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Art of the Driver Change: Poetry (or Comedy) in Motion

It’s a Crucial Part of Success in IMSA Racing … if Performed Correctly

 

By Holly Cain

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The fine art of the driver change is among the most fundamental and regimented parts of a sports car driver’s detailed job description. It needs to be second nature. Seamless.

 

The well-choreographed pilot switch is regularly practiced both in the garage and in the pits – all preparation for that high-speed, everything’s-on-the-line kind of “one-take” ballet that happens in the race.

 

A quick exchange in the cockpit could be the difference in leaving pit road an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race winner or squandering a hard-earned lead.

 

Every driver, it seems, has “a story” – a tried-and-true technique or just as likely a tale of one miscue that, in retrospect, either still haunts them or still makes them laugh a little. Even if the circumstances were not so funny at the time.

 

There are stories of a driver who had been in the car for a triple stint, still caught in the “moment” and walking in the wrong direction after a quick driver change. Tales of the car dropping onto a driver’s foot (more common than you would think) or broken seats in the cockpit with no time to re-adjust or replace.

 

If you can think of it, it’s probably happened at some time – and the ability to overcome the unexpected in sports car’s unique in-race driver shuffle is a highly- valuable commodity.

A Real Pain in the Foot

 

Paul Miller Racing driver Bryan Sellers can laugh about one such “incident” now. Now that his foot has healed. He had a car drop off the air jack and onto his foot while he was standing on pit road helping his teammate complete a driver change. With a stint still to drive later in the race.

 

“I wasn’t paying enough attention and had my feet under the car and they dropped the car and it landed on top of my foot,’’ Sellars explained. “I thought it shattered my foot when it landed because the car slams pretty aggressively.

 

“You do it so long, you stop paying attention and then things like that happen.

 

“It hurt for quite a long time, a couple weeks,’’ he recalled. “I didn’t end up going to the doctor because I don’t think they could have done anything about it anyway. But it hurt, and I still had to get back in (the car) again to meet my drive time at the end of that race.’’

 

A similar thing happened to BMW M Team RLL driver Connor De Phillippi on pit road – and like Sellers, he is pretty certain it won’t ever happen again. But having a car land on his foot during a stop is not even the most outrageous driver change he’s experienced.

 

“My first year with BMW, we were up at Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) and I was getting in, and I went to leap off the pit wall and I tripped over something that was on the wall and I just basically tumbled into our pit box,’’ De Phillippi said, managing to laugh about it now.

 

“Luckily, I didn’t end up going onto pit lane. I actually did it pretty eloquently and I popped up pretty quick. We still did a 15-second driver change. I know the team has the GoPro video of it. I remember watching it afterwards and we were all laughing pretty hard at it because it ended up being one of our quicker driver changes of the season … and I did a somersault off pit wall.”

 

 

Choreography on Display in Pit Lane

 

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Those scenarios are, of course, the rare occasions. For the most part, a driver change is finely devised – choreographed and rehearsed. There are even team members designated as “driver change helpers” who run out on a pit stop to assist the drivers. They help pull out the driver who just finished a stint – or place equipment such as a seat insert – inside the cockpit. Often, they are simply helping belt a new driver in.

 

“It definitely is an art because everyone has their own way of doing it, everyone has their own sequence of doing the belts, everyone has what they are comfortable with,’’ De Phillippi said. “Some drivers really want you to do as many belts as you possibly can for them, to help them.

 

“So at the end of the day if someone really needs help, you can’t be like, ‘Sorry, dude, you have to do that on your own,’ because obviously, you’re all going for performance and you want to be able to help them as much as you can.

 

“It’s really about practice and repetition and understanding what each of your teammates needs.”

 

The driver change “helper” is a luxury, but another potential cog in a split-second process. Some drivers prefer them, others not so much.

 

“The first team I drove for had a drivers change ‘helper,’” said John Edwards of BMW M Team RLL. “So you had to run over the top of wall and jump in (the car), but the helper did most of the work on the belts.

 

“It’s definitely something to figure out. I think for me, the big thing was, we did a lot of changes and had a lot of practice.”

 

A more impactful chapter in driver changes for Edwards came co-driving with former IndyCar champion Alex Zanardi. The popular Italian driver lost his legs in a racing accident in 2001 but went on to compete in sports cars and sedans with specially made hand controls for steering and throttle control.

 

He and Edwards were teammates in the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

 

“It was a remarkable experience for me,’’ Edwards said. “There’s a lot that has been said about Alex – about how impressive he is – but when you watch him move and the way he figures things out on his own to adapt to a situation, he is really incredible.

 

“Obviously, we all have a standard of how we do driver changes and there’s a few things that vary according to what car you’re driving. Do you help put belts on? Or just do the window net and then go under to help with the belt? Things like that.

 

“But when you have a guy (Zanardi) that has to pull himself up into the car, has a seat insert and has to do a steering wheel change, then it suddenly introduces a ton of new variables that none of us was familiar with. So that was pretty interesting trying to figure all that stuff out over the course of the Roar (Before the Rolex 24 testing) and the 24-hour (race) weekend.”

 

Getting Routine Down Pat is Crucial for Success

 

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Even for longtime teammates, getting that driver change correct takes time. It is absolutely crucial in determining your chances to win.

 

“I remember my first ones. You really want to take it slow at first and just get the processes down because you’d be surprised when you try to do it slow, you really don’t lose that much time,’’ De Phillippi said. “You lose more time trying to do it too quickly.

 

“Really, it’s about learning the motions, going through it and understanding what your first thoughts need to be. Once you get the gist of that, it’s just routine and practice.”

 

And it could be the legitimate difference in a race.

 

“In all the street races, that definitely makes a difference and often in the endurance races also,’’ Sellers said of perfecting the driver change.

 

“There’s been times when fuel and tires have been quick but you have to get the driver change done. So being able to do it fast opens your window a little bit. Sometimes you may only take two tires and fuel and you normally wouldn’t have enough time to (change drivers), but if you can do the driver change quickly, you can.

 

“On the street races, everything has to happen fast. You have to be able to do the whole thing in roughly 28-30 seconds, so there can’t be any slip-ups or otherwise.

 

“Not to sound too dramatic but it is inexcusable if there are. Our fuelers and tire changers work so hard to be as quick as they can that they can’t wait on us.”

 

Edwards said he’s even seen concrete evidence of what the mental and physical effects of a driver change can do during an endurance race. It really illustrates the importance of getting the driver change correct.

 

“The interesting thing is in a long stint at Daytona – a two- or three-hour stint in the middle of the night – you get to the point where it’s repetitive and your heart rate is stable and you’re just banking on a lot of laps,’’ Edwards explained. “And then suddenly you stop and do the driver change and I’ve looked at data where my heart rate actually spikes at the end of my stint right when I’m getting out of the car because it’s just a different thing you’re doing and suddenly your mind is focused on something completely different.

 

“Even though you do a lot of practice, in a way you’re almost not ready for it at the end of your stint. It’s kind of interesting that additional step, aside from just driving the car, can really change how your mind and body reacts.

 

“As drivers we’re used to taking the risks on track, but running around the car and being exposed to other cars on pit lane, flying tires around you and even the chance of our own car being dropped on us – it kind of feels like the sketchier part of our stint, because it’s something we’re just not used to.’’

 

“But it’s really such an important part of what we do.’’

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