Talk to me

September 1, 2011

Talk to me

September 1, 2011

Are you calm? Do you communicate in a clear, concise, supportive fashion even in a high stress environment?
Can you process several simultaneous inputs to make an instant and usually correct decision? Can you deal with both steely professionals and whiny children?

If you have 15 or 20 years of experience in motorsports, you may be just the type to have one of the most important jobs in racing: Talking to drivers.

We are not just talking to drivers at autograph sessions, sponsor parties, or dinner, but during the race.

Former Corvette ace Johnny O’Connell sees the role this way, “You are listening to a guy you believe, you trust, you respond to. He calms you down and amps you up, if he says you will be ok, you believe him.”

English is the official language of international motor racing. Young drivers around the world know that their career path is limited if they cannot speak English. Why? Your drivers may come from any number of countries, and at times there will be three of them, each taking turns driving the same car. Some of the races are a bit long, 10, 12, even 24 hours. You are on the hot seat for the duration.

Houston-based Risi Competizione Ferrari for example features a Brazilian driver (Jaime Melo), a Finnish driver (Toni Vilander), an Italian driver (Gimmi Bruni), an English team manager and an American crew. The only way they can all understand what is happening is if they all use the same language.

Teams want the drivers to hear the same voice all the time, so most have a protocol regarding who talks. They even try to limit when they talk.

“We try to talk to our drivers on the straightaway and leave them alone in the busier parts of the track,” says Flying Lizard Porsche’s Thomas Blam, who has worked with champions Joerg Bergmeister and Patrick Long for several years.

Drivers need and want information that is crisp, clear and answers the question “What do you want me to do?” Drivers and teams agree that having the right person on the radio is vital.

One team leader who asks to remain unnamed says, “You are part psychologist, part psychiatrist, and part race engineer.”

Dan Binks of Corvette Racing helped talk his young driver Tommy Milner through the rain to victory at Le Mans earlier this year.

“The guys in the pits have all the camera feeds, the scoring monitor, the data, they can see a lot more of what is going on than you can,” said O’Connell.

How about the other way around?

From an engineer’s standpoint, driver silence is usually a good sign, especially if it is accompanied by good lap times. “That means they are very focused and working hard,” said Eric Ingraham, who handles the #44 Flying Lizard.

ESPN TV broadcaster Brian Till, still pained that his engineers did not listen the time he may have possibly been right, insists, “Engineers do not really want to hear what the driver has to say, they just want to look at the data.”

Tom Anderson, longtime Indy Car and ALMS championship winning team leader puts it this way, “You have to have chemistry with the driver..” “You are the only contact with the driver. You need to build that trust and that chemistry.”

One of the biggest challenges comes when problems arise and drivers get frustrated.

“You want to help and if you can draw on your shared experience you can use that,” says Anderson.

“You can’t let their emotions get ahead of their brains.” “You try to stay very calm, very matter of fact,” says Blam. “If the guy is in a battle, he may start to get a bit aggravated by some of the traffic, but you have to stay cool.”

“Some drivers sound very confident, even a bit cocky outside the car, but can be very irritable, others are exactly the same in or out of the car,” notes Anderson.

Something to avoid at nearly all costs is an argument over the radio.

If that happens the driver may hear, “Pit now. And exit the car.” It is not something a driver wants to hear before the end of a stint. Unless the car is broken, it means he has just been grounded.

Of course, the best call is, “Checkered flag. Great job. See you at the podium.”

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