The Pit Box with Vince Kremer
Words: David Barr (@daveabarr)
Vince Kremer is no different than many of the Harding Steinbrenner Racing team members. The Vice President, team manager, and spotter wears many hats. And he has had amazing success in the NTT IndyCar Series and Champ Car.
In this Bommarito Automotive Group 500 edition of The Pit Box we ask the St. Louis native about his friend Brian Barnhart, Colton Herta’s need for quiet, a basement of treasures and raising Lord Stanley’s Cup.
DB: It has been a recurring theme this INDYCAR season as we have interviewed different people on the Harding Steinbrenner team – Brian Barnhart knows everyone, forgets nothing and may be a better person than racecar man. He’s also the reason you are here.
VK: We go back to the 90s. We worked together at Penske as mechanics. I moved to INDYCAR to work with a young rookie named Helio Castroneves. Remember this was still during the split (INDYCAR and Champ Car) so, we crossed paths a little bit, but not much. We were disconnected a bit. Then during the merger, we came back together and worked at HVM. I wanted to get on the sanctioning body side of things and through Tony George Jr. I got involved with Indy Lights as their technical director, and then race director. Brian and I worked very close together, I leaned on him because of his knowledge and experience as I had never been a race director before. We then started working at INDYCAR race control and it was seamless. We’re pretty similar in age, we’ve got a lot of the same life experiences and it was just like a brother from another mother, I think is how we describe ourselves. Brian got the opportunity over here with Mike Harding first. As things played out there then became a spot for me and he asked me if I had any interest, and I said, yeah, and bam, we’re back here together.
DB: What is it about him? I’ve heard exactly what you just told me I bet a half dozen times, this year from different people. What is it about Brian that attracts quality people to him?
VK: Brian is very charismatic. He’s very loyal. He’s got a memory like I’ve never seen on anybody. I have a hard time remembering what clothes I wore yesterday. He can tell you on lap 37 of the 2001 Indy 500 this guy was doing this. He’s just is very passionate. And that passion rubs off. It also seems that memory is not only just racing, that’s one thing, but that memory has served him really well regarding just people and working circumstances and experiences. He has a really good ability to read people. He has the ability to look at you and know when you’re down and then he knows how to pick you up. You know? He cares. I mean that’s a big part of it is that he cares. He’s got his own trials and tribulations and at the end of the day, he’s got to take care of himself and his family and everybody else’s. It’s a great trait for racing. It’s a better trait for a human being.
DB: Let’s talk about what you came there to do. You are Vice President, you’re the spotter, you’re the team manager – What are the advantages that a team sees and benefit from having people do more than one thing?
VK: Well? That’s a pretty good question. I think most of the people in racing are extremely competitive people and you like to be challenged as a competitive person. Everybody in racing has to be very fluid to be in this industry. You know, you go out and you tap the wall and everything changes, first yellow flag everything changes, you know, everything changes every lap. I think there’s a constant challenge to answer the bell. The cross training and learning of other jobs because of the fluidity is so important. If you think about it, if you’re a baseball pitcher, on a team in Major League Baseball, and you’re sick, there’s seven or eight or nine other pitchers that are going to step in and take your spot. If you are the outside front tire changer here. You’re the guy that’s doing that job. We don’t have a spare one in the bullpen. It’s not like in other sports where I’m a hockey guy – you change three lines. We’ve got one line. Everything works together in motor racing. People talk about the drivers, but you know, it’s all one well-oiled machine when it’s going well.
DB: As team manager and Vice President, you are knee deep into logistics, pushing the paper and making the phone calls. Talk about what it takes to put everybody in a position to be successful come race weekend.
VK: I like to look at it as I put people in position to succeed, and I get out of their way and let them succeed. You have to rely on everybody around you to do their job. Teamwork is one of the great things about motor racing. I think that’s one of the things I will miss if I ever get out of racing. You’re there, everybody has each other’s backs. We’re just a huge dysfunctional family.
So yeah, I do all the paperwork. There are a lot of emails to answer, a lot of parts to chase, coordinating with Brian and Mike and the team controller constantly trying to do things as efficiently and as budget friendly as we can. Logistics takes up a lot of time between hotel coordination, flights, rental cars, per diem, roommates, check in and out days. All of that stuff. Craig is really good at keeping us abreast of what he needs on the cars, but then I relay that to management, and then deal with suppliers for parts. It’s not as if everything is sitting on a shelf, and it’s not as simple as walking over to AutoZone or something.
DB: That leads us into last week, unfortunate at Pocono and thank goodness Colton was unharmed and all the guys that went through everything they went through, especially in that early lap accident are unharmed, which is amazing to me still. But you got that car, you’re tearing that car apart, you’re getting it ready for this weekend. Talk about your week after an accident to get everything in place. That transition has to be one where you’ve got to get a lot done in a short amount of time.
VK: Yeah, a total credit to our crew. We had a plan going into Pocono that we were going to have two chassis’ ready to go. We ran chassis number 88 at Pocono and then our plan was to switch to chasis number 82 at Gateway, Portland and Laguna Seca. So, the incident at Pocono was a little less traumatic. We came back and pulled both cars a part on Monday so we could asses what we needed to do. Craig created the crash report, then we sat down to strategize together on what we needed to do to be prepared for St. Louis. It’s two different things; one is to have a car on track, and the other is have parts ready because it’s not like we are running down the street to get certain parts. The crew came straight from the airport to the shop and we made an assessment on what we needed. We got those orders out and the guys worked tirelessly to get us ready to transport.
DB: If you’re not giving too much away – the difference in 82 and 88?
VK: I can share that it’s not a big deal. Those are chassis numbers. Chasis number 88 probably had fewer miles on it and we’ve designated that as our speedway car. I guess that’s the difference between those cars. Both cars are really good, turned out well, and are really fast. I’m very proud of the product we put on track.
DB: Can you explain the relationship you have with Colton as a spotter?
VK: It is a very great relationship; he is such a mature young man. We talk after every session in order to grow that relationship. The first question is always – is there anything I could have done better? Anything different you want? It doesn’t take a lot of management up top. He is very cognizant of what goes on around the track. It’s a fun relationship. Pocono is a very difficult spotters track. Then you have the handoff between the two spotters, because we had to utilize a second spotter so you can see the whole track. it’s just it’s one of those things where everybody has their own lingo and everybody says things slightly different. It takes some time to get used to one another, but I think we’ve come to a really good spot.
I’ve done everything. I’ve been over the wall, I’ve changed tires, I think I’ve changed every tire. I’ve been a race strategist for many wins, I’ve been in race control and I’ve been a race director, but spotting holds a lot of pressure. You go up to the spotter’s stand and there’s a unique group of guys up there who all work together, but they’ll get into your face if they think your driver is not helping their driver doing what they like.
DB: Does Colton prefer more or less radio chatter?
VK: Definitely give me what I need to know and then be quiet. I can go in a race, say Pocono, where sometimes I think I needed to say something just so he knows I’m still there. On a big track I might go 10-15 laps without saying anything especially if he is running clean and not in traffic.
DB: Looking ahead to racing at Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway, what do you see the challenges being?
VK: Gateway is kind of a unique. It’s like a paperclip, turns three and four are bigger than one and two. The key is to get a good run coming out of turn two in order to pass in three and four. Turn one and two are so much tighter.
DB: Before we get to the important stuff in a minute – you have a small racing museum in your house!
VK: I’m not sure if it’s a museum but I have a few things that mean something to me. I have like 10 helmets from drivers that I have worked with from Emerson Fittipaldi to Dan Clarke to Helio. Helio promised me his helmet in 1998.I would jokingly remind him every year until finally in 2016 he gave in. Clarke’s helmet was from my first podium in Champ Car. It’s neat because he wore a solid black instead of his trademark red and white design. Of course, I’ve got my Indy 500 rings and ceramic bottles of Mobil 1 with drops of oil from winning engines. Lots of racing stuff that are all special to me.
DB: Okay, how cool is it for you to see the Stanley Cup trophy this weekend at the track?
VK: Well, I’m a St. Louis native. I’ve been texting Colton Parayko (St. Louis Blues defenseman) this week and talking to him about whether he wanted to meet with Colton over there and put the two Coltons together. I can’t wait to see it in St. Louis, my hometown as I went down for the parade. It was great. The parade in the celebration that was that was really neat because I’m still amazed that they won the Stanley Cup!