Driver-Engineer Relationship Key to Race-Track Success

8/23/2004 8:12:27 PM

Tony Kanaan and Eric Cowdin have been together for most of the past eight years while Buddy Rice and Todd Bowland are only in their eighth month as a team. Adrian Fernandez and John Ward are like an old married couple that occasionally go separate ways, yet always seem to end up back under the same roof.

The working relationship between driver and engineer is easily the most critical to the success of any IndyCar team, but there's no set formula for how long it takes to establish the needed chemistry.

"It takes time to get on the same wave length and to learn each other's style but I think Todd and I have developed a nice chemistry in a short time," said Rice, who had never worked with Bowland until last January and then was in Victory Lane at Indianapolis four months later.

"Our personalities are similar. He's very laid back, and we joke around a little bit and work well together. Especially considering we had never met until last winter."

While Rice and Bowland are still a work in progress, Kanaan and Cowdin are practically brothers.

"When I came to the United States in 1996 I spoke zero English and could only say four things: 'I'm hungry.' 'Where's the bathroom?' 'Oversteer' and 'Understeer,'" laughed Kanaan. "But I began rooming with Eric that year in Miami and I learned English from him, plus plenty about race cars.

"I won my first Indy Lights race with him and we won the Indy Lights championship together. When Morris [Nunn] started his team in CART, he signed Eric and me. Now we're together again in the IRL. I'm godfather to his daughter and we've just had a great partnership."

Cowdin chuckles at the memory of his old roommate's early days.

"Like he said, he only knew four words that Rubens [Barrichello] told him and he studied them on the airplane. He and Helio [Castroneves] lived on my couch and on the $20 a day they got in per diem from Indy Lights.

"Obviously, he's come a long way since then." Fernandez, who at 41 is the IRL's oldest driver, spent three years with Ward (1998-2000) at Patrick Racing in Champ Car before re-uniting with him in 2003.

"We've won a lot of races together and have a great friendship," said the personable veteran from Mexico City, who started his own CART team in 2001 before moving to the IRL this season. "My only regret is not working with him in the first year of Fernandez Racing.

"But we still had that friendship and he came back to our team last year and that was very nice."

Like Rice, Dario Franchitti is in his first year with his engineer but Allen McDonald and the Scotsman are proving quick learners, as evidenced by their triumph at Milwaukee in July.

"It's a learning curve for both of us because this (IRL) is all new," said Franchitti, whose back injury knocked him out of all but three races in 2003. "When I was in Champ Car I knew exactly what I wanted in my car but we're learning all the time about this car.

"But we're getting there and next year we'll get better and better."

Even so, nothing can replace lap after lap of experience. "In the early days I would make a change and if it was faster, it was faster because Tony drives at the limit every time he leaves the pits," said Cowdin. "It was more trial-and-error back then.

"But today, the big thing for me is eye contact. When I step over the pit wall, all I can see are his eyes and that tells it all. I know what he's going to say before he says it.

"It takes time for you to understand each other. It's not only what he wants, it's how you give it to him and what is the magnitude of change? Tony understands what things do and what his butt tells his brain and I interpret what he tells me."

Kanaan is leading the point standings at mid-season and credits Cowdin with much of his success. "Eric knows what I like and what I don't like in a race car. Is he the best engineer in the paddock? I don't know, but I do know he's the best engineer for me."

Fernandez feels the same way about Ward. "We know each other so well and we both get nervous before qualifying," he said. "John doesn't believe in making radical changes and he's always very professional. His strength is his general knowledge and he's also very good at motivating our team."

Ward, who has also designed winning cars during his 35 years of service, enjoys the "old shoe" feeling of his relationship.

"Adrian and I have developed a good chemistry over the years and that makes things so much easier. We don't spend much time arguing."

Franchitti believes McDonald shares a similar strength.

"Allen is easy to work with; not a lot of dramas. But I think the key is that we're both very honest with each other when things aren't going well."

To which McDonald replies: "Dario is very pragmatic. He's a thinker and very professional in his approach."

Of course every now and then the engineer has a little fun with his driver's feedback.

"It's only happened once with Tony," relates a grinning Cowdin. "He came in and told me he'd gone full stiff on the rear bar and that had really helped. But the [darned] thing wasn't even hooked up."

On most oval tracks, the setup dictates the results. Drivers cannot handle Phoenix, Milwaukee, Richmond, Nazareth or Nashville without a savvy race engineer.

"You can't carry a car on an oval," declares Rice, whose four pole positions and three victories have him in the thick of the title chase. "It's either on or off and you can't make it happen. It's like a light switch.

"And your engineer controls that switch."