So you want to be a race engineer?
What it takes to be an IndyCar race engineer and what the job entailsGerry Malloy
Published: July 19, 2017, 12:55 PM
Updated: July 25, 2017, 5:09 AM
For those of us enamored with auto racing, the dream of becoming a race engineer in the top echelons of the sport/business are probably second only to those of being a driver. It’s an attainable goal for those with the talent, drive and determination.
To find out what it takes to be race engineer in IndyCar competition – the top level of auto racing in North America – and just what the job entails, we talked with Todd Malloy, a 20-year veteran on the circuit. (Full disclosure: that last name is not a coincidence. Todd, I’m proud to say, is my son.)
He’s well qualified to explain the role, with a series championship, an Indy 500 victory and more other wins than he can remember for cars he’s engineered. And the list of drivers for those cars is like a who’s who of IndyCar racing.
It includes such notables as Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Justin Wilson, Dan Wheldon, Alex Tagliani and Tony Kanaan, among others.
Currently, he’s working with Chip Ganassi Racing as race engineer for the #83 Novo Nordisk Dallara-Honda driven by Charlie Kimball – pole position qualifier at the recent Texas 600.
Just what does a race engineer do? Far more than most race fans probably realize. And it extends far beyond what goes on in the pit box on a race weekend.
Of course, he/she is there, monitoring data from the car and communicating with the driver, deciding on changes to make during practice, qualifying and the race, and consulting on if not deciding on race strategy.
Those pronouns are not just political correctness, by the way. While I’ll use “he” as a generality in the balance of this text, there are several women in engineering roles in IndyCar, including Todd’s current assistant.
What takes place at the track is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the engineer’s job, Todd explains. Much of the preparation takes place well in advance, including a lot of prior testing in laboratories, simulators and at other tracks.
And analyzing data – incredible amounts of data! It typically takes a couple days before a race reviewing all the relevant information for that track, Todd says. Hundreds of channels of data are streamed via telemetry from sensors on the car in real time, whenever it’s on the track, both in testing and on race weekends, and saved for subsequent analysis.
They include everything from the simple brake-pedal and throttle-position information we sometimes see on TV coverage to the actual loads in every suspension component, individual tire pressures and brake temperatures, and laser-generated ride-height measurements.
Of course, both data and experience from past races at the same track play a part, so things like gearing for the six-speed transmission and approximate suspension and aerodynamic configurations can be set in advance.
What the race engineer’s job does not involve is anything related to the engine. There are two engine suppliers for IndyCar – Chevrolet and Honda – and the engines are treated essentially like black boxes, never to be opened outside their manufacturers’ own facilities.
Ideally, the car will roll off the transporter with a setup that’s closely suited to the specific track, but that is usually just the starting point. While all cars in the series are based on the same Dallara tub and chassis, there are thousands of setup computations and permutations possible within that context.
As Todd explains, it’s a tightrope balancing act to find the right tradeoffs among mechanical grip and aerodynamic downforce, which aid in cornering and acceleration off corners, and low drag, for maximum speed on the straights.
But even finding that combination is not enough, for the extreme effects of aerodynamics on these cars mean that what works best in clean air probably will respond very differently in traffic.
The aero packages for speedways are different from those used on road and street courses and short ovals and Chevy-powered cars have different aero packages from those with Honda engines. This year, it seems, the Hondas have an overall edge on speedways with the balance shifting in Chevy’s favour on other tracks.
Then there are changes in the track itself to consider as it ‘rubbers in’ over three days of running – or perhaps gets rained on, which changes everything again. Even a change of a couple degrees in temperature, or from sun to cloud cover, can dramatically upset the delicate balance of these exotic machines.
Just how delicate can be illustrated by the magnitude of some adjustments. Ride height, a key factor in the aero performance of the car, is adjusted in increments as small as one-third of a millimetre – about the thickness of four human hairs. “And the driver can feel that change,” Todd says.
Which brings us to the driver. The engineer’s job isn’t just to make the car go as fast as possible. It’s to make it so the driver can drive it as fast as possible.
“It doesn’t matter how fast it goes on the computer,” Todd says. “It has to go fast on the track, and what works for one driver doesn’t necessarily work for another.”
That’s why, even though data sharing among cars on the same team is the norm, the actual setups tend to be specific for each car.
The engineer’s job is to adapt the car to the driver so it entails a high-degree of two-way communication between the two. It’s a relationship that requires total trust.
Asked for advice for anyone wishing to become a race engineer, Todd’s response is succinct. “Get some race experience!” An engineering degree along with a good amount of computer literacy is the obvious starting point, he explains, but that alone is not enough.
He began by wrenching on his own toys, then spent much of his time at University of Waterloo designing, building and racing the school team’s Formula SAE car, before graduating to a one-year stint in Indy Lights on his way to the big league.
“However you get it,” he said, “race experience is the key to opening the right doors.”