First impressions count.

First impressions count.

There are many sides to a story, and even more ways to interpret how they play out. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about my experiences working with a racing team and some of the interesting events that have taken place. To start I’ll slip you into my shoes and share how it felt to be completely outside of my comfort zone.

In the interest of continuity let’s start at the beginning, after our 24 hour transit from Australia we landed at FT Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport where we were collected by the American Carlin team manager, Colin H. It was really intriguing to meet someone that had been the head of a Formula 1 team, the head honcho, the big boss man and the stories he had for us on the drive to our accommodation were a massive dive into the not so distant past of Formula 1. The experiences and history that he shared with us on that drive really showed the scale and impact that Formula 1 has had across the world to an extent that shocked me, taking a racing team across to the other side of the world to race and back again in the 1990’s and 2000’s would be have been a logistical nightmare.

As the tales of years gone by came to an end we pulled in the the dark car park at Carlin motorsport LLC…

Now I need to preface this as my reaction to the workshop was coming from spending 6 years in the mechanical workshop where I spent a lot of time working with rally cars and diesel trucks.

I’d never been into a race teams HQ and didn’t really know what to expect, so when we pulled up my expectations were so vast that I couldn’t have even imagined what it looked like. We were greeted by a large open office with a wall full of trophies from their previous season, photographs of drivers, cars, and celebrations adorning the walls of the office. As we walk through there are two offices off to the side for the team manager and the lead engineers, and nestled in the corner of the main room is the drivers sim where they learn tracks and work on racing lines.

Off to the far left of the room there is an unassuming door that leads into the workshop, the anticipation to see what it was like grabbed my attention and I made my way over following Colin and Alex. Through the door we were greeted by Alex’s Dallara IL-15 championship car, as we walked around and inspected the car, the air was brimming with excitement. It was a site to behold. The sheen of the carbon, the width of the tires and the level of aero screamed aggressive drivers wet dreams. Once we had finished enjoying the sight that was Alex’s car we moved on with the tour through the massive workshop, the roof was 15m high, above the main office is a mezzanine with hundreds of spares and new parts.

There is an electrical engineering space, the pit stop practice Indy car that runs a super secret engine that I’m unable to disclose. Then onto the two Indy car chassis on the other side of the workshop next to a flat bed alignment machine and suspension area. Up until this point we didn’t realise that all the Indy car teams have two chassis at least, one for super speedway which is the Nascar style oval racing with a lower downforce 230+ MPH chassis built to go fast!

Then there is their circuit chassis designed to be nimble and quick all while keeping all four wheels stuck to the track surface on the edge of destruction. Both of these run the Aeroscreen which is an open top intrusion roll bar with a windscreen for added protection against rollovers, they were introduced in 2020 and to date have been seen as a very effective safety addition to the cars.

Just to note we are still in the same room, this place is big!

As we moved through to the back workshop, which was the same if not a little larger space than the main workshop we found the machine and fabrication area, a replica pit wall equipped with mock fuel lines, and all the other equipment you would see at the track on race day. This all ran down one side of the room and on the other side mountains upon mountains of new and used tyres, machinery, equipment and maybe even a sneaky car under a cover but I couldn’t know for sure. Now that we had come to the end of the tour, we bid goodnight and headed off to our accommodation ready to return the next day.

When we arrived the next day, the quiet and calm space that we visited the night before was bustling with business as usual, we met all of the team from lead engineer, Alex’s engineer, the head mechanic and the team of mechanics that would be supporting Alex throughout the season along with the data engineers, Indy car team and Truckies that get the equipment from Carlin all the way to the far reaches of the America. Everyone we met was welcoming and keen to get the pre season started, to test and to get Alex as settled and comfortable as possible ready to start the season.

In the lead up to the first race we would have Alex in the race car multiple times at several tracks across Florida and the states in close proximity, with only a relatively short time available things kicked off to a quick start. Alex’s number 1 Mechanic, Adam talked us through the tasks that we needed to complete ASAP to make sure the car would be ready for Alex’s first test in less than a week.

All of these are something that Alex’s has in depth knowledge about, however up until this point I hadn’t even contemplated that he would need a customised and moulded seat for him to be placed in the optimised position to race in the car. Things like where his elbows sat as he turned the wheel, where the seat hugged his spine and hips, the height at the crest of his helmet and how much view he had from this position were all attended to whilst they made a beaded seat for him. A beaded seat comprises of a two part resin that needs to be mixed thoroughly into a large bag of creafoam beads. They then place it in the car and have Alex get settled on top while they vacuum pump the bag. Once the beads are firm from the vacuum he jumps out and it’s left to pump overnight to create a firm bond. The result is a fit to form seat that will keep him protected and won’t allow him to shift once he’s in the car.

Fast forward to the night before the first test, we had been well prepared for the day with a Covid safety kit, including face masks, alcohol wipes and hand sanitiser. What we had not been prepared for was the only food options that were available which left me contorted into a pretzel with the food coma post lunch. Luckily for me I didn’t have to drive a race car the next day and Alex had made better food choices than I, this we made sure of.

The next day we drove from our accommodation out to the race track about 20 mins away from where we were staying. As we pulled up to the entrance we noticed that the gate was closed and locked, and there appeared to be no one around. We had been warned the night before that it was a bit difficult to get into as far as finding out where to go so we decided to explore around the other side to see if we could find a way in. We drove and drove through a few private property gates and past an “active military airfield” sign until we finally had done a complete loop and found just on the other side of the now open and unlocked gate the entry to the track. Driving under the super speedway and coming out onto the infield was a sight I’ll never forget, 20 degree banked walls at either end and a seating capacity of 46,000…. This was one of the smaller tracks! We pulled up and got out, my jaw bounced off the floor as I gazed around but Alex was un-phased and got to work today, he was running on the infield track that utilised one of the main straights of the super speedway but not the banks.

Once the car was ready we heard it start for the first time, the noise of the turbo with the world’s shortest exhaust got everyone excited and the anticipation built right up to Alex making his first flying lap.

That is a day I’ll never forget seeing the culmination of what was only a very short lead up to the day in my eyes without understanding just how much work goes in at every level of the team, I’m still in awe of the coordination and collaboration that goes on with the team. They seem to trust each other emphatically and at the same time are capable of challenging each other to be better with every step in the process.

My three takeaways from this:

  1. Never underestimate the power of action, all of these race teams employ 10 – 100s of people and they are all professional in their respectful fields, without someone to lead them and support their progress they wouldn’t exist.
  2. The level of mechanical assists that are run in these cars are minuscule, the drivers have such a significant impact on the outcomes based on their race craft, skill and pace is considerable.
  3. Gratitude, to the team for welcoming me, for the Peroni family for trusting me and to my family for supporting me even though they miss me more and more everyday, it’s not long now my loves, I’ll be home soon.

Until the next one,

Alex Howearth
[email protected]