MOORESVILLE, N.C. – How hard can it be to change drivers during a sports-car race?
Well, pretty hard, especially if you’re new to it and you’ve got no experience practicing it. Like me, for instance.
Take professionals, like the ones at SRT Motorsports – a premier TUDOR United SportsCar Championship team – and they can do it in less than 20 seconds. Their version of rinse, lather, repeat is driver goes out, driver climbs in, jack drops, car drives off. It’s an art that most racing series don’t need to perfect.
Driver changes are an important part of TUDOR racing, though, says SRT test-driver Tony Ave. It’s a team sport. The driver drives, the team handles stops, and the two sides work together in driver changes. They’re even more important in longer races, because there’s more chances to lose time.
“You’re always nervous, because there’s so much at stake,” Ave said. “Just a little mistake in there can lose you some spots on the track that you won’t get back.”
SRT Motorsports’ crew members are adept at the process. So are the drivers. A driver pulls in, stops, pulls a latch, unbuckles everything and climbs out as a driver assistant helps him. Meanwhile, tire changers rush around and a crewman refuels the car as the new driver climbs in, gets buckled and drives off.
That’s just the first part. Then, Ave said, the out lap is a mix of a shake-down session and a hot lap, because the driver may have not driven the car for a day prior to his stint. There’s car diagnosis going on in the first few turns. Oh, and the simple matter of cars all around you. Some may be a higher class and much faster, and some may be in a slower class. Just go fast, but make sure everything works, too.
“That’s what’s tough,” Ave said. “Gotta do both.”
The best drivers and teams are experts at it.
“The driver change can make a difference if you have to pass more cars when you go out there or not,” added Ave, a two-time Trans Am racing champion and a road-course standout who has also raced Indy Lights and NASCAR.
“It’s not so much the time as it is positions. You lose seconds, and those can go back and forth because of the nature of our racing, but positions are what’s important. The other thing is, what’s the car like when you get it? Has it developed oversteer or understeer? Is there a problem with the brakes? You have to know all that when you go out. It’s a big component that you really don’t have in single-driver formats.”
Sitting behind the wheel of the red No. 93 Dodge Viper driven by Jonathan Bomarito and Kuno Wittmer at the SRT and Riley Motorsports shop in Mooresville, N.C. on Tuesday gave me time to think about what goes into a driver change, because I was part of one.
In what felt like an instant, I went from holding the steering wheel in the cramped cockpit, to pulling the latch, climbing out with help from a driver assistant and watching Ave jump in and get settled as tires were changed and the car was pseudo-refueled.
Wow, that was fast. We had to have posted a pretty quick time. It felt like it took 10 seconds.
It was about twice as long as you’d expect a TUDOR United SportsCar team to perform a driver change.
It’s the shoes, I tell Ave. I have the requisite helmet – SPEED SPORT red, too – and SRT Motorsports firesuit on, but my tan boat shoes aren’t conducive to sliding out of a cockpit. Not enough grip. Should’ve brought different shoes. Makes all the difference. Yeah, let’s go with that.
You’d probably have to run some hot laps to make up for the time I think we lost, I tell Ave.
He chuckles. Some guys make it look so easy.
Later, after changing into a golf shirt and standing beside the team hauler, Ave tells me how driver changes can be a learned art.
“You can practice that,” he says.
Hey, I’m open to invites. Just let me bring some different shoes.