Forget the yard of bricks, the winner's bottle of milk, the Purdue University marching band, and Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again In Indiana." When the gentlemen and ladies start their engines for the Indianapolis 500, what matters are the drivers, the cars, the pit crews and the tools they use. Plenty is written about the drivers and cars, and the crews get to shine during the pit stop competition, but no one pays attention to the tools. Until, well, here.
Ricardo Nault has spent 20 years with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and now, at 50, serves as team manager and chief mechanic. He knows his IndyCar tools and how vital they are to being competitive in the 500. What goes over the wall to service the team's two cars for drivers Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia has to work. Every time.
If everything goes right at the 500, Nault's team will have only two jobs during each pit stop: change the tires and fill each car's 18-gallon tank full of fuel. Anything else the crew might do is dealing with a problem.
Only six crewmembers are allowed over the wall during a pit stop during the 500: one for each wheel, one to operate the onboard jacking system, and one to fuel the car. There are 10 more crewmembers who stay on the infield side of the wall to support them. If everything goes right, they should be able to change all four tires and fuel the car in about seven seconds.
Wrenches, Sockets and Nuts
"We use a specially made Paoli wheel gun," Nault says of the pneumatic impact wrench used to remove and secure each wheel. "And then we buy these sockets from Metalore." Each gun is about $4500 and each socket about $1500.
In Nascar, there are five nuts holding each wheel to its hub. In IndyCar there's just one per wheel, a large nut specially built by Dallara, the Italian company that produces the "DW12" car all teams use. "The nuts have vanes inside them, it's not like a regular hex nut," Nault says. "The sockets have teeth in them that are shoved into these vanes."
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When the car comes into the pit, the tire changers carry their fresh tires and guns to their corner. The gun and its socket mesh with the nut on the car, and once it has spun off, the nut is held onto the socket with magnets. The old tire is taken off and the new one is put on. The guns direction is reversed, the same nut is put back on, and the car speeds off. Because the hub and nut are both beveled, they guide themselves into place. "You don't have to line anything up," Nault asserts. "Just slam them on. You should be able to change a tire in about four seconds."
"The changers carry extra nuts on their belt," Nault says. "If something goes wrong, they have it with them." Even though each nut costs about $400, the chargers aren't going to go chase one across a busy pit lane.
Jacks And Nitrogen
IndyCars have onboard jacking systems operated from a single conical fitting at the rear of the car. To raise the car, a pneumatic hose attaches to that fitting and the car is raised in air. If for some reason the onboard jacks should fail, then the crew will use "quick-lift" jacks – basically long-handled lever jacks that raise the car using the weight of a crew member.
While both the onboard jacking system and the impact wrenches are pneumatic, there's no air compressor kept in the pits. Instead, all the tools are powered by compressed nitrogen kept in storage bottles. "Usually you use three bottles for the guns and the jacks over a weekend," Nault says.
"We have a manifold that distributes the nitrogen with a regulator for each gun," he says, adding that the same nitrogen supply feeds the jacks and can be used to add air pressure to the tires (all of which are nitrogen filled). "The manifold is team built. It's a quarter-inch wall stainless steel tube about four-inches in diameter. From there we welded on stainless steel fittings to which the regulators are attached. Of course you need high-pressure lines to feed from the bottles to the manifold itself. You have to have someone who knows how to weld building these things because there's 2000-pounds of pressure in them. The guns run about 350 PSI and the air jacks run about 450 PSI. It's robust for sure."
IndyCar rules require that the fuel being fed into a car come from an overhead, gravity powered rig. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway those rigs are owned by the speedway itself and are, because of improved fuel economy of the cars and their now smaller 18-gallon tanks, oversized for the job. At other races the teams use their own tanks.
"You don't really spill any more with the system we have," Nault says. "There's a single probe in the car and the thing fuels and vents out of that same probe. Once it gets full, the vent tube gets full of fuel. And then we go back and suck all the fuel out of the vent tube and that fuel gets shoved back into the pit lane fuel tank."
So catch cans and separate vent hose are now ancient history. "We have the exact same tanks that we used when I started here," Nault says. "They've been here forever."
Safety First and Last
With crewmembers now wearing essentially the same fireproof suits as the drivers and open face helmets, the days of white jeans and short sleeves are long gone from the Speedway.
But that doesn't mean everything has changed.
"There's a fire suppression system on the car, but that hardly ever gets pulled. One guy during the fuel stop will stand there with the fire bottle pointed at the car," Nault points out. "We basically have four fire extinguishers in our pits and a bunch of buckets of water. If there is a fire, water is coming out of the sky. Guy are just throwing buckets of water. Not just our team but the other teams around us."
Because sometimes the best tool for the job is a bucket.