Top Gear – Norm Hornitschek

During a Champ Car race there are seven teammates over the wall during any given pit stop. It’s the job of six dedicated individuals to get the seventh one back on the track. We talked with Norm Hornitschek from Newman/Haas/Lanigan about his position on the defending championship Champ Car World Series team.

Mecca of Speed: Norm, tell us about your unique road to the Champ Car series.

Norm Hornitschek: I was a journeyman tool and die apprentice in Germantown (Wisconsin) and one of our employees knew one of the crew chiefs on a team. Through word of mouth I heard about openings for a few positions, including one for a gearbox mechanic trainee, which he turned down.

I fit the criteria they were looking for: single, mechanically inclined and looking to learn more. I accepted the position in 1998 and was on the test team for one year and then I was moved up to the traveling crew.

Mecca of Speed: Which team was that for?

Norm Hornitschek: That was for Christian Fittipaldi’s side of the team, which was car #11. In 2003 I was moved to Sebastien Bourdais’ team.

Mecca of Speed: Your primary responsibility with the team is maintaining the gearbox, is that correct?

Norm Hornitschek: Yes. The current gearbox and differential have a lot more parts involved due to the pneumatic shifting system. There is more time required to maintain this system compared to the system we used in previous years.

I am also on the pit crew, changing the outside front tire.

Mecca of Speed: So you are responsible for sending Sebastien out during a pit stop?

Norm Hornitschek: Yes, waving him in and sending him out when it’s safe (preferably ahead of the guy behind us).

Mecca of Speed: Did the team give you any training before moving you to the front outside tire position, or was it more learn on the fly?

Norm Hornitschek: Basically, I’ve watched the guys over the years. We had some shuffling of people and I was next in line by seniority of tire changes and the team didn’t want to put a new guy in the outside front position.

I went into the 2006 season as the outside front tire changer. We practice to get everyone comfortable with their then new positions and things have worked out well.

Mecca of Speed: After you complete your tire change are you radioed from the timing stand on potential openings to send Sebastien out?

Norm Hornitschek: No, usually they are talking to Sebastien, telling him to hold it, or in more extreme situations they might jump in and tell us to hold it to avoid another car like what happened in Edmonton early in the race weekend.

There can be some close calls out there so you have to be heads up at all times.

Mecca of Speed: You are the final go signal at the end of the pit stop.

Norm Hornitschek: A lot of times the driver thinks he sees everything, but he can’t see everything that is going on behind him. If someone is not clear he might not see them, or the fuel may be disconnected but he may not see the crewman is still there, so we hold him in the pits.

I’ve seen a few drivers leave early and it’s not pretty.

Mecca of Speed: Is the gearbox for the Panoz the same gearbox that was in the Lola adapted to fit the new car, or is it a completely new unit?

Norm Hornitschek: It uses the same internals as far as the gears, main drive, reduction gears and bevel gears. Champ Car wanted the suppliers and teams to be able to keep their current inventory.

They changed as many things as they could while staying with the existing gears.

For the pneumatic system in this year’s gearbox, it can be operated manually like in the old days or with the pneumatic system, which was added on later.

There are a lot of external parts, the accumulator, air compressor, solenoid valve and actuator which we had problems with the early part of this year, but we have worked things out.

Mecca of Speed: Would it be accurate to say it’s the pneumatic end of the gearbox that was added for 2007?

Norm Hornitschek: Yes

Mecca of Speed: While you are responsible for the gearbox on the road, do you also work on them back at the shop?

Norm Hornitschek: Yes, when it’s back at the shop I don’t work strictly on just Sebastien’s car. There are four of us total on the team. We each get our respective driver’s gearboxes ready first and then I might rebuild one of Graham’s or the other way around.

The shop guys do most of the full rebuilds because we are gone so much.

Mecca of Speed: Can you give us an outline of what your schedule is like over a race weekend?

Norm Hornitschek: We usually fly in on Thursday morning and get to the track around noon. We get our primary racecar ready, tie up any last minute things and have the car ready for tech.

We also talk with the engineers and listen to any changes they have come up with since we left the shop, make those changes and then make sure the car passes tech inspection.

Sometimes we have last minute parts that come in for the gearbox, differential, or any part of the car that may have to be fitted.

If the car and gearbox are set I help set up the pits.

On Friday before the first morning practice session we have a half hour pit stop practice.

Then we do our morning practice. After that is complete, the engineers tell us what changes they would like done to the car.

Other times, something may happen like the driver brushing the wall. Then we may have to change the whole suspension on that corner, or possibly just the upright bearing assembly, it all depends on the damage.

Then we nut and bolt the car and do first round qualifying.

Usually we’ll have an engine change either Friday or Saturday evening. If we don’t have one on Friday we follow the same procedure for Saturday.

Saturday night is usually a pretty long night of race prep for the car. Most likely we change engines. If we don’t we split the car and change the clutch, put on headers and pipes, and I put all new gears in the gearbox. Most of the time I go through the differential and change some things, or we put a new crack-checked differential in the car.

We then start the car to make sure there are no leaks in any part of the car.

Sunday morning is always busy because we have to duplicate the spare car to the primary car set-up. There never seems to be enough time on Sunday morning.

We do another half hour pit stop practice followed by morning warm-up, which is also a half hour.

That practice starts with what is called an installation lap, which consists of Sebastien doing one lap, then we pull all the bodywork off and make sure everything is still tight and not leaking. Then he usually goes out on full tanks and does a race simulation to get a feel for how that car is in race day conditions.

After that we measure the amount of fuel left in the car, do a set-up and another nut and bolt. There may be changes to the gears if there is a head wind or we might adjust the floor ballast on the car. That happens quite often.

Then we get ready for the race which can start anytime between 12:00-3:00 PM depending on the event schedule.

After the race we load up and head to the next one.

Mecca of Speed: You fly out on Sunday night?

Norm Hornitschek: Sometimes we fly out on a red eye, other times on Monday morning.

Mecca of Speed: Having done standing starts for the majority of this season, have you found any parts in the gearbox that have needed to be strengthened?

Norm Hornitschek: I don’t think it’s a matter of strengthening the parts, it’s down to the Cosworth and Pi mapping of the engine. There are so many different settings they can use to fine tune everything.

I think Sebastien is doing good on his starts. He was a little worried before Portland with some of the rookies who haven’t done a standing start before. He did them back in F3 and F3000 so he hit the ground running.

I think overall the starts have gone well and saved on the carnage in the first turn at a lot of places.

Mecca of Speed: Having been in this sport for almost 10 years, what are some of the pleasant surprises you have come across in this series?

Norm Hornitschek: I think the opportunity I’ve had to meet and work with some truly amazing people involved with Champ Car.

In 2000 I got to go have steaks at Mario Andretti’s house, which was great.

I’ve also had the opportunity to go on a few hot laps with a couple of drivers, which is always a treat.

Where else would you get the chance to meet Rick Mears or Nigel Mansell? Looking back, having the opportunity to meet motorsports legends are great memories to have.

Mecca of Speed: Some teams contract their crew members on a year-to-year basis. Newman/Haas/Lanigan consistently has the same crew from year to year. Does the team use year-to-year contracts, or a different system?

Norm Hornitschek: We don’t sign contracts. We have phases in the off season where we may loose some assistant engineers or truck drivers, but there is always a good body of people who have been here a long time. Especially the shop based crew. People have mentioned this before- Newman/Haas/Lanigan has a loyal base group of employees.

Mecca of Speed: So in a way it’s similar to everyone’s average job. You don’t have to negotiate for you position from year to year. Your job does have more excitement then the average job.

Norm Hornitschek: I spend some time inside, some time outside and get to travel.

It’s funny how some teams had drivers who crews were changing almost every week and things were a little touch and go. I don’t know how all the teams work, but it’s good here.

We do lose staff now and then, just like any company, but overall we tend to stick together.

Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time, we appreciate the insight.

Norm Hornitschek: Thank you.

Content credit Norm Hornitschek and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff and John Vatne.