This week on “Crash Course,” Richard Hammond couldn’t have been more geeked to be in Sonoma, CA to learn the ways of an Indy Car pit crew member. “Finally, a job that should be in my comfort zone,” he exclaimed! His task was to land a spot with the Dragon Racing team for a chance to assist them during the Sonoma Raceway’s prestigious Indy Grand Prix. While he wouldn’t be jumping behind the wheel, he’d have to be quick and nimble (and then some) when changing a wheel during the race, as the tenth of a second could mean the difference between winning and losing.
Didier Francesia, one of the industry’s top mechanics, introduced Richard to the “sleek beauty” that is the Dallara D12 race car, driven by French racer Sébastien Bourdais. From there, the Hamster got the rundown on what it takes to keep this motor runnin’, and Didier didn’t hesitate on getting Richard started with the hefty fuel hose, which fuels a car with 2.7 gallons per second. Seemingly perplexed by the sheer size of it, Richard struggled a bit when handling this high capacity hose. And the toughness of the pneumatic jack, which instantly hoists the vehicle off the ground so that a pit crew can change tires in a jiffy, was a bit “ridiculous,” as Richard yelped.
But there would be no tolerance for whining; it was time for the main drill–changing the outside rear tire in less than seven seconds. Being the pro that he is, Didier blasted through it in under six. Richard topped out at 26.5 seconds, which didn’t exactly do much for his ego.
Next up, he gave the inside front tire a shot, as Didier thought this particular position might be a better fit for a newbie. The Hamster hammered through in 15.9 seconds, but it wasn’t enough to meet Didier’s cut. But as we all know, practice… um, makes perfect, so a frustrated Richard had to run through the drill several more times (nevermind his increasing nerves taking over) until he finally got into a groove. He managed to consistently change several tires in under six seconds, which was exactly what Didier needed to make him a part of the Dragon Racing pit crew. High five, Richard!
With just one day left until Sonoma’s big Indy Grand Prix, Didier assigned Richard to Jeremy Johnson’s pit crew to work on Dragon Racing’s No. 6 car, a duplicate Dallara belonging to Brit racer Katherine Legge. During some practice runs for the IndyCar rookie, who’s also the first English woman to win an open-wheel race in North America, Richard’s times weren’t exactly what he hoped for. And the only chance he had left to nail it would be during race day. Talk about pressure!
To help ease some of Richard’s worries about the big race, he got the chance to take a spin around the track with world champion racing driver Mario Andretti. Experiencing the intense force of a race car at top speed was exactly what Richard needed in order to get a clearer understanding of how the car responds to the race track. And riding with Mario was pretty darn cool.
Plus, Richard got to attend Dragon Racing’s private strategy meeting ahead of the race, and heard from top folks like Jay Penske, the owner and president of Dragon Racing, who advised him that consistency is key.
Some of the practice tire drills that followed didn’t bode well time-wise, and Richard’s pre-race panic was building. But before he could freak out much more, the race’s 27 drivers were off, blazing around the Sonoma track! Richard had to sit tight and wait for Katherine’s car to approach.
Success! The Hamster rocked break-neck speed while changing tires to beat fuel time. One small problem: the original tire accidentally rolled in front of Katherine’s car during the procedure, ultimately leaving her to lose one second. Eek! “A colossal screw up,” Richard said.
During a second pit stop, he managed to beat the fuel time, but just barely passed the second tire behind the pit. And then Katherine started to experience some car trouble. During an unexpected pit stop, it was discovered that the clutch in No. 6 wasn’t able to shift properly. This meant that Katherine had to reluctantly drop out of the Indy Grand Prix after 48 laps. Definitely a hard moment for the team and for Richard, too. As for Sebastien, he unfortunately crashed out during lap 63. Not a good day for the Dragon Racing team.
After all was said and done, Richard walked away with a lot of love and respect for this incredible team sport and for the folks at Dragon Racing. This particular challenge was his toughest yet, but in true Richard fashion, he did it with a lot of heart.