Helio Castroneves is going for his fourth Indy 500 victory this year, but Rick Rinaman, the man who was crew chief for all three of Helio's wins, already has four to his name, having also won as crew chief for Emerson Fittipaldi in 1993. (LEFT: Castroneves celebrates with Roger Penske, Tim Cindric, Rinaman and Ron Ruzewski).
Rinaman discussed his Indy highs and lows of the past 20 years with RACER editor David Malsher.
Q: You took on a race shop role last year after so many years on the road, but now you're back on it. What are your duties these days?
RR: At the shop, I oversee all the projects at Team Penske: there are about 10 different programs going on right now, and I'm caught up in the middle of all of them. But at the track, I now oversee all three pit crews and Roger has asked me to be the spotter for Ryan Briscoe. I've been on the road for over 30 years, but I can't understand how you can be in racing and not be on it. You hear some of the younger guys say, “I want to get a shop-based job,” or “I don't want to travel,” but I think if you're racing, you need to be at the track.
Q: Right. And although you've won four Indy 500s as a crew chief, there's a bit more to it than that, right?
RR: Yeah, I've been here at Penske for 28 years, and for 12 of their 15 Indy 500 wins. Out of those 12, I've been on the crew of the winning car for eight of them – four as a mechanic and then four as a crew chief.
Q: So basically you need to be put onto the car of whichever car needs to win the most?
RR: Ha! Well, Roger's got me spotting for Ryan Briscoe this year, so we'll soon see if that works!
Q: Let's draw a comparison between setting up the 1993 Penske PC22 and, say, the 2001 Dallara-Oldsmobile.
RR: I think if you had the people and the engineering to do it, I think it was easier in '93 because the rulebook allowed you to do so many things, whereas by 2009, everyone had the same car. There are so many things that you can't do, so it's a tough engineering job to get that last bit better than the next guys who have the same equipment. In 1993, if you had the human and equipment resources, there was so much you could do with your car, and it ended up being whoever was the smarter engineer. With everyone using the same equipment, you really need to be on top of your game with the details.
Q: Emerson Fittipaldi told us that although the 1993 Penske PC22 was tricky to set up, and he had only qualified ninth, he went into the 500 confident that he and the team hadn't yet shown their competitiveness. Do you recall that feeling?
RR: Absolutely, and I've got to say, working with Emerson was like working with a scientist. I remember that year we went through so many tires – there wasn't a limit. We'd do two flying laps, and then he'd come in and say, “OK, take these off. This is going to be my second set during the race.” And I still remember the session at the end of the week, where, again after just two laps, he pulled in and said, “Ah! These are the best tires. These are the ones to use as my final set in the race.” He had the whole race planned out – what tires were going to take away understeer, what tire set to use if the car was loose. He had it all set out to cover all circumstances. I thought it was just amazing.
Q: And you were fine with letting him call those shots – I assume because ultimately it's his butt on the line?
RR: Yeah, and because you've got that trust with your driver. Emerson knows what he's talking about. He'd already won this race once, he was a Formula 1 World Champion, and so when he spoke, a lot of people listened. If his confidence wasn't showing up on the clock, then you question it – “You're saying it feels good but the stopwatch says you're half a second off,” or something like that. But I'm not sure we ever had to do that with Emerson at Indy. He just approached that race so methodically and perceptively.
Q: Did you have confidence that he could beat the Newman/Haas car of Nigel Mansell and Arie Luyendyk's car Mario Andretti in the next-to-last restart?
RR: I remember it as if it just happened. On that last yellow flag lap before the [lap 186] restart, he came on the radio and said, “It's time to go racing.” And when that green flag dropped, he was gone! As they came out of Turn 4, Mansell was probably 15-20 cars ahead of our car and you got an idea of his speed, and all of a sudden here came this red and white car absolutely flying through and you just knew he was going to go into Turn 1 as the leader. On the pit wall, we all looked at each other thinking, “What the heck just happened?!” But hey, he warned us it was time to go racing…
Q: It's probably a painful memory, but were you a crew chief on Emerson's car in 1994, too, when he crashed in the closing stages?
RR: Yeah – and it was very painful! I knew what Emerson was doing: he had dominated the race and was trying to lap the whole field, and Al Unser Jr. had unlapped himself the lap before. I think Emerson was just trying to get it back. I close my eyes and I can still see that rear wing flying off the car coming out of Turn 4. Ugh! Everyone thought the rear wing broke or something broke, but when he got out of the car, Emerson told us he just got down on the apron too far and around it went.
Q: Was it just an ego thing, or did he want the security of having the field a lap down in case there was a late yellow?
RR: I think it was the security, because we knew we were going to have to pit again and he was concerned that if the yellow came out then Unser would get the whole lap back and possibly challenge him for the win. So Emerson was just trying to close the door on that eventuality.
Q: Speaking of Unsers, they are among many drivers – I'm also thinking particularly of Dan Wheldon and maybe Helio Castroneves too – who regard the Indy 500 as something all on its own, something more important than the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. How is it within Team Penske, and for you in particular?
RR: Well, I can tell you that if there wasn't an Indy 500, you may not see Roger in IndyCar racing. The 500 is first, and it has been all 28 years that I've been here. Everything is built around it. When we go into the winter, we're preparing for Indy, not for St. Pete, not for Sao Paulo, or wherever the first race is. Indy is the mother of all races: we know it, and Roger lets us know it. Championships, they'll come and go; but Indy is forever, and it's what Roger lives for.
Q: So after 1995, when Team Penske suffered one of the most infamous no-shows in Brickyard history, how aggravating was it that the split in open-wheel racing meant that you weren't able to go back and make up for it for another six years?
RR: Oh, that was awful like you wouldn't believe. Just to go back to the 1995 situation for a moment: When everything is going well, you think that everyone's working hard, but it's when it doesn't go well that you see another level. We were just thrashing! We were even borrowing cars from other teams, to get in the show. And you know, the real unfortunate thing is, Emerson would have been in the field, but we'd been averaging 223mph at a time when the pole was 225, I think, and on his fourth lap, we waved off that attempt. Of course, the following week, when everybody was in, we could see that speed would have put us about 13th in the field! That was….disappointing!
But you know the hardest thing about that year? After we got in on Bump Day, we of course got towed around to tech, and while we were in the garage, the last car went on track with about a minute to go and he [Stefan Johansson] bumped us out of the 500. So we're in there and I hear all this cheering, and I looked out and saw all the yellow-shirts and all these officials from USAC who came out of their rooms and were all cheering that we didn't make the field. That kinda hurt. I remember thinking, “Man, we've not been working any less hard than anybody else here, I can guarantee you,” and I felt that reaction was….Well, that was my low point in racing, I can tell you that.