I was fired from my position as race engineer by the Hylton Motorsports Toyota Atlantic team in 2000. I was miserable at the time, contemplating how I might transition out of 14 years spent working in racing on the team side to something else, and it reflected in my attitude and effort.
With all the money an engineer could ask for from a team owner like Keith Hylton to make his cars competitive, I was pleased to earn an early podium or two with a rookie driver from Brazil. But getting to Victory Lane—Hylton’s minimum expectation—wasn’t on the horizon.
I knew we were headed in separate directions after I delivered another average finish at the Milwaukee Mile. Upon returning home from Wisconsin, I got the call asking to return my team-issued laptop.
Honestly, it was a mercy killing. I was genuinely thankful it was over.
That little flashback hit Wednesday afternoon when I’d heard the world’s most influential race engineer, Leena Gade of the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports IndyCar team, .
Gade, whose wins with the Audi Sport Le Mans team thrust her into the international spotlight, has been an invaluable asset to the sport, opening the technical side of motor racing to girls and women who might not have pursued a similar path without Leena serving as a beacon.
But despite her immense past accomplishments, the Briton had been struggling in key areas of the job with SPM. As a specialist in road racing, her expertise transferred immediately to IndyCar’s road and street circuits where Hinchcliffe has shined. On the decidedly American discipline of oval racing, however, Gade’s grasp of the art of turning left was not making the kind of progress anticipated by her team.
Having watched this driver-engineer combo intently on the one-mile Phoenix oval during the recent Indy Open Test, and again last week during practice and qualifying, a visible disconnect—complete with hand gestures thrown in to convey the sense of frustration—was witnessed.
Well before Hinchcliffe rolled into the qualifying line on Bump Day, it was clear that something was amiss in the relationship on ovals—more than something that additional time and experience would solve.
It’s entirely possible that in a different team with a more relaxed timeline for oval success, Gade would have developed into the type of all-round race engineer SPM needs. As the one IndyCar team that made more offseason personnel changes than any other, the heavy push to turn its midfield program into a front-running winner has been unrelenting.
In hiring Gade, SPM accepted the risks of asking an elite sports car engineer to master ovals in a minimal amount of time, and based on her reputation, it wasn’t an overoptimistic ask on the team’s part. Equally, given Gade’s fierce intelligence and innate competitiveness, it’s more than likely that she was surprised to find the ovals were such a daunting problem to overcome.
From the outside, SPM could come across as being shortsighted for firing Gade after engineering Hinchcliffe to five straight top 10 finishes prior to Indy, including a podium at Barber Motorsports Park. The charming Canadian holds fifth in points ahead of the double points Indy 500, which is highly impressive considering Gade’s steep overall learning curve in IndyCar.
But there’s no escaping the importance of ovals for IndyCar teams and their sponsors. Barring the delivery of a championship, winning the Indy 500 is all that matters. And with six ovals on the 17-race schedule, suffering on ovals will prevent championships from being secured.
With the lofty goals carried by SPM to win every race, including the Indy 500 and the IndyCar title at the end of the year, waiting on Gade—or any talented engineer without oval experience—to facilitate that dream was always going to come with limitations.
Back in 2001, Hylton, who hired a close friend of mine to engineer his cars, went on to win the Atlantic championship with the same driver and crew. In my case, I was the problem. The proof was in the modest results I achieved in a team that, with a different engineer on board, made them into champions. I’d argue I had the skill to do the same, but my heart wasn’t in the game and Hylton didn’t want to waste time or money on someone who wasn’t prepared to turn his investments into victory.
Nearly 20 years later, I still look back with no ill feelings and remain convinced it was a tough but smart call that needed to be made at my expense.
In Gade’s case, she’s already a proven champion in sports cars. But she’s not ready, at this stage, to make a champion out of an IndyCar driver.