Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ A star pit performer moves on

by Gordon Kirby
As the Champ cars pulled into the pits at the end of Sunday's Long Beach GP and the whine from their turbo Cosworth engines fell silent, a forty-year era in American racing came to an end. Turbocharged engines have defined Indy car racing since the mid-sixties and helped make the cars number among the most powerful and spectacular race cars on earth. The turbo's signature, high-pitched whine helped provide Indy car racing with an identity and a mythical image as the most demanding cars to drive and race.

Now, the turbo has vanished from the scene and yet many fans at Long Beach last weekend expressed their hopes that the turbos will return when the IRL launches its new formula in 2010 or 2011. And in the paddock and garage area the feeling is virtually unanimous that turbocharged engines and big horsepower must be a feature of the new formula if it is to inspire emotions and attract fans, engine manufacturers and car builders to what everyone hopes will be a new start to the deeply damaged world of Indy car racing.

It's abundantly clear, after all, that a massive diaspora has taken place from IRL and Champ Car over the last four or five years as drivers, engineers, crewmen, hospitality workers, et al, have either left the sport or moved on to the ALMS, Grand-Am and NASCAR. And of course, the parlous state of Indy car racing can also be measured by the ridiculous fact that neither Paul Tracy nor Alex Tagliani have a ride in this year's unified IRL series. We can only hope that unification ultimately will lead to a healing of the numerous wounds and to a commercial rebirth of Indy car racing so that the best drivers can be employed to drive the best cars.

Meanwhile, Kansas City next weekend will be the last Indy car race for one of the sport's most accomplished chief mechanics. Donnie Hoevel, 48, has been with Newman/Haas/Lanigan for twenty-two years, but like many people in the sport last weekend probably was his last visit to Long Beach. Hoevel has decided to launch his own business preparing vintage and historic racing cars. He's one of many of Indy car racing's working hands who have been deeply disappointed with the sport's declining status over the past dozen years but he's making the move into a new life because he has an autistic child who needs his father to be closer to home on a regular basis.\

Hoevel has been one of Newman/Haas's chief mechanics since 1999 when he took over those duties on Michael Andretti's car. Hoevel won the 2002 CART championship with Cristiano da Matta and has been in charge of Graham Rahal's cars the past year and a quarter. Hoevel started his working life in a machine shop and began his racing career working for the Skip Barber school. Before joining Newman/Haas in 1986 he was a crew chief for two years with Tom Gloy's title-winning Trans-Am team. Now, Hoevel has formed Don Hoevel Racing to prepare and race historic cars and has attracted an initial batch of customers, including Bobby Rahal.

"The biggest reason I'm doing this is I need to spend more time at home with my family," Hoevel explained. "Certainly, the nature of the business has changed a lot. It's not as fun as it used to be. It's funny because a lot of the old guys years ago used to say it wasn't as fun as it used to be. But things in life change. I have responsibilities at home and to do this job you've got to commit one hundred and twenty percent, and I can't commit a hundred and twenty percent because I've got to save some of myself for what's required at home.

"I've wanted to own my own shop for many years but over the last three or four years with the bills building-up for my son's therapy I had to figure out a way to pay those bills. So I started working out of my garage and actually turned it into something. I had a couple of opportunities to do some things but they never materialized and then I decided I've either got go big-time and do it all or stop doing it because my garage was too small to do it professionally.

"A few years ago, it didn't matter for my son if I was home or not, but now it does," Hoevel added. "So I decided I was forty-eight years old and if I was going to make this happen I couldn't wait another five years. I had to do it now."\

Hoevel considered putting together his own Atlantic team. "When the new Atlantic series started a couple of years ago I looked at putting together an Atlantic team. But it didn't materialize and I had always liked the old race cars, I guess because we grew up with them. But I looked at a lot of different things before deciding to go in this direction."

Hoevel has worked hard in his spare time to build a customer base for his fledgling business. "I've been working on a lot of cars for different people over the last couple of years," he said. "My lawyer,Tim Richmond, was one of the first guys who hired me to work on his race car. He's always had vintage cars and race cars, and I started doing some work for him. I had a few other customers as well and it just kind of spread from there.

"I'm doing some stuff for Bobby Rahal and a Formula Atlantic car for a friend of his. So it's grown pretty steadily and given me confidence that I can make it happen as a business."

Don Hoevel Racing is based in Lakemoor, Illinois, north of Chicago and he can be reached at (815) 759-1208. He expects to attend six to ten races this year, including three or four at nearby Elkhart Lake.

At Long Beach last weekend Hoevel put some perspective on the huge effort required over the past few months for the former Champ Car teams to make the switch from their Panoz-Cosworths to Dallara-Hondas.

"When the first Swift Indy car came out, that was a pretty intense couple of months trying to get the first two cars built," Hoevel observed. "And in the eighties with Tom Gloy we built all our own Trans-Am cars and we had a three-month straight thrash to do it. So I've been in it before. This was a little bit different because there were so many uncertainties and you were under the gun and the pressure was always on.

"We had so much work and it was really hard to get all the parts needed to get the job done. Parts supply has been difficult. We got so many shipments every day and just keeping all that stuff organized took a lot of time and effort.

"Last year, when we built the Panoz cars, we knew everyone else was in the same boat. But this year, we knew we were going to be at a reasonably large disadvantage on the ovals. And then obviously, we did pretty good on the first road course."

All the Champ Car teams have been through a punishing regimen over the last four or five weeks. "We tried to work six-day weeks and take Sundays off," Hoevel commented. "Most of the time we were at the shop by seven o'clock in the morning and easily there until seven, eight or nine at night. Towards the end we were there until ten, eleven or twelve o'clock at night. We did plenty of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen-hour days."

The intense work load continued on the road in Florida last month for the IRL season-openers at Homestead at St. Petersburg. "In Florida it was two, straight weeks, flat-out every day," Hoevel remarked. "You can't take any chances at a 200 mph oval and certainly the first two days of testing at Homestead we didn't get in as many laps as we wanted to because the cars weren't done.

"After Homestead we went testing at Sebring for a day before going to St Pete and it was good. We only got about twenty-five laps in before it started raining but we learned an awful lot in twenty-five laps about what did work on the car and what needed to be fixed. Had we not been able to do that, we wouldn't have been anywhere at St Pete."

Hoevel says the main effort for St Pete was to make the team's two cars safe and reliable. The primary engineering effort for St Pete, where young Rahal scored a fine win in Hoevel's car, was to get the best mechanical grip and performance from its Dallaras.

"There was some engineering going on," Hoevel said. "But basically it was all about us making sure we built the car as best as we can so that we make sure nothing falls off, it doesn't leak and the wheels don't fall off. The primary goal was to make sure it was safe."

After spending a year working closely with Graham, Hoevel is convinced the teen-ager possesses all the tools required to make it big in racing. "He's as good as they get," Hoevel remarked. "He's the real deal. It's pretty obvious that he's been paying attention around the house for the last nineteen years. He's very mature and level-headed. He's smart and with time he's going to be even better. When all the chemistry and all the stars are lined up, he'll be as tough to beat as anybody."

Young Rahal and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing will miss Hoevel's drive, humor and pragmatic, get-it-done way of working. Donnie is a true racer who has been a great friend to many people in the sport over the past quarter century. I wish Hoevel the very best on his new venture. Any serious vintage or historic racer would do themselves proud to have such an accomplished man maintain and prepare their cars.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page