INSIGHT: The art of the perfect IndyCar pit stop

INSIGHT: The art of the perfect IndyCar pit stop

It’s one of the great ironies of IndyCar that the segment of the race that can most dramatically affect the outcome occurs when the cars are traveling at their slowest. Or indeed, not moving at all.

IndyCar pit stops only take a few seconds, but they have an outsized say in how a driver’s race is going to play out. Yet despite their importance, they often go relatively unscrutinized. Not race strategy,  but the pit stop sequence itself — the series of processes that are followed both in the cockpit and in pit lane when a driver gets the call to come in.

Part of the reason for that is simple pragmatism. As Meyer Shank Racing’s Simon Pagenaud put it: “There are a lot of secrets there.”

But another reason pit stops get overlooked might simply be that the drivers and crews make them look so easy: car goes in, gets fuel and tires, rejoins, job done, right? But in reality, there’s a lot compressed into a tiny window of time. To help gain a better understanding of it all, RACER assembled an all-star cast:

FELIX ROSENQVIST: Driver, No. 6 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet
MARCUS ERICSSON: Driver, No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
TREVOR LACASSE: Chief mechanic, No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet
WILL POWER: Driver, No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet
JOSH JUNGE: Chief mechanic, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
SIMON PAGENAUD: Driver, No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda

A pit stop party kicking off at Nashville. Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

Most pit stops are completed through the execution of a carefully choreographed series of actions between the driver and the six crew members that go over the wall. The reason most stops look so seamless is that teams spent an extraordinary amount of time into perfecting them. The 2022 season has only been over for a few weeks, but preparations for the first round of pit stops at St. Petersburg next March have already started.

TREVOR LACASSE: All winter long, we have our (pit stop) car here that we get on at least two to three times a week. And if we’re not doing pit stop practice, we’re in the gym at least three days a week as well. So, we spend 7:00am to 8:00am in the morning either doing pit stop practice or working out. Some days we do both. Usually that starts falling off a little bit once the season gets going, because with our schedule it’s hard to have that much time to set aside during the day to do that.

JOSH JUNGE: The majority of the people in the shop — it is mandatory for over-the-wall people — take part in our performance program. We have a full-time trainer, and he is also our pit stop coach. There’s a pit stop practice area that was built into the (new) shop which utilizes the electric car that we use, so we have a rolling car to do stops with.

TREVOR LACASSE: We have some stations that a lot of the new hires can work on. There are hubs mounted to the wall so you can get your hand-eye coordination going, to start building your skills there. That’s a pretty good one for us. From that you can move to actually (doing stops) on the car. Then we have a guy that breaks down the video from pit stop practice, so by the time lunch rolls around you can watch it on your phone, your computer or whatever and, and see your stops and have some times to go with it. It’s a pretty good program there for us in the winter. You can see a lot of data and learn a lot.

The biggest thing is going from what we call a “warehouse warrior” to going to the racetrack with the actual live car coming at you. That’s obviously the next hurdle. You have some guys we’ve seen over the years get a bit stuck in the moment there, you know, car coming, there’s 20-something other cars coming by you, and all the noise… That’s the next hurdle you’ve got to get over with some of these new guys — when it’s real, there’s a lot going on in five seconds, six seconds.

Once the team arrives at a race for a race weekend, one of the first jobs on the to-do list is to prepare the pit box. The positioning of the assorted markers that define the box is largely dictated by IndyCar’s regulations, and the teams lay them out accordingly using templates.

JOSH JUNGE: After that’s done, it’s just being aware of what’s around you. When you first roll out, just taking a look at the entryway into our pit box, making sure there’s no bumps that are going to upset the car; that’s going lock up one of the front wheels. Or, make sure there’s no areas of unsettled ground where our air jacks’ feet are going to hit the ground.

You see that a lot on our street courses because they’re not maintained as well as the road courses and ovals. They can be a bit gnarly and you’ve got to raise your hand to (IndyCar) tech straight away so they can get somebody over there to fill in the holes.

One other thing I concentrate on is to memorize the six pit stalls that are in front of us — know who’s in them — because there are situations that pop up at certain times that that can have a big effect, depending on when they come in. If there’s somebody that’s going to be coming in that’s two pit stalls in front of us, but I know on track they’re eight seconds behind us, that’s going to have us launching right when they’re turning into their box. I try to do a lot of that homework beforehand, so that way I can react to them quicker and more in a informed way than just reacting in the two seconds that I have between when I’m done changing my tire and actually releasing the car.

At the start of the weekend teams will check the surface around their pit area for anything that could unsettle the car while it’s approaching its box. This is especially important at street courses like Long Beach. Motorsport Images

Drivers, meanwhile, use the opening sessions of the weekend to lay their own groundwork for successful stops during the race.

MARCUS ERICSSON: Starting from Practice 1, you need to start to work on your reference points for pit-in. Different tracks have different levels of difficulty with the pit-in — Laguna Seca is quite difficult because you have a really tight corner before you hit the pit speed line, so you need to work on all that right from the start of the weekend to really find your limits there. And then you also have to take into account tire wear, what tires you’re on and stuff like that. So it is quite hard, and you can make quite a big difference there as a driver.

Once qualifying is done and the focus switches fully to the race, the chief mechanic will start preparations according to the strategy that has been mapped out for their car.

TREVOR LACASSE: One thing is just how your tires are stacked in your pit box. On a road course, whether it’s scuffed blacks, sticker blacks, sticker reds, scuffed reds, you lay it out according to whatever your order is. That’s half the battle, making sure you’re getting the right tire on the car.

Dave (Faustino, Power’s race engineer) usually has our plan laid out, but as the race progresses those plans change so you’re shuffling stuff around. That’s where I stay in touch with Dave and try to keep the crew updated with as much information as they need, and make their jobs a little bit easier. 

Once the race is underway, the chief mechanics remain in constant communication with the timing stand as well as with the group going over the wall.

JOSH JUNGE: I watch what they call the ‘marching ants’ (ED: the track map that shows each car’s position in real time) and timing and scoring. Then I have certain different rows of numbers that I watch constantly during the race, as far as gaps and where people are at on the racetrack. Then as well as being in communication with the timing stand constantly, not only am I the outside front tire changer, but also the chief mechanic, so I’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right tire set up front. Or if they make a tire allotment change, or if we’re going to make a tire pressure adjustment, or if we’re going to make a wing adjustment, I communicate with that person first before I do the rest of the crew.

TREVOR LACASSE: As we go through a run, I try to keep our fueler in the know of, “Hey, you’re looking at a three-second fill at this stop versus a six-second fill,” and give them some anticipation of what they’re up against. Honestly, nowadays the drivers are so good at getting in and off of pit road, your fueler is your quarterback of the deal because so much rides on them. If it’s a bad plug-in, you can make what you thought was a four-second stop into a seven-second stop pretty quick.