Craig McCain – Accomplished Crew Chief and Tire Changer
Words: David Barr
Harding Steinbrenner Racing Crew Chief Craig McCain has a resume unlike many of his counterparts in the NTT IndyCar Series. The success that he has been a part of in Champ Car, NASCAR and INDYCAR adds to an already lengthy list of experiences to the team.
DB: What was behind your decision to join Harding Steinbrenner Racing and return to INDYCAR?
CM: I think because it would be a great challenge. I just thought it would be a great challenge to get back into INDYCAR again and a fun opportunity after years of doing a little bit everything. It was really appealing to me too because it’d be fun to be on the new team build side of it.
DB: Davey Hamilton was a big part of your decision to come on board.
CM: It was. I’ve known Davey since 2000 while I was at Cheever Racing. I was a crew chief there and he ran with us. This was when he crashed and hurt his feet. My wife Sheryl is a certified Pedorthist, she does custom inserts and takes care of people who can’t walk. I actually got to know Davey better through my wife because she took care of Davey’s feet. If you ask him today, Davey will still tell you the reason why he can walk is because of what my wife did for him.
DB: How did you assemble the team? Did you want to make this something that was very much your own and had the freedom to do that?
CM: That’s kind of how I felt. I started calling guys I knew on the mechanics side and thought, hey, let’s put let’s put this together…we got Colton Herta! He did really well in Indy Lights, it’s going to be fun for us. And we ended up getting a really good group of guys together which is a crucial part of putting together a good program.
DB: So how rare is the opportunity for you to do what you did? We talk about all the different guys and their experience levels. Is this something like a utopia – a really great young driver, great support, and you could put everybody in place? Was that the allure of it?
CM: Yeah, I think it’s very rare because there’s not a lot of startup teams that get the opportunity that this team had with Colton and with our alliance on the engineering side with Andretti. So, I assembled guys that I know are good that I trust, and I could get together and get on board. I figured I could get a good team, but very rarely do you get the opportunity to have the total package on a new team. It’s something maybe you step into on a rebuild, but that doesn’t happen anymore. So, for a new team, to have the engineering technology immediately with a hot driver right away and to assemble. I think it’s very rare. I just don’t think you see it very often.
DB: Talk about importance of the Andretti alliance
CM: Yeah, it’s big. Because having the shock technology and engineering technology on a new team is always something that must be developed over years and years, or you hire it in or pay for it. In Andretti Autosport Technology, you have a super staff of guys already in place and it’s hard to peel guys away especially for the cost. So, to get that, the engineering and especially the shock technology that Andretti’s built up over 20 -years is massive. Another great part is that our engineering staff was my engineering staff when I had worked at Andretti Autosport before. So, when I walk in, and it’s my old engineering staff, there’s already trust both ways. They trust me with what I’m doing on the car, and I trust that they’re not going to ask me to do something that’s out of the ordinary or crazy. So the personnel side of the engineering relationship from a crew chief standpoint was just as important as the technology that we received from Andretti just because I was up there and I knew their staff as well for both sides was very big for on my end.
DB: That continuity is so hard to build and even more difficult to build essentially overnight – not only with the crew but as importantly with the driver.
CM: Yeah and some of it is stuff that fans don’t get a chance to see. It’s just your relationship with the driver and what they’re thinking, what you think they need. Things change with the car constantly and you have to figure out different updates to do too. You’re never resting. You’re never resting because INDYCAR is always updating and they are always changing. It is such a big part of your relationship with the driver and the trust with driver and with the engineering staff as well. But you do have to stay up on it. And now with the new hybrid coming, that’s another technology that INDYCAR wants to be at the forefront of, so there will be more things you’re going to have to add on to the car that will change weight and balance.
DB: I want to come back to that, but with Colton, I know that he is so much older than 19 from a driving skill perspective. How has he gotten better in relaying information to you and the team? How is your relationship with Colton gotten better as you see him gain more experience? And how has his maturation through this season?
CM: It’s great. I’m always saying seat time, seat time, seat time with rookies and Colton. The more seat time he gets he just gets better he unloads well, like right out of the of the trailer, I think he unloads well. And then he just gets that seat time and just gets this rhythm. It’s incredible for his age. It’s very impressive. And very rarely does he ever come in from running and just say, Gosh, I don’t know. He always has such great input. It’s very impressive for his age and the more seat time he gets, he just grows up almost before your eyes with his knowledge of what the car needs.
DB: Define “unloads well” because if fans aren’t familiar with the term – it saves you so much time!
CM: It absolutely does. Like right out of the trailer, we unload the car, we put the initial setup on it, and he goes out for his first run. He just does well right away. We don’t have to do a lot on the car for him. Maybe it’s just a good setup. I’m sure that’s part of it. But he unloads with confidence in his first run, he’s confident already. So that’s a big play for us. And for him to he knows he’s got a good car. So, his confidence is already good.
DB: There’s no lag time. For you guys, there’s not much time for guessing.
CM: No and you’re right, we don’t have a lot of time anyway. You’ll maybe have a full 45-minute session, so you have to get on it immediately. One thing to keep in mind is a lot of times the track gets better as practice progress, so you may think, oh it’s what we’ve done to the car is better but instead it’s the track. You may revisit some of the stuff that you maybe thought wasn’t good, but now is great as the track gets better. Colton is open to that. Things like, hey, we’re going to go back on this shock change that you maybe didn’t like initially, but now that the track’s better it will be better. He knows that if he has a good track now maybe we’ll all come together so he’s that’s just his track smarts as well.
DB: Let’s go to the hybrid engine, when INDYCAR made that decision to introduce that how much input were teams allowed to give? How big is that? Well, I guess the big question is how big is the learning curve and how much do you know and how much more do you want to know?
CM: INDYCAR will keep us up to date and they’ll start feeding more information because the curiosity has definitely been sparked and we’re going to know what we need for the regeneration of power and battery all that stuff but what we know right now is minimal. I’m sure that’ll be coming in the days to come.
DB: Strategy – how enjoyable is that for you?
CM: I love it! I’d love to be involved even more. There are so many great brains on the timing stand. You’re all listening to everything that’s going on and you have a plan what’s also going on in your head. But you don’t know when yellows are coming out and you don’t know how you’re actually going to run on certain tires and is the track conditions going to be different. I love the strategy side of it. There are a lot of unknowns, you may follow a generic type of plan. But it just changes, an early yellow comes out or if an early yellow does not come out can change the way you look at your whole strategy. It’s always changing. It’s a very living plan.
DB: Biggest challenge that Pocono poses this weekend?
CM: We’ve gone back to our Speedway car. It’s the same car we ran at Indy. We had a good car there. I know here there are three corners and not four – it’s a totally different animal. Our biggest challenge is hopefully, getting a consistent car again. I know that’s generic but turn one is pretty good there. It’s a big turn and turn two is a little sneaky. If you can get off turn two good, you’ll go down that back straightaway to turn three in pretty good shape. It’s probably the same challenge everybody has but I think we have a good car because we had a good car at Indy and it’s the same car. So, I feel pretty good about our challenges there. I think it’s just kind of putting them all together for this final Speedway race of the season.