INDIANAPOLIS — We think we know what makes them special, but that’s only true to a degree.
There are a lot of fine details that make great race car drivers interesting and most of us don’t get close enough, for long enough, to absorb them all.
Want some insight into a top-shelf driver? Ask a mechanic. Nobody sees a racer like the men beside him in the trenches.
The motorsports world best knows Parnelli Jones as the winner of the 1963 Indianapolis 500 and Bud Moore as a NASCAR Cup Series team owner. But in 1969 they were hired by Ford to attack the SCCA Trans-Am Series and Moore spent two seasons tuning the Mustangs that Jones muscled to seven victories and a title.
That’s exactly how the old stories record it, too; the press loved Parnelli’s slashing, physical style. But what stuck with Moore was something gentle — the extraordinary feel Jones had for his equipment.
“I’ll give you an example,” said Moore. “I worked a lot on acceleration and deceleration, playing with carburetors. I had one particular carburetor that gained us six or seven horsepower on the dyno. But everything about it — the floats and things like that — was the same as what we’d been running, so it should have been impossible for a driver to tell the difference. Impossible.”
Without mentioning a word to Jones, Moore decided to give that trick carb a tryout at the next event on the schedule.
The result? “Parnelli didn’t run more than two laps before he came in and said, ‘I don’t like this carburetor.’”
It was in 2012 that Bud Moore told me this story, but he smiled as if it had happened just that afternoon. Moore knew Parnelli Jones, the race car driver, better than most of us ever could.
Another mechanic, another tale of a driver with heightened senses: It was the spring of 1996 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Team Menard was conducting a private test. At the wheel was a kid named Tony Stewart, prepping for his first 500.
Also on the Menard roster was veteran crewman Bill Martin, who watched Stewart veer into the pits after just one lap and report to team boss Larry Curry that he’d spotted debris in the third turn.
“In a private test, the team has a radio to contact the track crew,” Martin recalled. “So Larry told those guys what Tony had said. Now, the speedway has an excellent safety crew; they inspect the track really closely and if there’s anything out there, they’ll find it. But they looked for a long time and they didn’t see anything. Finally, they came back with a No. 10 screw about a half-inch long. It had been laying right in the groove, but because it was painted black it took them a long time to see it.
“Good drivers are a special breed and in Tony we had one who was exceptional,” Martin added. “But that day he was like Superman, seeing things nobody else could.”
You had to be there, and Bill Martin was.
Three decades before Martin’s first exposure to Stewart, another Indy car wrench got an up-close look at a comet streaking into view. This was in 1964, when Jim McGee, apprenticing under distinguished chief mechanic Clint Brawner, grew close to 24-year-old Mario Andretti, rookie driver for their Dean Van Lines team.
That year’s final race came on the Phoenix mile, where Andretti qualified third and was having what McGee described as “a really good run” until a broken chassis component left him on the sidelines.
Brawner and McGee loaded the car onto its open trailer, stowed their tools and climbed into their tow rig — a pickup truck topped by what McGee called “an old camper shell.”
The Arizona sun was setting as they eased out of the infield and Andretti was quietly reliving his last few months.
“Clint was driving,” McGee remembered. “Mario and I were in the back of the truck, bouncing around. And Mario said to me, ‘Jim, I can beat those guys. Now I know I can win.’”
McGee’s eyes still dance when he tells that story. He witnessed something special that afternoon and he knows it.
Between 1973 and 1985, Richie Evans won nine NASCAR modified championships on his way to becoming the first non-Cup Series driver inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Evans’ typical season consisted of 75 races on quarter- and half-mile ovals, but for three straight Februarys he lit up Daytona Int’l Speedway during NASCAR’s short-lived “superspeedway modified” experiment.
In 1978, Evans finished second to Darrell Waltrip after a caution flag thwarted the last-lap slingshot pass he’d carefully set up. Soured by that experience, Evans vowed to never again play the waiting game. In 1979 and ’80, he won by simply outrunning Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Bobby Allison, Harry Gant and everyone else.
From a distance, Evans made Daytona look easy. But Ray Spognardi, who worked with Evans for years, knew better.
“Before the first warm-up, he’d be as nervous as anybody else,” Spognardi said. “I mean, it’s Daytona. His temples would be twitching. He’d go out for a few laps and when he came back in he’d still be the same way, high-strung. But after he went out the second time, he’d be as relaxed as if we were running at some half-mile.”
Thousands saw what a relaxed Richie Evans did at Daytona. Only his mechanics saw those temples twitching.