A Weekend Behind Pit Wall: Team Fernandez & Laguna Seca
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A Weekend Behind Pit Wall: Team Fernandez & Laguna Seca

Time. Finite and irreplaceable, it may be one of the most important elements in our universe. Timing is critical to almost every aspect of life, but nowhere is time and timing so precious as it is in motor sports. Race victories are determined by the thousandths of seconds; drivers strain to run consistent lap times; pit crews and engineers wrack their brains to squeeze a few-hundredths of a second more performance from their driver’s car.

Roadfly was fortunate enough to spend 345,600 seconds (4 days) with Team Fernandez during this year’s CART Grand Prix of Monterey (Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California). We were granted full access to the team for these four days – nothing was ever off limits, and for this we extend a huge round of thanks to everyone at Team Fernandez. We were able to talk to anyone and everyone on the team, got to put our hands on some very expensive equipment and were made privy to some extremely sensitive information regarding the car set-ups and performance.

Before we dive into the events, happenings and the behind-the-scenes look into a typical race weekend, we need to address the current state of affairs within CART. A once prominent and dominant racing organization, feuds and other legal battles have taken their toll on America’s open wheel racing leagues. IRL and CART have successfully fought each other into near-extinction; television coverage is at an all-time low, and if the fighting continues, it is inevitable that time will run out for both series.

Heck, at this point I don’t even know how to properly describe the CART series – a few years ago, it was referred to as “Indy car racing,” but that title was snatched away when Tony George decided to start his own series. Fair enough. The name then became “CART,” which was catchy, easily remembered and appropriate for the series. But this year, a curve ball was thrown, and the series would officially become known as: “CART: Bridgestone Presents Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford,” I think. I have to leave myself an exit because I couldn’t find anyone who could confirm or deny the official name of the series. Talk about frustrating…let’s just agree that for the sake of this article the series will be referred to as either “CART” or “Champ Car,” ok?

Our race weekend began on Thursday, June 12 with a media lunch event, which was held in one of Laguna Seca’s paddock pit row suites. A posh lunch was provided while drivers, media agents, publicists and reporters swarmed the smallish suite. There were television cameras just about everywhere and the drivers were being pulled in ten different directions throughout the entire hour and a half long event.

After eating lunch while standing alongside and chatting with Jimmy Vasser, Mario Dominguez and Bruno Junqueira, we made our way down to the Team Fernandez hauler where we were introduced to some of the team. We took a quick tour of the haulers and were also shown the team’s garage space.

They say that first impressions are critical, and our first impression with the Team Fernandez organization was one of complete and utter awe. Everything they did, worked on or worked with was spotless – the organization and precision with which everything was executed and organized was mind-boggling. No doubt these guys could double as brain surgeons should they ever tire of the racing scene; it’s that impressive.

The crew was split between the two haulers and the garage space, and while there wassn’t any track time scheduled for the first day, the pace with which the crew worked was anything but lax. In one hauler (massive 18-wheeled tractor/trailer rigs that are filled with office, work and storage space), team engineers worked with computer modeling and simulation software to help determine the proper chassis set-up for the first practice. In the garage space located just across from the haulers, team members prepared one of the team’s two cars.

After familiarizing ourselves with the team’s quarters, we walked down pit lane with assistant race engineer, Dan Grabski. Dan is a native of Rochester, New York, holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering and has been involved with CART racing for three years. As we walk, he gives us an idea of what to expect for the weekend and explains his responsibilities to us.

“I’d say currently my responsibility is to analyze and process aerodynamic information, perform track and race simulations and assist as necessary with other team functions,” he says as we walk toward the Team Fernandez Tecate/Quaker State pit stall. He goes on to say that “All of the team’s engineers are on hand for a race event. We don’t leave anyone back at the shop.”

We arrive at the pit space, where another member of the Fernandez Racing Team is busy setting up the pit box. He’s placing strips of red and green racer’s tape on the pavement, which will later serve as an entry guide to the pit box for Adrian. Grabski leads us over to the main pit cart, on which there are flat-screen computer monitors, laptop computers and a high-speed network system, complete with switch and router.

“We continuously gather information from the car for use with our modeling and simulation software. We track and utilize information about fuel, tires, chassis set-up, ride height, aero packages, and so on,” says Grabski as he clicks away on his laptop. After a few seconds, he looks up and says, “We can run lap after lap of simulation software, make a change here and there, and get pretty close to finding a decent set-up for qualifying and race day. The software is pretty good, but it can’t model everything with total accuracy – it gets us close.”

As we look around the pit stall, we notice another crewmember, Ken Szymanski (“Kenny”) working on a stack of fresh Bridgestone racing slicks. It turns out that Kenny is somewhat of a legend- having been involved with racing since 1978, both in Formula One and CART. We picked Kenny’s brain about tires, and in doing so learned that he has worked with racing greats like Mario Andretti and Ayrton Senna.

Kenny explains that the team uses dried air from Bridgestone rather than nitrogen to air-up the tires. Interestingly, he says the air that Bridgestone supplies is as reliable and consistent if not more so than the nitrogen (nitrogen has been used instead of compressed air in racing tires because compressed air is usually very moist, and the moisture is undesirable). “Roughly speaking, it takes about 3-4 laps for the tires to come up to temperature and pressure, so to account for that increase in pressure, I usually set the cold pressures about 2 or 3-psi lower than what we’re looking for when the tires are hot.”

We asked Kenny for information about how much a set of Bridgestone racing tires was worth, but he wouldn’t comment on that. “The [tire] lease information is kept confidential – each team works out its own deal with Bridgestone, and we’re assigned an engineer from Bridgestone to help us with the tires and set-up,” he said.

Friday would bring us our first taste of on-track excitement – after an early morning press meeting, we received official photographer vests and armbands from CART and were ready to start photographing some racing action. We made our way to the famous corkscrew (turns 7 and 8 ) and staked our claim just at the bottom of the corkscrew. The sound of Ford Cosworth motors turning 11,000 rpm could be heard in the distance, so we readied the cameras.

Several cars scream up the hill that leads to the entry of the corkscrew and we catch our first glimpse of their noses as they negotiate the apex into turn 7. In what is at best two blinks of the eye, the cars are at full throttle again and racing through turn 9. I check my camera, hoping that I’ll have poster quality images awaiting my review.

Nope. I managed to get the nose of one car and a blurry rear wing shot of another. This is going to take some practice…The Champ Cars are lapping the 2.238 mile track in about 1 minute and 10 seconds. After the first practice session, we learn that Team Fernandez is a little off the pace with lap times in the 1:12 range. Two seconds is an eternity in CART racing, so the team has their work cut out for them – the next practice session will start in less than an hour.

The second practice session fares better, but traffic creates headaches for the #51 Team Fernandez Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex car. Adrian pulls into the pits after the practice session, and before he even has his safety belts undone the crew has removed the racing tires and is putting on rain tires. Adrian exits the car and with his helmet still on comments that the car feels a lot better than it did after the first session. He removes his helmet, grabs a drink of water, and hops on his bike. He’s headed back to the hauler for a debriefing session with the engineers.

Somewhat surprised to see the rain tires go on, I ask one of the crew members why they’ve switched to rain tires. Brian Vanetti (outside rear tire changer and mechanic) tells me that they always transport the car on rain tires. CART allots a limited amount of racing tires per event (typically seven or eight sets of 4 tires), so the team can’t afford to have a tire damaged by debris while the car is being rolled around the pits.

Qualifying is scheduled for 2:30pm and there’s a lot of work that needs to be completed in a short amount of time. The crew pushes the red and green #51 car back to the garage where they make a series of adjustments in preparation for qualifying. While the team works on the car, we make our way to the hauler. Adrian is talking about the car’s characteristics with his engineers and the discussion is extremely interesting.

They’re busy trying to determine how to make the car handle well without sacrificing speed, and there’s talk about braking efficiency. Adrian feels that the car isn’t rolling through the corners smoothly – he has to stay off the gas too much at times, and would like to be able to use more throttle, earlier.

As Adrian continues to discuss handling and strategy with the engineers, we decide to make our way over to the team’s hospitality tent. Most of the Champ Car teams have hospitality tents in which guests of the team can kick back and relax with some food and drink.

The Fernandez Racing hospitality tent is decked out in a combination of Tecate red and Quaker State green. A buffet table sits in the far corner; a large “tour bus” serves as one of the area’s walls, a large awning extends from the side of the bus to give some much needed shade. There’s a commercial cooler that’s stocked with water, soda and Tecate beer, and there are about a dozen round tables set-up for people to sit at.

The chefs do a wonderful job of preparing a diverse menu – there’s fresh fruit, two types of salad, seafood, chicken and a beef entree available. There are also vegetables and various pastas and breads, and a wonderful desert table holds chocolate cake and other goodies.

As we were eating our lunch, Mario Andretti walked into the tent, grabbed a plate and sat down next to us. It’s not everyday that you have lunch with Mario – we chatted about the weekend and then left him to enjoy his lunch.

We ran back to pit lane just as the Champ Cars were being called out for their provisional qualifying session. Rich Meredith (inside rear tire changer/starter/mechanic) told us that the team felt good about their qualifying chances. “We made some changes that should put us up near the front,” he said.

We walked around the car as it sat on pit lane and watched as the team made last minute adjustments and attached the nose to the car. Adrian arrived on his bike, hopped over the pit wall and put on his helmet and gloves. It’s very interesting to see how a driver enters the cockpit of his racecar – the fit is tight – very tight. Once in the cockpit, the crew straps him in and they set a custom built fan on the cowl so that cold air can be blown on the driver as he sits waiting for the car to be started.

The provisional qualifying session was rather uneventful – we watched Adrian lap the track via the telemetry screens (each car has a GPS unit that sends information about its location on the track back to the pits). In addition to providing information about its location, the car also transmits information about critical items like brake temperature, tire pressure and temperature, throttle position, and various vital engine statistics (oil pressure, oil and water temperature, etc.).

When the qualifying session ended, the team once again removed the racing tires, swapped in rain tires and pushed the car back to the pits. Team Fernandez had earned a sixth-place grid position with a 1:10.846 best lap. Less than 0.95 seconds separated Team Fernandez from fifth place qualifier Mario Haberfield.

When we arrived to the track on Saturday morning, we found the crew hard at work on the car – they were preparing for their next practice session while Adrian was attending a “Breakfast with Champions” promotion with several other CART drivers.

We learned that immediately following the day’s events the team would be replacing the engine on the #51 Team Fernandez racecar. Cosworth Racing supplies each team with a new 2.65-liter, 750 horsepower, Ford Cosworth V8 motor every 1,200 miles. The all aluminum, 32-vlave, turbocharged motor can spin 12,000 rpm and is monitored and maintained by a Cosworth engineer at each event.

Each time the motor is started “cold,” a Cosworth engineer is present – he plugs in a laptop computer to one of the electrical boxes on the motor and monitors oil and water temperature, fuel and oil pressures and various other components. The engineer is also present while the motor is changed and is involved with any and all troubleshooting related to the motor. Any time the car is on the track, there’s a Cosworth engineer sitting with the team, monitoring the engine’s vitals. We would talk with Mathew Leicht of Cosworth Racing later in the day.

During the practice session Adrian made several pitstops for adjustments. Some of these adjustments were minor, while others were significant. Through the team’s radio communications it became evident that the car was loose, so race engineer David Watson requested a shock absorber change. It was amazing to watch six or seven crewmembers replace a pair of shocks – they were able to swap a set of shocks in less than a minute, all without getting in one another’s way.

Again, the practice session came to a close and surprisingly, we learned that the team wasn’t practicing for the qualifying session – they were concentrating on “full tank” runs in preparation for Sunday’s race. In the debriefing session, Adrian commented that he was experiencing a brake vibration – it was taking a toll on his arms and made the car difficult to control in the corners.

Qualifying began at 1:45pm and would last for one hour (remember how important time is?). When the qualifying session came to a close, Adrian found himself in sixth place with a time of 1:10.228. Less than 0.7 seconds separated Adrian from the first place qualifier, Michel Jourdain, Jr.

Back in the garages, the Fernandez crew was hard at work on tearing down the car. They had a full schedule in front of them – the car would be completely disassembled and rebuilt in a matter of hours. Prior to tearing it down, they scaled the car and took a series of complicated measurements so that they could return the car to the same set-up as before it was torn down. They have complex alignment tools, and various other measuring devices that they use to record settings, ride heights, camber, caster, and so on.

We talked with various crewmembers as they removed the bodywork, drained the radiators and fuel bladder, replaced the brake rotors, pads and brake fluid, rebuilt the suspension system (including the steering rack), rebuilt the transaxle/transmission assembly (all gears were replaced), and performed other work on the Lola chassis.

Again, it was utterly amazing to watch a complete racecar transform into nothing more than a bare chassis-shell within a matter of sixty minutes. Each member knew his job exactly, and he worked with surgical precision.

We chatted at length with Brian Vanetti who described himself as a “floater mechanic” that helped out as needed in the garage. Brian is also the outside rear tire changer that we spoke to earlier on pit lane. Brian’s roots are in NHRA drag racing, where he crewed for legends like Don “The Snake” Prudhome. While Brian enjoys CART racing, he commented, “Things were a lot more relaxed in NHRA racing. CART’s much more politically correct.”

While talking with Vanetti, we received word from CART officials that Jourdain Jr.’s car was underweight, and he would be stripped of his pole position. Fernandez just moved up to position 5 (“P5” as they say) for the start of Sunday’s race.

John Slater, inside tire changer and mechanic was hard at work on the front half of the car. He was replacing all of the braking components and was rebuilding the steering assembly when we stopped to chat with him. “This is what we call the calm before the storm,” he said as he twisted a Snap-On ratchet over a caliper mounting point.

John also explained to us that Team Fernandez uses a system of a “front crew” and a “back crew” – he and a few other crewmembers typically work on the front half of the car while another set of crewmembers typically focus on the back half of the car. While we were talking with John, Barry Scott walked by with a pan full of gears – he was rebuilding the gearbox.

“We’ve done this stuff so much that it’s almost a matter of habit,” said Tony Leith (outside front tire changer and mechanic).

While the crew continued to work on the car, we chatted with Mathew Leicht, who was serving as the Cosworth engineer for Team Fernandez this weekend. “We get shuffled from team to team each weekend, so the teams get a different engineer each weekend. This helps ensure that the playing field is level,” he commented while he watched the crew transfer parts from their old Cosworth V8 to the new one.

Mathew went on to explain that Cosworth tries to be as “transparent” as possible to the sport – the motors have been relatively problem free this year and are making more horsepower with less RPM and less fuel consumption. “Reliability has been tremendous so far,” he says as he reaches for a piece of wood to knock on. “I think the reason for the improved reliability and closer racing this year is due in large part to the deletion of traction control. Traction control made things somewhat difficult for us last year.”

We continued to watch the crew work on the car, while we asked Mr. Leicht about the Cosworth engine lease program. “CART teams lease motors from Cosworth for approximately $1.275 million per year. They run a motor for a maximum of 1,200 miles – that can include practice, testing, racing, anything. Once they hit 1,200 miles, we exchange the motor. Old motors are returned to Cosworth where they are disassembled and evaluated.”

We asked him if teams are allowed to do anything to the motor, and he said, “No, not really. The motors are all ‘sealed’ meaning that each team gets an identical motor to its competitor – that way, there aren’t any advantages given to anyone based on motor performance.”
What if a motor has 1,000 miles on it and the next 200+ miles includes a race day? “Then we replace the motor early. If you’ve got 800 miles on your motor and a 500 mile race is tomorrow, we’ll have the motor exchanged so it’s fresh for the race.”

Feeling comfortable with Mathew, we decided to push him for some “dirt” by asking insider questions like what type of oil do the motors use? “I don’t know, let’s go see,” he said as he walked over to the Team Fernandez supply cabinet. “Looks like they use Quaker State 5w30 synthetic blend,” he said.

We thought he was joking, but as he said that, a Fernandez team member came over and grabbed two sealed cases of Quaker State 5w30 synthetic blend. We watched closely and carefully as he opened the cases, and poured quart after quart of the off-the-shelf Quaker State into the fresh motor’s dry sump oil tank, 11 quarts in all. Leicht went on to explain, “Cosworth doesn’t care what oil you use, as long as it meets our viscosity and performance requirements. We realize that teams have oil deals, so they usually use whatever is available to them.”

By the time we were finished talking with Mathew, the team was already putting the car back together. When we left for the evening, the crew was scaling the car and making various chassis adjustments, and Kenny Szymanski was busy shaving the team’s racing tires to make sure they were completely clean and ready for race day.

The entire team is nothing short of amazing – it was quite an experience to be standing inches from them as they tore down the car and rebuilt it.

Race day started with another early morning press meeting with CART officials. We were instructed on the timeline and schedule for the day’s events. CART runs a tight ship – the schedule was coordinated to the minute. At exactly 12:21pm we would have to leave pit lane and return to the team’s pit box. At 12:26pm the drivers would have to be in their cars. At 12:29pm the command would be given to start the engines and at 12:30pm, the cars would be doing their warm-up laps.

Scheduling aside, the team was preparing the car for the final practice session before the race. Once again, we stood inches from the car and watched as Adrian returned the car to the pits for a differential adjustment, a rear shock change and some modifications to the rear brake ducting. It’s quite amazing that CART (and the teams) allow photographers and journalists to stand an inch from a car as it races into its pit stall. The general sense seems to be, “Don’t get run over, don’t get in our way and everything will be fine.”

While Team Fernandez sorted the minor problems, Michel Jourdain Jr’s problems continued – his team was pitted directly in front of the Fernandez pit stall, and his gearbox was continually malfunctioning. “I hope they can get it figured out,” said a Fernandez crewmember. Not only are these guys incredibly smart and talented, they’re also genuinely nice people. Adrian finished the final practice and then disappeared to the hauler to prepare for the race.

Meanwhile, the team returned to the garage for last minute adjustments (they set the fuel cell capacity and made a few minor changes) and to suit-up for the race. The Fernandez crewmembers wear flame retardant one-piece suits and helmets to help protect them should the unthinkable happen.

When the team returned to pit lane, their demeanor was different – they were ready to work and were serious about their efforts. The joking and kidding subsided and everyone was wearing their game face. By 11:30am, the car was parked on the starting grid, the team was suited and ready to go, and the SpeedTV crew was walking up and down pit-lane, looking for a story.

The final hour before the race seemed to last for an eternity – the time crawled by. We sat on pit wall and watched as the drivers took their parade lap while standing on the back of a pick-up truck. Many of the drivers had their fathers with them as the race was held on Fathers Day.

We finally had to clear pit lane and return to the team’s pit box, where we were given racing headsets so that we could listen to the crew’s conversations. Everyone was in place – the engineers were “in” their pit cart, laptops buzzing, and the rest of the crew was at their respective station. Tire changers lined the wall, the fuel man checked his equipment and we tried to stay out of everyone’s way.

The green flag dropped, followed immediately by a yellow flag – there had been contact between two cars on the start. The green flag would fly on the next lap, and the race was underway.

The pits are eerily calm during a race. The crew is quiet on the radio and not much conversation takes place between Adrian and his engineers. By lap 18 Adrian has moved up to 4th place and is 8 seconds behind the leader. The radio crackles to life, “Raise the rear tire pressure 2-psi for this stop.” Kenny is on it.

I look at the telemetry screen and notice that the rear tire pressures and temperature look normal. Kenny tells me that there’s nothing wrong with the handling, they (the engineers) just want the pressures to be slightly higher). I almost fell over when I saw the brake temperatures from the Fernandez car – 820-degrees Celsius on the front rotors and nearly 500-degrees Celsius on the rears! That is some serious heat!

On lap 23 the radio again came to life. “Pit next lap. Pit next lap.” The crew began to prepare for the pending stop. A fresh right-front tire was placed over the wall, the pneumatic impact guns were double-checked and one crewmember was performing some stretching exercises.

Lap 24 and the pits were suddenly a buzz with action – Adrian raced into the pit box, hit his mark and the tires were changed in a matter of seconds. Air hoses flew and the car dropped from its pneumatic lift. Fueler Mike Gugar, stepped back and Adrian smoked the tires on his way out of the pit.

I was amazed – the pit stop looked flawless, but Fernandez dropped two positions while in the pits. How could this be? It turns out there had been an equipment problem with the fuel man’s helmet and he over-filled the car by about one second.

One second. A one second error cost two racing positions; the error wasn’t anyone’s fault – an electronic “blinker” that is mounted inside of the helmet of the fuel man had failed. The blinker is supposed to flash when the car has received enough fuel – it’s how the fuel man knows when to remove the fuel nozzle from the car.

Meanwhile, Derek Daly of SpeedTV/CBS was walking up and down the pits, looking for a story. He stopped in and asked, “Have you got anything for me?” Tamy Valkosky, Team Fernandez Public Relations Director shook her head to say, “No.” Daly watched the race on one of the Fernandez monitors, then gathered his crew and moved on.

As the race continued, the radio was relatively quiet. Lap 48 brings another pit stop and the pit stop exercise is repeated. Again, the team is upset because they lost two positions by the time Adrian exits pit lane. I managed to catch a glimpse of the fuel gauge and saw that they dumped 29-gallons of methanol into the car in less than eight seconds.

Fuel information is extremely privileged – the teams go to great lengths to keep the information confidential. The fuel valve deadman operator (he stands at the fuel cart and is the emergency fuel shut-off man) hides the fuel meter from view by blocking it with his body. Then, as soon as Dan Grabski can take a reading, the meter is reset to zero – I was lucky to catch a glimpse of it.

The final pit stop took place on lap 71, and the team put in 22 gallons of methanol. After the pit stop was finished I flashed a “thumbs up/thumbs down” sign to John Slater and he returned a “thumbs middle” sign. Adrian left the pit in seventh position and went on to finish the race in the same position.

After the checkered flag flew, the team was informed their car would be tech inspected, so they pushed it to the tech center for an inspection. Various crew members hurriedly packed up the pit space and within an hour, the pit box was nearly vacant.

Back in the garage, the packing continued at a hurried pace as well. The team would have to repeat this weekend’s entire process again in just a few days – Portland, Oregon was the next stop, which Fernandez would go on to win.

Rich Meredith (inside rear tire changer/starter/mechanic) also drives one of the haulers. He explained that he would leave the track by around 6pm and drive straight to Portland. The rest of the team would fly to Portland on Monday. Rich was looking forward to getting to the track early, washing the haulers and then playing a little golf.

While the team packed, Adrian debriefed with his engineers. A long line of fans began to accumulate outside of the haulers – they were looking for autographs and pictures of their favorite driver. While we talked with Adrian, he was busy signing various items for fans – a helmet visor, a CD, a photograph, a poster and so on.

Despite having just run 87 grueling laps in a cramped racecar, Adrian looked like a million bucks. He took time to answer all of our questions (see side bar), posed for a photo and wished us well.

As we exited the hauler, we said thanks to all of the Fernandez crewmembers and wished them luck with the upcoming race in Portland. As we were walking back to the rental car, I turned and saw the car being loaded into the hauler – they were almost ready to leave the track.

So there you have it. 345,600 seconds in the life of a CART racing team brought to you compliments of the Fernandez Racing team. We have to say thank you to many people for making this story possible, including: Adrian Fernandez, Tammy Valkosky, Mathew Leicht, Ed Grabski, Ed Nichols and of course each and every member of the Team Fernandez racing crew.

Click here for Roadfly’s interview with Adrian Fernandez.

About Steve Litscher

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Food connoisseur, car guy, tech geek and dog lover.
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