Open Wheel Racing
Spring means the beginning of the amateur auto racing season. My husband Harry races in open wheel/open cockpit Formula Vee in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). I am his crew chief. For us, the season starts around Memorial Day Weekend and ends by early October, and this May will mark our fourth year of racing. In the Northeast, Formula Vee is one of the more robust classes where a typical race weekend may see us competing against up to 25 cars in our class. Last year, Harry won the North Atlantic Road Racing Championship!
I still remember his face the first time he won a podium position, which is a finish in the top three. It was at the historic Watkins Glen, and I didn’t want to tell him until I was sure. We use radios to communicate with each other during the race. I act as his spotter telling him only pertinent information such as if a car has spun, how much time he is losing to or gaining on another driver, lap times, and number of laps left. This is the most fun for me and the most challenging of my crew chief duties. In addition to spotting, I also help prepare the car before and after the race, keep track of his times, manage car issues, and establish our goals for each track including learning the track configuration and analyzing the competition. The crew chief is also responsible for taking photographs, setting up the in-car video gear, and helping the driver get ready for the race and safely locked into his race car. As James Garner said when talking about making the film Grand Prix, “You don’t so much sit in a Formula One car as wear it.” That’s just as true with Formula Vee. It’s a tight fit!
Many who are unfamiliar with the sport seem to think that because they can drive a car, they could drive a race circuit and race. That’s like saying that because you can take your temperature, you are a surgeon. Sports car racing is nothing like driving a car whether on an oval track or a complex road course.
Every race circuit is unique with its own configuration and local conditions. The driver needs to learn the proper driving line for each track as well as the passing zones and the flagging safety stations. The nuances of elevation change and turn geometry greatly affect the handling of the car. The combination of physical and intellectual demand is what makes racing so exciting.
Most SCCA races are about 20 minutes, and an average race weekend includes one qualifying session, a qualifying race, and two races. Once the race starts, driver and crew chief are only focused on “the now”. There is no past or future, only the present moment. Nothing can match the exhilaration that you experience at the start of a race or the energy that surrounds the race track. I think some of the best sports car racing can be found on SCCA race weekends. The racing is hard, wheel to wheel, and devoid of advertising and hype. It’s pure racing by dedicated drivers supported by crew chiefs and friends whose only rewards are the victory or a good finish and a race well run.
We’ve raced at Lime Rock Park, Watkins Glen, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, New Jersey Motorsports Park, and Pocono Raceway. There is so much more I could write about our race experiences. It’s a wonderful sport and I’m thrilled to be Harry’s Crew Chief, and proud of how much he’s grown as a driver. Through the Sports Car Club of America, we’ve met many wonderful people and look forward to the start of the new season.
For race fans, OWL has a number of books and DVD films that I highly recommend:
Grand Prix (1966): The film follows Formula 1 drivers during a run for the championship. Director John Frankenheimer was meticulous in his attention to detail and historical accuracy. Racing has gotten much safer these days but in 1966, safety standards were minimal. You’ll see the running starts, the race suits that hardly protect against fire, and the horrendous crashes. The work captures the intoxicating energy of racing. The filming was done through the Grand Prix season at various tracks on the circuit at the time. The film starts James Garner and Eva Saint Marie.
Le Mans (1971): Considered to be the most historically realistic presentation of the Le Mans race (the 24-hour endurance race in France), you should watch this film for the racing and not for its plot. As a race car driver himself, McQueen understood intimately the psychological focus and intensity of the driver. The racing and the driver’s perspective of racing are extraordinary and the film gives you an incredible sense of what it is like both inside and outside the cockpit. The film stars Steve McQueen and was directed by Lee Katzin.
Senna (2011): This documentary profiles the life of Brazilian race car driver Ayrton Senna who many consider to be the most skilled driver in motor sports history. It follows his journey from a 13-year old go-kart racer to three-time Formula One champion, and his untimely death at age 34 at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna’s charisma, honesty, and genuine concern for others shine through against a backdrop of corporate deals and political manipulation.
Real Racers: Formula 1 in the 1950s and 1960s: A Driver’s Perspective by Stuart Codling is a photographic journey through the golden age of Formula One racing. Formula One legends Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, and others provide commentary throughout the book about what it’s like to prepare for the weekend, practice, qualify, and race.
Motor Racing: the Golden Age by John Tennant provides incredible images from 1900 to 1970. This is a true visual delight bringing together all the elements of open-wheel racing including drivers, crews, tracks, cars, and spectators.
Blood and Smoke: a True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and the Birth of the Indy 500 by Charles Leerhsen takes the reader to the inaugural Indy 500 race in 1911 where personalities, publicity, and timekeeping equipment failures created mystery and mayhem.
~ Ann Marie
Ann Marie is the Library Director for the Oliver Wolcott Library and the crew chief for her husband’s Number 8 Formula Vee, the 2011 North American Road Racing Championship winner.