Compressed IndyCar schedule putting strain on teams

The rainout at Texas put even more stress on overworked IndyCar teams. AP Photo/Tim Sharp

The rain delay and eventual postponement of the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway was a hassle and an inconvenience for many -- especially race fans.

But spare a thought for the men and women who make up the teams that compete on a weekly basis. With the IndyCar Series wrapping up a stretch of seven weekends of on-track activity out of the last nine, plus a week of Indianapolis practice and a handful of private tests, many team members were denied a richly deserved day off, something many of them have not enjoyed in over a month.

Andretti Autosport mechanics worked 286 hours during the month of May before departing June 1 to stage a doubleheader race weekend in Detroit. After a quick turnaround in Indianapolis (or Charlotte for Team Penske, Chicago for Dale Coyne Racing), cars and staff immediately departed for Texas, where being dog tired made sitting around waiting out the rain for two straight days even more difficult than usual.

No rest for the weary, though, because since arriving home from Texas last Monday, many teams already turned around their cars yet again for a Wednesday test session at Road America, an hour north of Milwaukee. Another test is scheduled for Monday at Watkins Glen, then everyone is back at Road America this weekend for the next race on the IndyCar Series schedule.

"I think we haven't really lifted the throttle since since Barber [the IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park on April 24]," said series points leader Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske. "Even after Barber, before we got to Indy, they had to work. We went to Texas for testing, and my guys haven't had much time at home. I think my crew chief went home half a day since Barber.

"So yeah, it's a little tough on them," Pagenaud continued. "Obviously for us drivers, we have all the comfort that we need. We can rest more than they do. But certainly for them, knowing that they also do the pit stops and they've got to stay fit is really difficult. I try not to bring them too many donuts, but I try to treat them as well as I can."

Being based outside of Indianapolis, the month of May is much tougher for the Penske and Coyne teams compared to everyone else, because Indianapolis-based team members at least get to sleep in their own beds at night despite the heavy Indy workload.

What seems to be pushing people to the breaking point in 2016 more so than in recent years past is an increase in testing. Private testing rules during the season have been relaxed, and IndyCar has run several "safety tests" to determine if new aerodynamic components from Chevrolet and Honda will perform satisfactorily. Honda and Chevrolet also use as many test days as they are allowed by the rulebook.

For the drivers, the renewed emphasis on testing is a good thing. "I couldn't ask for more," said 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan. "I love being in the car and it's like the good old days -- when we weren't at a race, we were testing. Everybody is tired but a good result always motivates the guys for sure."

Indeed, back in the days of the CART-sanctioned Indy car championship and the early years of heavy manufacturer involvement in the IndyCar Series (2003-05), in-season testing was commonplace. But the race schedule was not as compressed as it is now (16 races in the space of 29 weeks), and the bigger teams all featured "test teams" with separate mechanics to prepare and run the car in testing.

That's similar to NASCAR, where one group of mechanics travels and prepares the cars at the track while a different group takes care of business back at the shop. NASCAR teams also have a fleet of cars to choose from, whereas each IndyCar team builds and rebuilds the same race car every week, or rotates among a pool of two or three chassis.

Testing can be physically taxing and mentally numbing for the drivers, but they are working much shorter days than the engineers and mechanics, who are the first to arrive at the track and the last to leave.

"The crew, through the month of May, I think had only three days off, and then it's straight into a doubleheader," observed four-time series champion Scott Dixon. "I think the series needs to reevaluate in-season testing, just because we are so compressed during the year. Maybe they could go back to when we weren't allowed to do in-season testing, or they could take away the seven-day blackout at tracks and let us run the week of the race, maybe on the Thursday or something.

"It's definitely grueling for the teams," he added. "Huge credit goes to the mechanics and the engineers and everybody working because this three- or four-month stretch is pretty relentless on them."

Aside from taking IndyCar out of the spotlight for six months out of the year, the compressed schedule has created other problems for the series. Smaller teams tend to lay off much of their staff during the winter months, and KV Racing struggled to reassemble a team of mechanics this year.

Longtime mechanics and engineers have grown weary of enduring an intense workload during the season, then facing the uncertainty of whether they will remain employed over the break. Many have left Indy car racing, in search of easier working conditions or greater stability in NASCAR or sports car racing.

Crafting a race schedule is a difficult task for any racing series, but there are unlikely to be major changes for the IndyCar Series until at least 2018.

"It's tough on them for sure and I feel for them," driver Graham Rahal said. "Those guys put in a lot of effort all year long and just don't get a break. Unfortunately looking forward I think next season is going to be similar to this, but I think if we look at an in-season testing that could make it better for our people.

"It's just brutal right now," he concluded. "For me as a driver it's one thing, but for the guys going back and forth, it's too much."