Read below and answer the following question:
What types of formal and informal groups would you expect to find in a racing team? What roles could each play in helping the team toward a winning season?
Teams Drive the Fast Cars
When you think of auto racing, do you think of teamwork? Watch any televised race, and the better majority of the camera time is dedicated to the drivers and their cars. But in each of the three major forms of auto racing, the driver is simply one member of a larger team that works together to achieve maximum performance. And when the driver wins, the team wins as well.
In the world of competitive auto racing, the drivers are the sport’s rock stars. They’re courted by sponsors, adored by fans, and portrayed as the subject of interview upon interview by the racing press. It goes without saying that drivers are absolutely essential to earning a trophy, but 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.
Furthermore, while the driver is the most visible member of the team and certainly the one responsible for guiding the car, he’s not always calling the shots. The most successful teams rely on multiple sets of eyes to assess track conditions and identify opportunities to advance that drivers themselves can’t see from the cockpit.
Ray Evernham, crew chief and team manager for Hendrick Motorsports’s 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.”1 Although three of the major forms of professional auto racing—NASCAR, Formula One, and rally car racing—each utilizes different vehicles, rules, and team structures, teamwork is the common denominator among them.
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.2 NASCAR has come a long way since its origins in the late 1940s in racing stock cars purchased directly from auto dealerships. Today’s NASCAR vehicles are custom fabricated from the ground up, although their thin metal bodies are molded in the shape of popular American sedans to reflect the sport’s heritage. While most fans would be quick to point out the driver, manager, and pit crew as racing team members, shop mechanics, parts fabricators, and even aerodynamics experts are just as essential to a team’s performance.
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. Pit crew members practice routine maintenance tasks like tire changes and refueling until they can execute them with lightning speed and the utmost precision. 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. Pit stops that would take mechanics twenty minutes or more to complete happen in less than twenty seconds.
Two-time 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 get inside each other’s heads, as the car is developed, you’re looking to split hairs,” Johnson said. “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.”3
Formula One drivers, team members, and fans have one quality that sets them apart from other racing participants: the need for speed. Formula One vehicles are the fastest circuit racing cars in the world, screaming down the track at top speeds as high as 225 miles per hour.
But there’s another buzzword that equally defines Formula One racing: performance. Because of the high speeds racers achieve and the intense G-forces drivers and cars are subjected to, ensuring that Formula One cars perform efficiently and successfully throughout a race is literally a life-and-death matter.
The term formula refers to a strict set of regulations teams must abide by when building their cars in order to keep the races competitive. Unlike in other racing sports, Formula One teams have been required to build their own chassis since 1981, so 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 highest and fastest of these designations), the idea being that these limitations will produce cars that are roughly equivalent in performance. Of course, that won’t always be the case, as teams work furiously to seek out every last bit of efficiency and performance while adhering to sport guidelines. 4 Team members often lean heavily on aerodynamics, racing suspensions, and tires to achieve maximum performance.
The McLaren team is one of the most successful Formula One teams, and engineering director Paddy Lowe understands the behind-the-scenes dynamics that help great racing teams succeed. Speaking on the challenge of incorporating a new component into an existing car, he noted, “There weren’t actually that many issues, but we kept experiencing a variety of failures with our new exhaust system. We’d come into the circuit each morning thinking we’d fixed the problems of the previous day, only to be met with a fresh series of trials the next day. Those days were very difficult for the team.
“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. In those instances, there’s not a big discussion about who’s going to do what; there are very few instructions. Everybody moves seamlessly. They know what they’ve got to do.” 5
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.” 6
Rally Car Racing
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 Dale Earnhardt 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.7
You could argue that of all racing sports, rally drivers are the most reliant on teamwork to win. Unlike other forms of circuit racing, not only is the driver not racing on a fixed track, but he does not get to see the course before the race begins. Instead, he is wholly reliant on a teammate, the navigator, for information on upcoming terrain. Part coach and part co-pilot, 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 his place in the car’s passenger seat.8
Turkish driver Burcu Çetinkaya had already made a name for herself as a successful snowboarder before she decided to take up rally car racing at the age of twenty-four. “I grew up with cars,” she said. “After visiting my first rally when I was twelve, I made up my mind to be a rally driver.”9
“The thing that hooked me about rally driving was working together with a team for a common 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.”10
You Can’t Have One Without the Other
Though they may 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 percent confidence in every person’s job that went into this team so that they can have 100 percent confidence in what I’m doing as a driver.”11