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The Eyes at Turn Three

Terre Haute native David Hunt takes National Road Magazine’s Donovan Wheeler around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Carb Day and shows him a day the in life of an Indy Car spotter.

by Donovan Wheeler

David Hunt has been racing all of his life.  Granted, only the smallest sliver of that has actually happened behind the wheel, but you don’t need to spend too much time with him to see that everything is a race for him.  Sometimes he sports a coat and tie, chasing an investment or trying to turn an idea into a moneymaker.  Other times he plops on his Sycamore baseball cap and chases perfection from the drummer’s seat of his local band.  But for two months every year Hunt immerses himself in the biggest chase of them all.  From his perch atop Turn Three at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he straps on his radio headset and competes for his piece of the Borg-Warner Trophy, the most iconic prize not only in motor racing, but arguably in Hoosier folklore.

“I started racing when I was six,” Hunt tells me. “Quarter midgets over in Terre Haute. Once you get bitten by the racing bug, it sort of stays in your blood. So I raced until I was about 12, then I took a long break. Then, after I graduated, I started racing midget cars. I was involved in that for a couple years, then I ended up in a really bad crash on July 10, 1992. The wreck was bad enough that it occurred to me that I was racing with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon – I mean I grew up racing with those guys, and if I kept trying to hang with these guys I was going to get hurt.  That’s when I realized, I had a job at the bank, and I had a college education.  But these guys, they were going to do this for a living, and I really suck. I have my own career ahead of me.”

As we talk fresh rubber and methane swirls around in the air in front of us.  It’s an acrid, atmospheric cocktail if you’re not used to it, but for the gearheads and speed technicians who spend all their waking moments here in Gasoline Alley, it’s life-support.  Flowing across us are clusters of spectators, their pit-passes fluttering into their faces or over their shoulders when the wind catches them.  They crowd around the open bay doors, their smartphones held at arm’s length.  For the most part, all they can get are ass-end shots of the machines which bring everyone here, but for most of them the ass-end will do.  Elongated golf carts—some more like flatbed trucksters, others resembling their golf-course brothers—weave through the crowd.  Drivers at first throw out one or two polite “Excuses me’s.”  Then they honk (shrill peeps triggered by handy foot-buttons left of their brake pedals).  Finally they goose the throttle, inching their way to the calves of the mesmerized throng.  One way or another, everyone gets their acceleration fix down here.

I'm not active full-time. I kind of pick and choose the drivers I want to work with. I've worked with some that are complete assholes. So the great thing about doing this part time is that I have the liberty of "firing" drivers and saying, "I'm not working with that guy again." There some drivers who do not want you to say a single thing when you're on the radio, so you doubt. Then when something happens they say, "Why didn't you let me know about…?" So they sort of condition you to read their minds. Which is impossible. David Hunt Photo by Donovan Wheeler
“[J.R. Hildebrand] turned down a full scholarship to MIT to do this. So he’s already kind of a brainiac. He has an engineering mind, and he can process a lot of information. So while he’s driving, he’s listening to what we’re telling him, and he’s making critical decisions in the middle of a turn and he handles all that fine. Other drivers, if you talk to them that situation, they freak out.”
Photo by Donovan Wheeler

Hunt, a former investment entrepreneur who sold his business and slipped into quasi-retirement in 2003, soaks in the spectacle before us.  Sitting on the back seat of an idle golf cart, we take in the activity going down in the inspection tent across from us.  A line of cars, most of them Hondas, sit on their undercarriage trolleys—a sort of racecar pallet jack the crew uses to move the silent machines from the garage to the track.

“[After I sold my business],” he explains, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.  So I started thinking, and I realized that the only other thing where I had any deep connections or emotions was racing. So I took all of 2004 off, and in 2005 I started a Formula One team in one of the lower categories of the racing hierarchy. If you compared it to baseball, it’s kind of like starting a single-A team and then working your way up. If you’re successful then you just keep moving up until you bottleneck yourself among the best of the best.”

For the next four years, Hunt would groom prospective drivers, mechanics, and racing specialists from his ownership perch, building relationships with then unknown racers such as James Hinchcliffe and J. R. Hildebrand. But after selling out his interests in 2008, he stayed in the racing world, this time offering his talents as a manager and liaison for up-and-coming young drivers.

“A lot of the kids I guided were young international drivers,” he says. “If you’re a parent, and you’re sending your kid here from São Paulo, Brazil, you’re not going to just send that kid up here to be on his own. He needs guidance, and for a long time I became that guy.  Besides being the guy who was able to get deals done between teams and drivers, I was also the person who managed many of these kids and would resolve conflict. It’s kind of funny, when parents give their kids advice, no matter how good the advice is, the kids don’t listen because it’s coming from their parents. But I would basically tell these kids the same thing – but I would just change a few words and maybe change the tone – and it’s amazing how kids respond to someone who isn’t a parent.”

"Earlier in the week, you're not as much in the moment as you are on a day like today. But you're still always preparing, and you're still putting out all kinds of fires. I mean, right now lunch is supposed to be here for these guys at 11: 00, and I'm not sure if it's going to get here on time. And I work with six drivers who are into different teams, so I'm always spread pretty thin." Abbie Carter, Racing Team Assistant Photo by Donovan Wheeler
“Earlier in the week, you’re not as much in the moment as you are on a day like today. But you’re still always preparing, and you’re still putting out all kinds of fires. I mean, right now lunch is supposed to be here for these guys at 11: 00, and I’m not sure if it’s going to get here on time. And I work with six drivers who are in two different teams, so I’m always spread pretty thin.” Abbie Carter, Racing Team Assistant
Photo by Donovan Wheeler

One of those kids, an Indy Lights Series racer named Kyle Kaiser, sits on Hunt’s docket for the day.  After the big-league drivers finish their hour-long practice session, Kaiser and a couple dozen other Indy Racing hopefuls will hit the speedway chasing their own dreams of Sunday afternoon glory.

“It’s a ladder series, much like single-A, double-AA and triple-AAA baseball,” Hunt says describing racing levels which comprise a larger league dubbed the Mazda Road to Indy. “The first level is the USF2000 series, then Pro Mazda, then Indy Lights, and finally here. You can skip some of the steps if you’re really talented, but overall this is a very focused and precise way to funnel drivers up to the top. And while they’re here, they’re part of the big picture and they’re getting to know a lot of people along the way. This is a lot better than sending these young kids to some race far away in California, because here they get to immerse themselves in the atmosphere surrounding the big-time.”

Another youngster with a promising future spots Hunt from his vantage point two bays away.  They wave.  The kid smiles.  A huge grin, the kind you see on kids after prom—and the after-prom—has ended…it’s that kind of joy.  The big-leaguers carry themselves differently.  Hunt and his driver, Hildebrand, pass each other among a man-sized stack of Firestones in one of the reserve bays.

“Hi boss,” Hunt beams.

“Hey,” Hildebrand barks.  He averts his eyes and moves on.

“Normally,” Hunt explains, “J. R. is as down-to-earth as they come.  He’s a great driver and a great person, and I love working for him.  But on days like today—and this practice session is a big one today—he slips into ‘game mode.’  And I don’t blame him because the stakes are so high.”

"The veteran drivers will help the really young kids, but once they get up to here, to Indy Lights, they start to keep their distance because these could be the kids that in the putting them out of a job." David Hunt Photo by Donovan Wheeler
“The veteran drivers will help the really young kids, but once they get up to here, to Indy Lights, they start to keep their distance because these could be the kids that end up putting them out of a job.” David Hunt
Photo by Donovan Wheeler

The practice session soon to begin is the last time the drivers will be on the track until race day.  As Hunt describes it, the previous sessions earlier in the week were 60-65% affairs.  Cautious and careful excursions onto the asphalt to make sure all was working.  Today…100%…in traffic.  The plan: Get onto the track, practice four pit-stops (short versions he calls “hot stops”), and then throttle out for the rest of the hour.  As another spotter for a different team described it, it was “One more chance to screw everything up.”  And indeed, as British driver Pippa Mann would find out late in that hour, a wipe out on Carb Day’s practice meant a long weekend salvaging the ride for Sunday.

“It’s intense,” says Hunt, who will be working his third consecutive 500 this year. “When you get up there, and listen to what’s going on, you’re going to see how decisions have to be made on the spot. Not surprisingly, it can sometimes get absolutely crazy. To do this sort of thing, you have to be able to make timely decisions and convey them in a concise manner. You have to be a minimalist. You have to say specific information, make sure they understand it, and you have to keep calm while you’re doing it.”

We hop on a cart and leave the Alley for Turn Three.  Driving through the infield on Carb Day seems like navigating a bicycle through an endless string of Italian roundabouts.  For the five or six minutes it takes to motor our way there, we zip past cars looking for parking spots, hordes of fans in tank tops lugging their beer coolers behind them, and yellow-shirts standing in every makeshift intersection hopelessly trying to make order of the utter chaos surrounding them.

Compared to the Alley or the infield, Turn Three is a ghost town.  After parking under the bleachers, we walk up the aluminum stairway to the top row.  Hunt offers me a spare radio.  It’s a right-side only sort of thing, and while the earmuffs drown out some of the sound, the cars are loud, and the chatter is sometimes garbled.  But even though more than one exclamation is unclear, I can still gather the sense of the moment.  And those cars…for years I watched them hug the walls at each turn, always on television.  But sitting there, seeing in real time what 220 miles-per-hour looks like, the gaps between the cars and the wall as they round the third turn become marvels of an exact precision and skill akin to neurosurgeons.

Except for a miscommunication late in the practice session (something Hunt said they would “discuss” when they met later in the day), Hildebrand’s last jaunt on the track before race day went smoothly.  But the rest of Hunt’s day, however, would end badly.  In the following Indy Lights race, his young driver, holding second-place in the Indy Lights Championship series, would hit the wall on the fourth turn of the first lap.  That is racing.  Work, planning, communication, stress…surrounded by a host of devastating variables all completely out of your control.

David Hunt explains what happens during radio conversation with driver J. R. Hildebrand (Car Noise In Background).

Cover Photo by Lisa Anderson Hurley
Cover Photo by Lisa Anderson Hurley

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler grew up an hour from the Speedway but always stayed away from the race, opting to listen to it on the radio or watch wild feeds on c-band satellite. His day in Gasoline Alley gave him new appreciation for what has been nearby all this time.

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