COVID-19 has put a damper on most sports and events, but IndyCar is coming back. Our Join Us in the Pits contest is still open and the Indy 500 is set to run on August 23, 2020. Electronic Design and Machine Design are sponsors for DragonSpeed USA’s car 81 (Fig. 1). We’re of course hoping it will be the winner at this year’s Indy 500.
I’ve been covering DragonSpeed for a while and had a chance to talk with Vince Kremer, Team Manager for DragonSpeed USA, about his role with the team as well as the kinds of technical, design, and operational challenges encountered with an IndyCar and the competition.
What is your role at DragonSpeed, and your own training and background in racing?
My functions are wide-ranging, crossing into almost every aspect of the team. Staff, logistics, purchasing and inventory, dealing with the series organizers, complying with the rules and regulations, you name it. With a small team like ours, each individual wears multiple hats.
My own racing background goes back more than 30 years. I worked my way up from handling the show car and hospitality motorhome to transporter driver, test team mechanic, race-car mechanic, chief mechanic, crew chief, and team manager. Every promotion depended on going above and beyond my job description, and for the most part I worked my way up the ranks in two teams—Penske Racing and Herdez Competition.
I eventually left the team side to go to work for the IndyCar organization. My initial role there was as technical director for the Indy Lights support series. I soon added race director to my duties before becoming overall Vice President of Operations for IndyCar.
My competitive spirit drew me back to the team side as Team Manager for Harding Steinbrenner Racing, where we had tremendous success. When that outfit merged with Andretti Autosports, I took the opportunity to join DragonSpeed, where I could use my experience to help a driven owner and crew new to IndyCar meet the challenges of a very different form of racing.
Much of the IndyCar is a fixed, single-specification design to control costs. What areas are open to technical development by DragonSpeed?
The shock absorbers are the most open area for development. There are a few other areas, such as the suspension rocker arms and some lubricants. Doing everything possible to reduce rolling resistance is important. This can be accomplished through close attention to fit and finish as well as selecting the most efficient “open choice” components.
IndyCar has a difficult line to tread between opening up development, which means a lot of expensive R&D versus trying to control costs. Allowing too much development doesn’t just make it more expensive for existing teams, it also raises the barriers to entry for new teams. Just look at McLaren in 2019!
In what ways is a race car easier or more difficult to work on than a road car? What are some examples using the current Dallara IR18-Chevrolet IndyCar?
As I work on my own cars at home, I think I’m competent to answer this question! Let’s start with cleanliness. Race cars seldom experience the elements in the way street cars do, and they’re taken apart and put back together so frequently that you never have to worry about a bolt or nut being “frozen.” The level of precision in assembly also makes it easier to disassemble, and the time pressure of a race weekend means everything is more easily accessed, serviced, and replaced. Very few parts stay on the race car for an entire season, unlike a street car that’s built to deliver years of reliability.
A good example of all this is changing an engine. With the IndyCar, we can have the engine out in less than an hour. Prepping the spare engine takes about 40 minutes and we can have it installed and ready for initial startup in a further 45 minutes. So, in less than 2.5 hours, we can have an engine swapped and running—try that on a street car! We can also change the gears in the transmission in under 30 minutes.
How does DragonSpeed’s tire changing and refueling equipment contribute to the speed of its pit stops?
Keeping each piece of equipment running at peak functionality is key. The air gun used to remove the wheel nut is a tool that’s constantly under development.
Most people are astounded at the speed and power of an IndyCar wheel gun (Fig. 2). This tool is not only handed for each side of the car, but also ported and tuned to run at 100% of power on removing the nut; however, only 80% when putting it on. Even at 80%, it’s applying over 600 foot-pounds of torque. This might seem backward, but the nuts generally tighten themselves as the car is running due to the thread pattern. The wheel guns are also designed so that once you remove the nut and drop the gun before fitting the new tire, the gun’s direction of rotation reverses automatically.
Then we have on-board air jacks that lift the car approximately four inches off the ground as quickly as possible, since the best tire changers have the wheel nut off by the time the car comes to a complete stop. Once the new wheels are secured, you want the car back on the ground as quickly as possible, as the lowering of the car in comparison to the pit refueling tank helps increase the gravity driven flow of fuel into the car. The fuel rig itself is standardized and tightly regulated, so the speed of a pit stop is really down to the performance of the crew.
Drivers play a critical role in the pit-stop speed as well. Of course, they need to get to and out of the pit box quickly. But even more importantly, they must be consistent in stopping in precisely the same spot each time. At each track, we use tape to mark the ideal stopping location for the driver. Hitting the marks each time allows the crew to take best advantage of the pre-positioning of the wheel guns and fuel hose to do their work as quickly as possible. If a driver misses the marks, time is lost reacting and sometimes even having to move the car back into position.
The key ingredients of a lightning-fast IndyCar pit stop are the wheel gun (Fig. 3), socket, and nut. The socket and nut are designed to be self-aligning, with magnets in the titanium socket holding the steel nut in place as the gun is placed on the hub. A full car set of wheel-changing equipment can cost upward of $75,000.
The wheel gun’s mechanical switch (the rubber encased button on the right side of the body) for reversing the direction of rotation between removal and replacement of the nut is triggered when the gun is dropped on the ground.