When the Driver Takes a Back Seat
When you think of auto racing, do you first think of drivers . . . or teamwork? Watch any televised race, and the majority of the camera time is dedicated to the drivers and their cars. But, the driver is simply one member of a larger team that works together to achieve maximum performance. When the driver wins, the team wins as well, and the driver is the first to thank them.
In the world of competitive auto racing, the drivers are the sport’s rock stars. They’re courted by sponsors, adored by fans, and made the subject of interview after interview by the racing press. While it goes without saying that drivers are absolutely essential to earning a trophy, racing enthusiasts, teammates, and especially drivers will tell you that they can’t win the race by themselves—it takes a successful team to win a race.
Although three of the major forms of professional auto racing—NASCAR, Formula One, and rally car racing—each use different vehicles, rules, and team structures, teamwork is the common denominator among them. Ray Evernham, former crew chief and team manager for Hendrick Motorsports’ DuPont car, describes teamwork this way: “We’re all spark plugs. If one doesn’t fire just right, we can’t win the race. So no matter whether you are the guy that’s doing the fabricating or changing tires on Sundays and that’s the only job responsibility you have, if you don’t do your job then we’re not going to win. And no one is more or less important than you.”
What are the qualities of successful racing teams? Let’s take a look.
NASCAR is the most widely known and watched racing sport in the United States, and the popularity and success of Jeff Gordon has more than a little to do with that. Gordon has the most wins in NASCAR’s modern era, has the third-most all-time wins, and has become a spokesperson for the importance of teamwork in NASCAR racing. “My job to communicate is probably the most important thing,” Gordon has said. “Because I’ve got to send a message from the race car and the race track back to the team so that they can make the proper adjustments.”
Cars running in NASCAR races hit speeds over 200 miles per hour. But winning or losing can be decided by tenths of a second. Although it’s the driver who gets featured in the winner’s circle and in all the advertisements, the difference between crossing the finish line first or losing the race often comes down to the pits, where the efforts of teammates with titles like Car Chief, Fueler, Jackman, Tire Carrier, and Changer have to operate together in just the right way. It’s in a crowded pit lane that tires get changed, windshields cleaned, fenders bent back into shape, and spring and balance adjustments fine tuned. Any seconds saved by pit crews are a driver’s best friends. Little wonder that racing teams give high priority to hiring the right crew chiefs and building high-performance pit crew teams to maximize their winning chances on race days.
In his analysis of successful NASCAR teams, Robert Williamson notes that an essential characteristic is a team’s sense of ownership for all actions—“We won the race, we hit the wall, we had a tire problem, we missed the setup for the track, we nailed that pit stop,” rather than noting the success or shortcoming of an individual.
It’s impossible for a car to complete a NASCAR race without multiple visits to the pit, and these pit stops are often the best example of teamwork in the sport. Aside from the skill and muscle memory of the pit crew members, other teammates contribute by modifying parts and equipment so they can be changed out in less time. In Sprint Cup racing, NASCAR’s highest designation, pit stops can happen in less than twenty seconds!
Sprint Cup winner Jimmie Johnson cites the importance of cohesive teamwork even before a car is assembled and tested on the track. “If you really know each other then, you know what each other is looking for, you’ve built that foundation and belief on the teammates [and] the engineers, you can split those hairs and get it right.”
The Formula One drivers, team members, and fans have one quality that sets them above all other racing participants: the need for speed. Formula One fields the fastest circuit racing cars in the world, screaming down the track at top speeds as high as 225 miles per hour. Unlike in other racing sports, Formula One teams are required to build their own chassis. Although teams procure specialized engines from specific manufacturers, they are primarily responsible for building their cars from the ground up.
Each formula has its own set of rules that eligible cars must meet (Formula One being the fastest of these designations). The McLaren team, one of the most successful in Formula One, and engineering director Paddy Lowe understand the importance of teamwork. Speaking on the challenge of incorporating a new component into an existing car, he noted, “You have to factor in the skill of the team to work together in a very short period of time to push in a completely different direction; to understand all the different issues. The reliability, the performance, the skills of the team, all the tools they’ve created over the years—they all came through to our profit. Everybody moves seamlessly. They know what they’ve got to do.”
Former BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen put it simply: “Teamwork is the key to success,” he said. “Of course the basis is formed by a competitive technical package, but without a well-integrated, highly motivated team, even the best car will not achieve prolonged success.”
Whereas NASCAR and Formula One racers speed around a paved track, rally car racing frequently heads off the circuit and into territory that would make most any NASCAR driver step on the brakes: Finnish rallies feature long, treacherous stretches of ice and snow. The famed French Méditerranée-le Cap ran 10,000 miles from the Mediterranean to South Africa. The reputed Baja 1000 Rally ran the length of the Baja California peninsula, largely over deserts without a road in sight.
In rally car racing, drivers race against the clock instead of each other. Races generally consist of several stages that the driver must compete as quickly as possible, and the winning driver completes all stages in the least amount of time.
You could argue that of all racing sports, rally drivers are the most reliant on teamwork to win. Unlike other forms of circuit racing, the driver is not only not racing on a fixed track, but also does not get to see the course before the race begins. Instead, drivers are wholly reliant on a teammate, the navigator, for information on upcoming terrain. Part coach and part copilot, the navigator relies on page notes (detailed information on the sharpness of turns and the steepness of gradients) to keep the driver on course from the passenger seat.
Turkish driver Burcu Çetinkaya had already made a name for herself as a successful snowboarder before deciding to take up rally car racing at the age of twenty-four. She says: “The thing that hooked me about rally driving was working together with a team for a com- mon goal with nature working against you,” she said. “I love cars, first of all—I grew up with them and I love every part of them. And I love competition. I have been competing all my life. In a rally, these things come together: nature, competition, teamwork and cars.”
One Isn’t Enough
Even though they receive the lion’s share of the notoriety and adulation, racing drivers are only one member of a larger team, wherein every team member’s performance contributes to the team’s success. The best drivers don’t let the fame go to their heads. As Jeff Gordon—who knows a thing or two about success—put it, “The only way I can do my job correctly is to be totally clear in my mind and have 100% confidence in every person’s job that went into this team so that they can have 100% confidence in what I’m doing as a driver.”
Case Analysis Questions
1. What formal and informal groups would you expect to find in a complete racing team? What roles could each play in helping the driver toward a winning season?
2. Racing teams and their leaders make lots of decisions—from the pressures of race day to the routines of everyday team management. When and in what situations are these decisions made by authority rule, minority rule, majority rule, consensus, or unanimity? How do these decision-making approaches fit certain times and situations but not others? Defend your answer.
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