I wanted, and I got what I wanted,” Kanaan said. “This moment was so special; I don’t want to ever spoil it again.

Tony Kanaan kisses his daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“We’ve been building and growing this series as much as we can. I’m really glad and proud that I was able to be part of building something big and this year’s race was one of the biggest ones.”

Kanaan walked off pit lane and rejoined his family. He will always be part of the glorious history of the Indianapolis 500 and fans will be talking about Tony Kanaan years from now, not by what he did, but the way he did it.

“This is what it is all about,” Kanaan said on pit lane. “Having kids, be a good person. Even if you don’t win, it’s fine if you don’t, as long as you make a difference.

“Hopefully, I made a difference in this sport.

“I will always be an IndyCar driver. I will always be an Indy 500 winner and I will always make people aware of IndyCar in the way it deserves.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network)