Behind the Pit Wall With the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar Team
Learn how this small and relatively new team is taking the fight to IndyCar’s biggest and most experienced outfits.
McLaren Racing is one of the most important names in motorsport, as well as a key player in the automotive industry's supercar segment. With decades of experience on both sides of the pit wall, it's not often McLaren is the "new kid on the block" anywhere it goes. Yet that's exactly the case nowadays in the NTT IndyCar Series, where after partnering with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2020, it formed the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team.
As expected from an organization of McLaren's caliber, when it does something, it does it right. This means everything from top-level operations to logistics, research and development has got to be capable of winning championships. And of course, that includes staffing. At the wheel of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy: Mexican rising star Patricio O'Ward—or Pato, as he's affectionately called. In the No. 7 Chevy: One of Sweden's best, Felix Rosenqvist. Leading the team are two names synonymous with passion and success: McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown and Team President Taylor Kiel.
I had the opportunity to tag along with the team at the 2022 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, where I got to know the players behind the scenes, learned how the team operates during a race weekend, and witnessed how a storied name is once again making waves in American open-wheel racing. Most importantly, I learned how the small-ish (compared to giants like Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti) and diverse team is giving rivals a run for their money in one of the most competitive series in the world.
Climbing the Racing Ladder
Arrow McLaren SP has grown fast in its two seasons of existence, going from a handful of key personnel to more than 60. Kiel has a lot to do with that. He has worked in racing for 14 years and knows a few things about the business, but more importantly, he knows people. Kiel started out as a second mechanic during the team's original iteration under former racer turned team owner Sam Schmidt (who despite being a quadriplegic still drives the hell outta his modified Corvette), which campaigned in the Indy Lights feeder series before evolving into a full-blown IndyCar team. Sticking around through a team acquisition, a couple of name changes, and quite a few different titles, Kiel possesses a genuine story.
"I'm very happy with Kiel," Zak Brown told me. "My job is to set goals and objectives for him, and then give him the resources and support he needs to be successful, as well as hold the team accountable for the on-track and off-track results. He's doing a great job in building a good team."
The role of president in this growing operation doesn't necessarily resemble the role of president at any other, as Kiel's got to wear multiple hats. Really, his responsibilities blur the line between executive and race-day renaissance man. For instance, on top of playing several directive jobs, he's also O'Ward's strategist behind the pit wall, meaning he's on the radio with him during practice, qualifying, and race sessions relaying crucial information.
"In layman's terms, O'Ward's driving his race and he can see directly what's in front of him," Kiel said to me. "My job is to look at it from a higher point of view and see what everybody else is doing, who we are actually racing, how the race looks to be playing out, take all of those factors, and give him as much information as possible."
Communication and strategy are crucial in any form of racing, but it's especially important in IndyCar, where a lot of the parts are spec (equal among competitors), and squeezing the most performance out of the car comes down to what the team and driver can cook up themselves. "You have to consider that we've been developing this spec package since effectively 2012," Kiel continued. "Everything is developed to the point where everybody is in a really small bubble now, and it's so far progressed that the margin of error is zero, and the gap from first and last is a second. It's so damn hard to stay at the front," he added.
But as he made it clear during our chat, sometimes it's just up to the driver to make things happen, especially when the strategy goes out the window due to unforeseen issues. That's where O'Ward comes in.
At just 23 years old, O'Ward's got a lot to be proud of. He's accomplished so much in his professional racing career, from karting to formula car racing in LATAM, F2000, ProMazda and F4. The former Red Bull protégé is the youngest-ever driver to win both the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring in the PC class. The 2022 IndyCar season is already off to a good start, after a recent win at Alabama's Barber Motorsports Park. He's a passionate racer and a hard worker, both qualities fully on display while chatting with him.
O'Ward's itinerary is packed like any other driver's, though he may be making more appearances than most, especially at 23. Over the course of the race weekend, it was hard to figure out when he (and Rosenqvist) would have a minute to chat. That's because nowadays, racing drivers have many commitments outside of the cockpit, so nearly every minute of their weekend is already booked for driving, debriefing, sponsor commitments, Chevy events, fan engagement, etc.
When he's not turning laps, he's meeting with Kiel to talk strategy or with engineers to discuss car setup for the particular track they're running on that weekend. "I enjoy a car that can turn, which is what we've made better for my qualifying car," O'Ward told me about his Dallara DW12. "Those very little changes made a massive difference in terms of just how much more grip we had available."
I had the opportunity to listen to the team's internal radio comms during O'Ward's quali session, and it was fascinating to hear the data engineer analyze lap times and car behavior through different sectors of the track, relaying every minuscule change in pace to Kiel. If you think racing isn't a team sport, you are wrong.
Even during a pause in the action, O'Ward was still in the car with a portable fan above his head keeping him somewhat comfortable in the heat, analyzing his on-track data on a tablet to see where thousandths of a second could potentially be shaven off.
O'Ward's off to a great start for the 2022 season. He's currently seventh in the championship, after a hell of a performance at Birmingham, a top-five finish at Long Beach, and finishing 19th on the Indianapolis road course two weeks ago (after a little bad luck and torrential rain took him out of contention for the win). For this weekend's Indy 500 starting grid, he's in P7, just ahead of Rosenqvist.
Felix Rosenqvist made the move to Arrow McLaren SP in 2021 and has had some solid finishes since. This year, he's off to a good start, including a pole position at the Texas Motor Speedway back in March.
Regarding the team's fast growth over the past year or so, Rosenqvist had some cool perspectives to share. "The team hasn't changed that much in the foundation. You see new faces at the shop every day, it's cool. You have to grow, and it's hard to do so, but I think the team's done it really well. It hasn't been like 'hey, here's 20 new guys,' as I feel like I still know everyone in the team."
Growth is hard to control sometimes, but Rosenqvist feels the team has done a decent job making sure everyone works well with each other. After all, they spend a lot of time together on the road, as well as back at the factory in Indianapolis, Indiana.
"When a team gets big, it can get impersonal, 'cause you're just not able to communicate to every member of the team because it's so big," Rosenqvist continued. "But we still have that core. We have a lot of fun and joke around. Then when it gets serious, everyone's really switched on, and we have a lot of clever people. We have new ideas, and bring new stuff to the table every weekend. It's exciting to be a part of it."
Rosenqvist is in a position for Indy 500 success. As we saw back in March at Texas, he sure can handle an oval, and he's starting in P8 for this weekend's Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Grid position isn't everything at this race, but it helps to start toward the front in terms of early race traffic.
The People Behind the Name
As the race weekend went on at Long Beach, it became more apparent that McLaren is playing the long game in IndyCar. Whether it be race wins or simply taking the time and effort to assemble the perfect team, it was evident that the Papaya Orange squad was made up of many hard-working people, many of who work behind the scenes and are hardly seen on podium celebrations.
"We've got a really diverse group, both in experience, age, all of these things. There's a lot of different stories within our organization," Kiel told me. "A good example of that is Gracie Hackenberg, one of our damper specialists. She was working in Oregon on some Miata [racing] stuff and just trying to break through into some professional categories."
"We gave her a call, and she literally hopped on a plane the next day and came in for an in-person interview," Kiel continued. "She went back home, packed up her entire life in her car, and moved to Indy without a plan other than she was going to come work for us. So when you talk about passion and just committing to something, I think that's really cool, and there's a lot of that on our team. We'll teach you what you need to know, but you have to be very passionate about what you're doing, 'cause it's not easy. We ask a lot of people."
This was all apparent as I walked through the team's paddock. There are a lot of people crammed into a tight area, all focused on their particular task, all working methodically to ensure the next phase of the weekend is well prepared for. From turning wrenches to cleaning and organizing tools, analyzing on-track data, and more.
No matter what level of motorsport it is, there's camaraderie, hard work on display, and long hours on the clock at McLaren. And sometimes, it all ends in the blink of an eye due to a first-lap crash, or a random mechanical failure. As Brown put it, "You lose more than you win, so you gotta be able to deal with that." It's a very human operation that's seen hardship and tears of disappointment as well as immense joy.
With the 106th running of the prestigious Indy 500 happening Sunday, Arrow McLaren SP will be working harder than ever. It's enlisted a third driver for its efforts, multiple F1 and Indy 500 race winner Juan Pablo Montoya, so the team will of course be bigger and busier. It's unclear how many more staff the team's had to add to run a third car, but it will certainly make things interesting. Plus, it's not like its Long Beach setup was too big, to begin with.
The McLaren Condor RV is the base of operations for the team on race weekends, and it's wildly different than what McLaren rocks in F1. Here, there weren't any fancy bottles of water or champagne, a chef-prepared buffet, or any other chic fare that one might expect from an operation with a name like McLaren attached to it. No, just a modest RV interior with cheap wine, store-bought bagels, and a Mr. Coffee with an appropriately-sized (massive) carafe full of fresh brew.
Everyone at Arrow McLaren SP wants a taste of the milk this weekend, but only one driver can win. Despite the full-on attack from Honda securing six of the top 10 positions on the grid, the Chevys showed great pace during practice and qualifying. O'Ward, who has seen success on superspeedways, will certainly be fighting hard, and so will Rosenqvist. Montoya, on the other hand, having won the race twice before, certainly knows a thing or two about leading when it counts the most: the final lap.
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