ECR's 'ride-share' program in No. 20 Chevy requires attention to detail

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It’s not worthy of a team meeting, but it is a topic of occasional conversation at Ed Carpenter Racing. After all, the team has been splitting the driving duties of the team’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet since the 2014 season, so it’s nothing new.

Still, the back-and-forth of two specializing drivers sharing a car in a Verizon IndyCar Series season requires constant attention to detail. And it’s more complicated than it might appear.

This year, as in 2016, team owner Ed Carpenter (at left in photo above) will compete on ovals in the No. 20 Chevy, while Spencer Pigot (at right in photo above) takes over the car on road and street courses. Pigot’s duties started in the March 12 season opener – the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where he finished 20th after the left rear brake on the car caught fire and had to be replaced early in the race – and continue in the series-wide open test Tuesday at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

Carpenter gets back in the car for oval tests at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (April 1) and Texas Motor Speedway (April 12), but the first oval race isn’t until the Phoenix Grand Prix on April 29 on Phoenix Raceway’s 1.022-mile oval. For the ECR crew, though, it is more than just changing seats and setups when the driver changes. It’s about adjusting to driving styles and communication. Even a driver’s approach to pit stops is different for the over-the-wall crew members.    

“Little things like that are important,” Carpenter explained. “Things like how the communication flows from engineers is crucial. We may focus on different kinds of things when I’m in the car than we do when Spencer is in the car. We’ll have different strategies and other little things that are different between the two drivers. It’s something we’ve adapted to over time, but it’s also something you have to be cognizant of because it is different than the way our peers are operating.”

It started when Carpenter hired Mike Conway for the 2014 season. Conway, who decided at the end of the 2012 season to step away from oval racing, had competed in only road and street races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2013. The deal for ‘14 was that Carpenter would compete only on ovals in the No. 20 car, while Conway would take over the road/street duties.

The plan clicked almost immediately. Conway won at Long Beach; Carpenter won the pole position for the Indianapolis 500, then followed it with a win a Texas before Conway returned to win at Toronto.

Part of that success is a function of familiarity. Carpenter and lead engineer Matt Barnes have been working together since 2011.

“It might be a cliché, but we can finish each other’s sentences,” Barnes said of Carpenter. “He knows what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking. I know if he’s going to be upset before he gets upset. I know if he doesn’t like a change before he gets to the pits just by the way he radios in. That history allows you to make decisions so much faster.”

Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion, joined ECR for seven road/street races last year starting mid-season at Detroit and posted top-10 finishes at Road America and Mid-Ohio.

“It’s hard to compare because it really is so different,” Pigot said. “It’s different in terms of the way you set the car up, the way you approach a session and the way the car needs to handle. There are a ton of differences.”

The differences are easier to manage in light of Pigot’s return this season. After Conway in 2014 and Luca Filippi in 2015, this year marks the first time since Carpenter began the ride-sharing program that a driver carried over the road/street role from one season to the next.

“You can see already where we were last year and how we’re improving this year as opposed to learning a new guy again,” Carpenter said. “Once you get to know each other, it gets easier for all of us to make those transitions. It’s something we’ve been doing for three years now, so I think it’s more natural than it was in the beginning.”

While the basics seem simple enough, the details are complicated. Mostly it’s a matter of communication – how drivers, engineers and race strategists understand what one another means when they say things.

“I like the balance one way and Ed likes it another way,” Pigot said. “If we’re both complaining of understeer, for example, the engineers might know in the back of their minds that Ed would like a certain change specific to him that will help cure the understeer, while for me they might make a different change to fix the problem. They’ve got their own lists for each driver.”

The most positive aspect to changing drivers? A bad weekend at one type of venue never carries over to a different venue.

“Let’s say Ed has a bad weekend on an oval,” Barnes said. “When Spencer goes to the next race on a road course, he’s not carrying that bad weekend with him. It’s a fresh start. He’s not bringing anything from that last race.”

Tuesday’s test at Barber features all 21 full-season cars plus the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet for Juan Pablo Montoya. The 1999 CART champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner will step into an Indy car for the first time since the 2016 season finale in preparation to compete in both May races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the 2.439 road course road course and the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on the 2.5-mile oval.

Barber open test sessions run from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 3-6 p.m. ET Tuesday. Live timing and scoring will be available at RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

The next Verizon IndyCar Series race is the iconic Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, set for April 7-9 on the streets of the California city. The race airs live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 4 p.m. ET April 9.

For more information about Team Chevy, visit Chevy.com/Racing.

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