Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Race engineers also serve as driver's chief psychologist

ST. PETERSBURG — A race engineer for an IndyCar series team has to have great mechanical skills, knowledge of the latest technology and the willingness to work long hours.

So engineering is your obvious college major for that career path, and that's all you need to worry about, right?

"Psychology," Brad Goldberg said.

Goldberg has been the race engineer for Charlie Kimball's No. 83 IndyCar for Chip Ganassi Racing since the driver's 2011 arrival in the series.

"People ask, 'What do you do as a race engineer?' My first comment is chief psychologist," Goldberg said. "Why? Fundamentally, the driver is telling me a feeling, what he's feeling in the car. So I have to get in his head to understand exactly, 'What is he saying?' "

"He can look at the data and see what I'm thinking, what I'm feeling," Kimball said. "Then I understand because of our conversations all weekend, I know what he's thinking and what he needs from me on the racetrack."

Working on a driver's mental state, then, is a big part of the job.

"A lot of people don't realize that," said James Hinchcliffe, the defending IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner. "Some engineers don't realize that. The race engineer's job is 90 percent engineering a race car and 10 percent engineering a human being."

Hinchcliffe has a new race engineer, Nathan O'Rourke. On the other hand, Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay enters his fifth season with Ray Gosselin.

"It doesn't feel like it's old," Gosselin said. "It still feels fresh. There's really no egos involved. If he comes in and the car stinks, he just says it and, okay, we move on."

As well as managing the driver, the race engineer makes a lot of decisions.

In a nutshell, Gosselin and Goldberg said, on their teams, race engineers decide how to change the car (adjusting wings, for example) and crew chiefs implement those changes. Race engineers also oversee a technical staff.

But most visible is the need to get along with the driver.

"If you've been in it long enough, you can see, 'Man, he just doesn't get along with that driver.' You can see it's going to blow up from a distance," said Gosselin, who has been in the sport's top level for more than a decade. Those things don't take long to reveal themselves."

Along with race strategists, engineers also participate in planning a race. A fine example was last year at Mid-Ohio, when Kimball started the weekend by wrecking the primary car in practice and ended it with his first series victory.

"To quote Winston Churchill, that was our finest hour," Goldberg said.

"Not the crash itself," Kimball quickly notes, "but our recovery from it."

The team — including Goldberg and strategist Tom Wurtz — decided to forget saving fuel, be aggressive and do a three-stop race. Several rivals who tried a fuel-saving, two-stop plan either fell behind or abandoned the strategy. Kimball, in his backup car, passed Simon Pagenaud and led the final 18 laps.

Such good decisions can lead to titles; as it did for 2012 series champion Hunter-Reay.

"I enjoy working with someone who wants to win as bad as I do," he said of Gosselin.

It's also important to know not just what to say to a driver during a race over the team radio, but when.

"I would prefer to be talked to less than more," Hunter-Reay said.

Several drivers agreed but not Hinchcliffe.

"It sounds really nerdy and cliched, but in my mind, knowledge is power," Hinchcliffe said.

One driver with vast knowledge is Juan Pablo Montoya, a winner in Formula One, Champ Car, NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500. But this year, he starts over in IndyCar at Penske Racing with race engineer Ron Ruzewski.

"Things are different even in the same series," Montoya said. "Between Williams and McLaren (in F1), it was a bit different. One thing about Team Penske is is how organized it is and people's dedication. It's really exciting."

After so many changes, Montoya still has a pretty basic take on what makes a good team.

"It's got to be based on trust," Montoya said. "They've got to believe in what I'm saying, and I've got to believe in what they're doing."

So, how to best sum up a driver and race engineer? Are they player and coach? A tag team?

"Brad likes to call it a dysfunctional marriage," Kimball said with a laugh. "There are times when we're butting heads, but there are other times when we're finishing each other's sentences."

"We get frustrated at each other at times," Goldberg said. "But we both know we're here for the same thing, and that's to win races."

Jim Tomlin can be reached at [email protected]

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