As a spectator, it’s easy to watch a race without caring about the outcome. You want your favorite driver to do well, and when that doesn’t happen, at worst you might resort to mild blasphemy. But for the race teams and their legions of mechanics, truck drivers, engineers and of course racers, the results on Sunday determine the fate of their jobs come Monday.
Of all of those people, race mechanics rank as some of the hardest working. With motorsports suffering from dwindling sponsorships and rising operating costs, team owners run a thin business. Employees are kept to a minimum and drivers with personal funding are needed to offset the costs. This holds especially true outside of stock car racing, where sports car and open-wheel teams fight for survival. For mechanics, it means long hours working jobs done by three or four people on well-funded teams. And if the car crashes, there simply aren’t enough hours or hands.
I spent the past weekend following the Michael Shank Racing team at the Grand-Am event in Indianapolis. Racing at Indy, for any series, remains special. The history within the famed 2.5-mile oval, whether you’re a race fan or not, seeps through your veins quicker than a shot of epinephrine. Everyone wants to win at the Brickyard. For the Grand-Am race, the MSR team would be racing their Ford-Riley Daytona Prototype on the infield road course, the track once used for Formula One races.
With the race weekend not being a weekend at all, running from Thursday to Friday before the NASCAR Sprint Cup racers hit the oval for their 400-mile race, the teams load into the paddock Wednesday morning. Naturally, the preparation for Indy, like with any race, takes place the moment the truck arrives back at the race shop after the previous event. There are no days off for team members. Not even weekends.
The drivers, who enjoy a far more relaxed schedule between races, arrive the same day to engage with their engineers and practice driver changes; in sports car racing, there are two (sometimes more) drivers per car.
For the Indianapolis race, the #6 MSR car would have a new occupant behind the wheel. Joining Gustavo Yacaman, the team’s regular driver, would be NASCAR driver A.J. Allmendinger. Allmendinger is not new to Grand-Am, having competed in many events over the years. But for the American-born racer, this remains an opportunity to restart his career.
Last season, Allmendinger signed a dream contract with Roger Penske Racing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series, the pinnacle of American racing, to fill the #22 car vacated by Kurt Busch. Unfortunately, Allmendinger failed a NASCAR drug test leading to the termination of his Penske contract. Now, Allmendinger is leaping in every car he can, ranging from Sprint Cup, to the secondary Nationwide stock car series, to IndyCar (oddly back with Penske) and to Grand-Am. His NASCAR issues haven’t slowed him down, though, as Allmendinger mentioned he was racing every weekend for the foreseeable future, including the NASCAR race after his Grand-Am duties. But being busy isn't a replacement for a full-time contract.
Yacaman is a different story. The 22-year-old Columbian racer is attempting to build a name for himself. Last season he won races in the Indy Light Series and is now after a career in sports cars. His debut season hasn’t gone to plan, however, as the youngster got into trouble for pushing a fellow racer wide and into the wall, leading to him being placed on probation. Yacaman prides himself on aggression and tenacity behind the wheel, and sometimes that works in his favor. Other times, it doesn’t — but his team knows he's always committed.
Team owner Michael Shank has the daunting task of keeping the doors open year after year. Every season it’s a constant battle to find sponsors, keep them happy and source drivers with funding to help replenish the pot; budgets for a team like Shank's top out in the several millions per year. He's already looking for money for next year's races.
For Shank, the drivers and his 20-odd employees, every race puts their world at stake. The drivers have something to prove, the mechanics and engineers need job security, and Shank must prove the team deserves the sponsors to keep rolling throughout the long off-season — often race teams low on funding cut most of their staff during the winter to save costs.
With that, many mechanics must save enough money during the season to keep the lights on during the winter. Working 20-hour days can be a common occurrence, and the stress doesn't make the off-hours that enjoyable.
So why do it?
Simple. Because they love it.