Kiwi at the centre of US team running five cars in Indy 500
This weekend’s Indy 500 event, the “100th Running” is arguably the biggest motor sport event so far this century.
The winner will be immortalised in the history of the sport and his name will be remembered for a long time.
Only the war years interrupted a continous run of 500-mile races from the first event in 1911, although the Speedway held its first event in 1909 with a shorter race and that was repeated in 1910.
This weekend’s winner will be feted and celebrated but, as with all motorsport events, there is a team of people behind that winner without whom the race car would never even get to the track to race, let alone be competitive.
Perhaps more so than many other races, to win the Indy 500 a driver and the team rely on every single element working perfectly, faultlessly and in tandem and it takes a huge amount of organisational and mechanical ability to ensure that happens.
The Andretti Autosport team enters the 2016 event with five cars running under the team banner. Its manager, pulling all elements together, is Kiwi Paul Harcus, universally known as Ziggy.
Harcus started his career in motorsport almost by default when a friend who worked for the March Formula 1 team went to America to work for a Formula Atlantic racing team.
He knew Harcus was travelling back to New Zealand from the UK and offered him a part-time job as he was passing through. That was about 35 years ago.
Harcus says, “To that point I had not been involved in motor racing of any sort, but had been working on ships around the world for seven years, following in the footsteps of my seaman father.
“After working for various teams I became the director of operations for the Champ Car series and, when that series started to look a bit dicey, Andretti called me up and I have been there since, about eight or nine years now.”
He soon moved up into the team manager’s position and has held that title since, with the job now expanding, as the Andretti Autosport organisation has expanded, to run in not only the IndyCar series but also in Indy Lights, Formula E and the Global Rallycross series.
Paul Harcus. Picture/ David Turner, Perspective Group
The day-to-day running of the various series is handled by individual managers. all reporting to Harcus and a small number of other senior managers operating as overseers.
When it comes to the Indianapolis 500 ... ”I love it. It is a fantastic event but it is a huge amount of work, especially as we normally run four cars, but this year we are running five with the inclusion of Townsend Bell. Trying to find good extra people to work at the event to make sure that fifth car is a strong programme, is a huge challenge.
“I love the place but the work, especially with the schedule we now have here at Indy, with engine changes overnight and the long hours and long days as well as in the IndyCar series as a whole, means much of the job is involved in keeping everybody focused when they are tired.
“But this event is such a special one that the tiredness of the mechanics and the heavy work schedule they endure is a price they are all willing to pay.
“I have been working here every year since 1984 and every year that I go out on that track on race morning before the start of the race, I get butterflies in my stomach.”
Thoughts ahead of the race?
“I think we (Andretti Autosport) are looking good, but you can never be happy when you are running five cars and one or two are slower than the others and those drivers are unhappy. We have fairly strong cars: I am not sure our race cars are where we need them to be right now, but they are not bad and we are definitely in the hunt.”
Unlike Formula 1, the Indy 500 can be won by almost any driver starting from any position.
Only 42 per cent of the winners in the history of the race have started from the front row and last year’s winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, was running last early in the race.
Nothing is ever certain in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, a phrase created in 1955 by Alice Greene, a copywriter at a local radio station who suggested stations carrying the race use the line “Stay tuned for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing” as they took a break for commercials.
Incidentally, the nickname Ziggy?
When he went to America he had a spiky haircut and Ziggy Stardust ( David Bowie) was the name of the moment.
“When I was new to a workshop somebody thought I resembled the look, called me the name once and so it has been since.”