You can't be in faster company than the pit crews at the Indianapolis 500. With 33 cars screaming around rain-slicked asphalt at 220 miles per hour, the only constant is change. To win the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," a racing team's pit crew needs to be as finely tuned as the car it services.
"Something as simple as not getting the fuel hose plugged in can drop you from first place to 16th," says Jeff Simon, crew chief for Tony Kanaan, who finished second in the 2004 Indy. Drivers get the glory, but only if their crews can switch tires, top off tanks, and avoid being run over in less than 15 seconds.
Gearheads weren't the only spectators locked in on Indy's pits this year. Executives such as Centrix CEO Bob Sutton, a sponsor of a Rahal/Letterman car driven by Vitor Meira, study crew dynamics as models for their own executive teams. His take: "If one little thing goes wrong, the car can just stop, so dedication to teamwork is really significant." Here's how to get your team meshing like a six-speed transmission.
- The faster you go, the more you need to talk. During a race, crews talk with drivers via radio and take in reams of telemetry from the car. "If driver and crew can't understand each other," says Simon, "you can't improve the car."
- Don't panic when rivals overtake you. Buddy Rice's team didn't lose its cool when, leading with just 12 laps to go, he had to pit. His crew got him back out on the track in 6.9 seconds, quick enough to let him retake the lead and win.
- Know when to let the pros handle it. Sutton was slated to hold the flag in the pit (showing the driver where to stop) but opted to give the job to a regular crew member. "I don't like rookies. That was the best team thing I could do."
- Whatever it takes, stay in the race. Unable to resolve an electrical problem early on, Greg Ray's team sent his car out with side panels removed, just so Ray could keep up. The strategy worked — until a collision on lap 103 forced Ray out.
- Make the most of downtime. A.J. Foyt IV banged up his car on the 11th lap. But when the race was stopped during a rain delay, his team used the time to replace nearly half his car. The overhaul got Foyt back in the race for another 15 laps.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.