Race Car Mechanic

Someone on Reddit asked if mechanics get angry after a driver crashes. I wrote this…

It would depend on the drivers tendencies. If you want to be a mechanic in motor sports, you know what you are getting into when you sign on.

I was a mechanic on an SCCA team back in the 1990s. We shared the highs and lows along with the driver. If you win the race, it was a party. If there was a crash, you just got to work. There are always small repairs and basic maintenance after every session. It was the job.

However, if the driver crashes a lot, it gets frustrating. And expensive. The team I was on was financed by the drivers, so they knew not to make silly mistakes, or it was coming out of their pocket.

Occasionally we had pay drivers and they knew in advance they were on the hook for damage. It wasn’t the most expensive form of motor sports, but damage could quickly get to the thousands of dollars if you destroyed a nose or tore off a corner.

However, if I was on a team with someone like Andrea de Cesaris from the 1980s, I might be looking for another job if I had to rebuild the car after every few sessions. Multiple incidents in a single weekend get frustrating quickly.

This is a short description of what it was like for me working for a small SCCA team. F1 teams are probably similar, except on a much larger scale.

Back at the shop, we would go through the car, clean it, replace parts that were old or damaged, change fluids, replace tires on rims, rebuild the brakes (that was my primary job) fix and repaint bodywork (fiberglass repair is THE WORST) and basically put everything back together so that just before load out, you had a pristine race cars sitting on the scales. You would check past race notes and apply a baseline set up (basically a lot of suspension changes for our cars … no wings) so that you could roll the car out of the trailer for practice and hope you were not too far off the pace.

The worst was when your driver crashed in the race. Rather than rolling the car out of the trailer and into the shop, you drug it. You would clean the grass, dirt and gravel out of it as best you could and then start disassembly. We were probably going to take it all apart anyway, but it’s never fun to start welding new bits on a car, or looking for small cracks in suspension pieces.

At the track, you just did the best you could with what you had. Most of our paddocks were outdoor concrete pads. You were switching out parts under an awning, hoping you had spares, or going to your friends in the paddock to see if they could lend you a toe rod or nose piece (we were running spec sportscars, so everyone had the same parts).

The mechanics did not want to be rebuilding cars between sessions. It was stressful and you always worried that you missed something. Mechanics are race fans, so we wanted the car in one piece so we could focus on the good stuff … walking the paddock checking out other cars, I especially loved the Formula Fords, but there were so many unique race cars around. I was a kid in a candy store.

Unless the driver binned it. Then we might be skipping dinner at the nice restaurant and instead eating greasy take-out pizza while we re-assembled a corner, or covered a broken nose in aviation tape while hammering sheet metal back into a familiar shape. The challenge was to make sure you had a safe car that went just as fast post-crash as it did prior to the incident. It especially sucked if you driver was top five prior to the crash, but lost time after the rebuild. Time to take it all apart again and see if something was still bent.

When the F1 teams break the cerfew and work all night, I feel for them. You spend days/weeks pre-race trying to get the car perfect, and then you have to tape it back together with old parts after an incident.

Or you can have a situation like I experienced where a new driver bought his car, practiced for the race, started last, and then on the day of race one, it rained. He crashed in the final turn APPROACHING THE GREEN FLAG. When the car got back to the paddock, the front left corner was ripped off and the rear body work was broken. The driver/owner decided to skip the next days race rather than pay for the repairs at the track, so we drug the hulk onto his trailer and I was a spectator the rest of the weekend. I got paid for a single days work. I had hoped to be wrenching on the car all season, but I never saw the guy or his car again.

Yes, seeing your driver crash is frustrating, but it’s all relative.

This was Spec Racer Ford Pro. 1994. We did support races for Trans Am. It wasn’t a big operation, but the racing was fantastic and the grids tend to be HUGE. Started out as Spec Racer Renault back in the 1980s, and now they are transitioning to their third generation of Ford engines.

The mechanics I mentored with tried to talk me into moving to Florida or North Carolina to beg my way on to a NASCAR team, but I promised mom I’d finish college. So it goes … No regrets, but I miss getting paid to go to a race track.

One of my highlights was standing on the pit wall at Watkins Glen working in the old cinderblock garages that the F1 teams used back in the day. Also, Road America is absolutely amazing. And the SCCA Runoffs are a blast.