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.
Like you say, the following years we didn't come back and weren't able to prove that hey, that was a fluke. So it was great that when we did return in 2001, we went straight to Victory Lane. That was a little bit of redemption and a proud day for us. We'd gotten back to where we wanted to be and needed to be, and showed that's where we belonged.
Q: Considering you were racing Reynard-Honda turbos in CART full time in 2001, how much of a culture shock were the IRL IndyCars?
RR: There was a lot of work over the previous winter, and then remember we did the IRL Phoenix race. That was a good test for us; Helio's engine let go and Gil got hit from behind as he was coming into the pits and crashed, but it was a big learning race for the team. We discovered a lot of things that we could improve upon, and I believe it played a big part in us winning the race. I'd say we were better suited than most teams for dealing with a new chassis. You've got to remember, we used to get a new car every year back then and if our own Penske didn't work as well as we'd like, we'd use another manufacturer's chassis, so we were able to cope with a totally different car. And in terms of reliability, I think as a team, we made that happen; we made changes that we thought would make it safer for the driver, better for the durability of the car, and we still do that in the cars we have today, whether it's padding, or reinforcing an area.
Q: You had worked with Helio since he arrived, so how well did you two relate?
RR: He was almost like a son to me. After a while, I could tell you everything he was going to do, everything he was going to say, how he'd react, I could predict situations he'd get himself into – and predict if he'd get himself out of them! As I said, the first few races of the season, I've been listening to Briscoe as his spotter, and of course he speaks pretty good English, but for me he's different. It's not that he's hard to understand, but it's hard to interpret what he's saying. But 10 years with Helio, he didn't speak as good English as Ryan, obviously, but I knew what he meant. I knew what he wanted. He could be saying one thing, but I knew he meant something else! That's what happens with familiarity over the years. I knew when he was happy, when he was mad, when he needed something, when the car was just right. It was a pretty good open dialogue that we had.
Q: There's a lot of controversy surrounding his 2002 Indy 500 victory, but were you pretty confident that Team Penske had that thing won, even before the court case?
RR: Yeah. We knew what we had, and right afterward people said we ran out of fuel and that wasn't the case. First thing we did was go through tech and drain the fuel out, and we had plenty left. It was a situation where Helio got caught up in the yellow. If there hadn't had been that yellow, there's no way Paul Tracy would pass him on the outside of Turns 3 or 4. We were pretty confident. It was an unfortunate situation, but it was a W for Team Penske.
Q: I hate to keep bring you back to another one that got away for you, but 2003 – you're part of a Penske 1-2, but how do you describe the feeling of being happy for your teammates but losing it by such a minuscule amount?
RR: Oh well, I remember that like it happened earlier today, too! I was happy for Gil, for sure, but I don't know if we – and I mean our half of the team – gave Helio enough information. He was in the lead, and it was tough to pass there that year, but I saw A.J. Foyt IV going into Turn 1 and he wasn't going very quick, and of course Helio's flying. He wasn't ready to suddenly encounter him, he had to lift, and of course Gil was in a position far enough behind him to see everything that was going on and, boom! He never lifted, went down low, and away he went. So yeah, we finished 1-2, and like I say, I was happy for Gil and his crew, but boy, it would have been special to get three in a row.
Q: That was an unusual year in that you went to grid with Helio in the Dallara, Gil in the G-Force. Were there significant differences in those cars' strengths and weaknesses, or was it just down to driver feel?
RR: Just driver feel; we left it very much up to them. Both performed well. If one had had a significant speed over the other, then Roger would have made the decision for them to take the faster one, obviously. But each driver was up to speed, so at that point it became a mental comfort zone, and they were allowed to choose whichever suited them better. And it paid off with a 1-2!
Q: So fast forward a little. It amazes me that engineers keep finding these tiny details that improve what effectively are now 8-year-old designs. If Helio got in his winner from 2003 and then his winner from '09, I assume there would be a night-and-day difference above and beyond the engines, obviously. Is that accurate?
RR: If he drove them in a back-to-back session, yes. But if he got in the older car and we worked on it for two or three days, and got that comfort level and the same feeling as he has in the newer car, he''d be just as fast. The thing is, Helio drives these things around Indy by the seat of his pants; some of the poles that he's had have been incredible.
In the first one, in 2003, he was over 231mph, even though the wind was blowing so hard you could barely stand up in pit lane! He just has a gift for this place. Some guys learn something about a certain track that none of their rivals know. I felt the same way about Al Unser Jr. at Long Beach, for example. I'm not sure if it was the lines he took to corners, or where he was braking, but he had that circuit mastered like no one else.
And I think you've got to remember that Helio has had some help from Rick Mears; it's not like Rick doesn't know this place! You can sit and listen to Rick explain to Helio what he needs to do here or there, or what he needs to do in this situation or that situation, and it's amazing the information that's shared between them. So you can understand why Helio takes Indy poles a lot; he's had a hell of a teacher.
Q: So…onto 2009 then. Obviously Helio had his problems with his court case. He came back at Long Beach, and that was all about the relief and exultation of him getting a chance to get back to doing his real job. Was he completely focused again come Indy?
RR: Well, you've got to remember he'd gotten cleared on something very serious that could have ended his career, so maybe the right word to choose would be “rejuvenated.” So, yes, I think it played a big role through that Month of May for him. Anybody might think, “Oh, look at Helio, he's all excited, he's jumping up and down, can't stop smiling,” but I can tell you it's not an act: he's like that all the time! He only has one direction: drive hard and be positive. He could have a bad car, and he'll still be on the radio cracking jokes because he's doing what he loves to do. When he did Dancing With the Stars, I remember judges telling him he sometimes needs to be serious, and I was like, “Yeah right! Helio's gonna get serious? I don't think so!” The phrase “happy-go-lucky” would sum him up.
Q: He didn't dominate that 2009 race. It looked like the Ganassi boys had an edge. Did Helio have something in hand?
RR: Well, no, we were not the fastest car on the track. Helio was comfortable with where he was at, but it was our pit crew that I was most proud of. Both Franchitti and Dixon had problems in the pits, and we were in a position to take advantage, because we made no mistakes on the track, no strategy mistakes – Tim Cindric did a great job of calling the race – and no mistakes from the pit crew. Keep getting all three of those right, and you'll win a few, even if you're not quite the fastest. You can take advantage of other people's miscues. It was a close, hard-fought race.
Q: Yeah, it was one of those classic Indy 500s where two great teams try to reach the same goal but end up using different methods: One has the faster car but less slick pit stops; the other gets everything operationally right, but is slightly off the other one's pace. Interestingly, those roles between Penske and Ganassi were reversed last year.
RR: Yeah, that's right. We had a strong Month of May last year, getting 1-2 on the grid and winning the pit stop competition. And something that we strive for in the race is to not have mistakes in the pits but if you're there 20 years, one of them isn't going to be your best, and unfortunately, we had some miscues – a loose tire, stalling the car and so on. But it makes you even more aware of the things that can happen, and I can assure you that will make us stronger this year. Things can go wrong in a hurry, so you need to be prepared to correct them. A year on and we still talk about it and that's because we always plan to fix any mistakes.
Q: Ganassi seem to be kings of turning their cars' performance around. For example, last year at Homestead, the test on the Monday beforehand, Penske looks like everything is under control, but come qualifying, Ganassi are half a mile-an-hour quicker and sweep the front row. And Indy last year was another example: Helio and Will Power are first and second on the grid, and Franchitti has to be ridiculously brave to join them on the front row. But come race day, he's on the same pace and, combined with perfect pit stops by the No. 10 crew, he's gone. It's as if Penske set the bar at a certain height and prompt quite unbelievable performances from Ganassi.
RR: I think that's true, yes, because I know when it's reversed, and Ganassi is on top on the day, night or week before a race, we try and figure out why and a lot of times, we can go out and completely turn things around. That's the nature of our competition.
I thought that of our three cars last year, Will was the fastest on race day. He was dicing with Dario but then, boom, he had the problem in the pits. It was just like with the Ganassi cars the year before. Indy is a very strange place, a sacred ground, and boy, things can go bad in a hurry, or things can turn positive in a hurry.
Q: I remember Will saying at one point he radioed the pits because his car was so fast he was convinced his push-to-pass was jammed on, and that he was therefore using too much fuel.
RR: Yeah, and it was sad it went wrong for him. But, you know, his performance last year was still a big step forward mentally. A lot of people believe Will could have won that race, and he too has that confidence now. Instead of just thinking he might be able to win, he can come to the Speedway each day now truly knowing he can win it and knowing his team believes he can win it. I think you'll see very good things from him this year.
Q: Final question: can Helio put behind him the troubles he's had at the start of this season? Does the Month of May give him a complete mental do-over?
RR: Ab-so-lutely! In the 1980s and early '90s, this was Rick Mears' race to win or lose, and the guy right now who has a similar handle on this place is Helio. He has all the confidence in the world here, and he knows the team has that confidence in him. If he runs the race he's capable of running, he can be the engine of the Penske train, and it's up to him and the people around him to get the job done. I believe this will be his back-in-the-ballgame race.
Q: OK, so that wasn't the final question. This is: If Helio does get a fourth win, do you think he's worthy of joining Rick Mears, Al Unser and AJ Foyt in that exclusive club?
RR: Oh yes. He's got three now, but if you dissect all the races, he could easily have five – getting caught behind Foyt IV in '03 cost him a win, and we were maybe as little as a minute from winning Indy in '07, when it rained on us. Franchitti would have had to come in for fuel in a lap-and-a-half. Unfortunately, the sky opened up a minute or so before that happened. So, back to your question, is Helio up there with those guys? Yeah. Indy is one of a kind, and to win here puts you in a different class. But to compete and consistently be in a position to win here, as Helio has been these past 10 years, means you're up there with a Mears, Foyt or Unser.