We got Cars! - A Brief Overview of Working the SCCA Grid
article originally appeared in the January / February 2004 issue of
Piston Patter **
Now, I'm not sure if we can really compare ourselves to firefighters and figther pilots. I'm really just trying to compare Grid workers to groups of people who sit around for long periods of time waiting to spring into action for a few brief, adrenaline filled minutes never knowing what might happen when they do. On the most basic level, that's what a Grid worker does.
The 2003 racing season was my first as an SCCA course worker, my first racing season as an SCCA member period. As the 2003 racing season draws to a close I reflect on the people, the fun, the experience, and the cars while trying to answer the question most of my friends have been asking me all Summer... "Tobin, what do you do at the races every weekend?
When I joined the SCCA I figured I would work races. I've always loved going to the races. As a kid my dad and I would drive from Cincinnati, early on a Sunday morning, to Mid-Ohio. Going to the races was so much more than just watching a race. Racing was experieneced with every sense. We always parked right inside the front gate at Mid-Ohio, at the base of the Keyhole turn spectator berm. I'd get out of the car and stretch my legs. I could hear the cars long before I climbed to the top of the berm to see them, I could smell the cars... burning Castrol oil. Once at the top of the berm I could finally see them. There they were navigating the turn and accelerating away from me down the back straight, I could almost taste them. It is there I would stay, using just four of my senses... until this year... I would finally get close enough to touch the cars.
Over the Winter I looked over the Chicago Region SCCA website and tried to figure out what worker specialty might be right for me, but it was working at the SCCA booth at the Chicago Auto Show when I really began to get a good idea of where I might end up. I worked an afternoon shift at the Auto Show with long time Chicago Region grid worker Randy Adams. He talked about the cars he'd seen, the people he'd met and worked with over the years. He explained the unique opportunity Grid workers have to interact with the drivers, crew members and car owners on the grid. How Walter Payton was a really nice guy, but not much of a race car driver, How Paul Newman just seemed like another driver rather than a movie star when he was hanging around his car before a race, how he got a ride in a Ford GT40 one weekend at Road America. But what do Grid workers really do?
In preparation for an actual race Grid workers stage the racing cars on the grid or false grid, a place where the cars line up in the order in which they qualified before taking to the track behind the pace car and starting their race. Grid workers are provided with a piece of paper, a "Grid Sheet", that lists the car number and their qualifying position for the race along with other information sometimes... car make, color, maybe the driver's name, but it's the numbers a Grid worker is really concerned with. Grid workers stand all the way down the grid, looking down the grid, waiting for the cars to trickle in from the paddock.
If the cars showed up in the order in which they qualified Grid workers would have a VERY easy job, but they don't. The drivers roll onto the grid at all different times. Drivers get the first call to the grid for their race maybe 15 or 20 minutes before they're to pull onto the track for therace, maybe a second call at ten minutes, a final call at 5 minutes. Some cars show up early, some show up late, some don't show up at all.
As they trickle in workers look down the grid, see a car, see a number, look at their grid sheet, figure out where on the grid that car goes and direct the driver to that spot. Of course, some cars show up and the driver's going way too fast so he overshoots his grid position before the workers can figure out where he goes. So they have to stop the guy, tell him to put it in reverse and roll it back 4 positions, sometimes workers will push the car backwards. Or maybe the grid's filling up and there are drivers, suits around their waists, milling around betwen the two rows of cars, maybe some car doors are open and a guy rolls in who has a spot at the top of the grid. So the workers blow their whistles, get the doors shut and clear the people out of the way so the guy can snake his way to the top of the grid and parallel park his racing car between two others. Some cars show up with numbers that don't match any number on the grid sheet, some cars don't have numbers that are easily visible from the front, sometimes a car will roll onto the grid that should actually be on the track for the session currently in progress. Workers realize it's not a car they should grid for the next session... maybe the driver has his arm out the window pointing to the track with his finger, going pretty fast, so the workers clear a space and release that car up the pit lane. I often describe working the Grid like directing traffic and parking cars, or maybe like working on the deck of an aircraft carrier, only without the arresting cables, water, and bombs. It sure is fun though.
In addition to actually putting cars in their places Grid workers perform the last safety checks on the cars and the drivers before they're released onto the track. Tech inspection stickers are checked, a sticker on the windshield or roll bar showing that the car did go through tech inspection for the weekend. Workers look to make sure the collars of the driver's suits are fastened, that window nets or, for open cars, arm restraints are present so a driver doesn't get his arm caught between the car's rollbar and the ground in a roll over situation. They check to make sure seatbelts and harnesses are fastened, gloves are on. They make sure a crew member didn't accidentally leave a wrench or something that could become a very dangerous projectile in an accident situation, inside the car during a last minute adjustment. Grid workers take a last look at the bodywork of the cars to make sure everyting is fastened properly. Workers look for fluids leaking out of cars, anything that could be a potential hazard once the cars are on the track. Workers are often asked to adjust mirrors for drivers who can't reach them while buckled in, sometimes workers buckle the drivers in.
In most cases little problems are easily solved, but there have been a few times this season when things take a little more time. Moments before a Formula car race, Formula Ford I think, a grid worker noticed that the front left suspension on the pole sitter's car was not secure. Luckily he caught this car before it took to the track. The rest of the field ended up taking to the track to start the race before the guy's crew could tighten his suspension down fully after running to the paddock for a jack and some wrenches... a tough break for the driver and his team, but nothing compared to what could have happened if the problem hadn't been spotted.
During the 5 minutes before the cars are released onto the track grid workers keep the drivers informed of how much time is left before they are released. Grid workers give the 5 minute call, holding up 5 fingers... then four fingers... then three fingers... engines start, motors are revving, two minutes... drivers tighten their belts, crew members scurry off the grid... one minute... drivers lower their visors, put thier cars into gear and the Grid Cheif releases the cars from the grid onto the track, one row at a time.
As cars pull onto the track there are two more grid workers, used only in race situations, not during practice or qualifying, called splitters who actually stand on the track or the pit lane, depending upon the venue. There is a "splitter" and "back-up splitter". As the cars come onto the track in a single file line the splitter "splits" the cars into two rows, creating an inside row and outside row for the race start. by signaling one car to the left, the next to the right, alternating like that until all the cars are past. The backup splitter stands about 20-30 yards up the track from the splitter just in case a driver isn't paying attention to the splitter and pulls to the wrong side to take up his position.
Splitting is probably the most fun part of working the grid for me, the most exciting anyway, and probably the most dangerous. I've never felt unsafe doing it... I think you have to trust the drivers and just pay close attention. They say SCCA Club racing is amatuer racing, and I guess it is, but I think I'd rather put my life in the hands of SCCA "amatuers" when they're coming at me in their cars than some of the Pro drivers I've seen at some of the big pro events. The amatuer guys know the routine, they know the procedures at Blackhawk Farms and Road America because that's where they do most of their racing... and, in the end, they aren't going that fast, usually. (Keep scrolling... there's more below)
Corner workers often tease me at lunchtime, or at the after race party that we don't really do anything on the grid, that we're just 'sticker checkers' (referring the the tech sticker check) or whatever. When there is a race in progress Grid workers do get to relax for a little while, which is one of the reasons the specialty appealed to me. Once the cars are on the track I can walk around and take pictures for the Chicago Region SCCA's monthly magazine "Piston Patter". That was the first thing I got involved in after becoming a member, because there isn't really anything else to do when you join in late October until the next racing season starts. So by working the Grid I get to be around the cars, talk to the drivers, and I still have some free time to do other things around the track... at least until Ken gives the call... "We got cars!" and the whole thing starts over again.