By Megan K. Scott, Correspondent
UNION, NJ — Growing up, Thomas Harrigan was never into cars. He didn’t spend his Saturdays fiddling under the hood or watching his dad work on the family car. And he couldn’t tell you the difference between a carburetor and a fuel injector.
In high school, he had no real career path. But just a year after graduating, Harrigan, a student at Lincoln Technical Institute in Union, has experienced the ultimate in automotive technology: working with an IndyCar pit crew. It was fast-paced, adrenaline-rushing, pressure-filled, exciting, competitive and has changed his career trajectory.
Now the 20-year-old student from Rockaway, who also works at a private auto shop in Denville, has his sights set on a career as an open-wheel mechanic for a pit crew.
“If I can build up the strength, that would be fantastic,” Harrigan said in a recent phone interview. “It would be loads of fun. After experiencing this, I haven’t done anything more exciting.
“Indy is something new to me, but out of all the motor sports, it’s the one I’m most interested in. It’s really a true driver’s sport. It’s technical. It’s based on everyone’s position. That’s really how you win. It’s a really a big team effort.”
Harrigan, an automotive technology student, was part of the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports IndyCar pit team for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 held Aug. 25 at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., just east of St. Louis. He worked with Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 car pit crew, getting an up-close look at life on an IndyCar team.
It’s a different perspective than an average fan has and gives a personal look at the responsibility involved. Only one week earlier, Hinchcliffe’s teammate, Robert Wickens, was involved in a high-speed collision with Ryan Hunter-Reay at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania that saw his car climb over Hunter-Reay’s, vault over the outside retaining wall into a catch fence, then careen back across the track. Wickens was left with two broken legs and an injured spine.
As part of the mentorship program, Harrigan had the opportunity to meet Hinchcliffe, participate in team meetings and also to meet with Jon Flack, president of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He hopes this will give him a leg up.
“The entire sport is really competitive,” Harrigan said. “When you have only so many drivers, there are only so many positions that can be filled. You have to prove yourself over others to get a spot.”
Harrigan found Lincoln Tech during an internet search for technical schools that teach automotive technology. He had developed his interest after hanging out in vo-tech with friends who spent their spare time working on cars.
“I was like, ‘This is really a lot of fun,’” he said. “I just really got obsessed with it. It’s something you can do as a hobby and a job.
“It’s more than working on cars, it’s what you can do with it,” he added. “I can work on a car, build it up and go put it on a race track.”
Harrigan visited the Union campus and fell in love with the technology, instructors, small classes and home-like feel. He joined the race team, which includes two drag cars and a show car. From posters at school, he learned about the Schmidt Peterson Mentorship Program, which gives selected Lincoln Tech students full pit and garage access for an entire race weekend. To qualify, students must have outstanding grades, performance and attendance, and be nominated by their instructors.
“First of all, he is one of the best students I have had the pleasure in teaching in the nine years I’ve been an instructor here at Lincoln Tech of Union,” Dennis Blumetti, the automotive and race team instructor, said in an email about Harrigan. “Thomas displays a great attitude and work ethic. He is always eager to learn new material and how it can help him in the automotive field. Another key quality, he shows the passion for it.”
The reward is the ultimate dream of shade-tree mechanics everywhere.
“It’s such an experience that these kids have that it’s unreal,” said Daniel Hagaman, an instructor at Lincoln Tech’s South Plainfield campus, who accompanied selected students to a race. “They get to do everything that the pit crew guys do. They give them the clothes to wear, make them feel like they are part of the team. They give them the headphones. They listen to exactly what they are saying to the driver.
“They get to meet Hinchcliffe. The personality on this guy is something else. He takes a lot of time out of his day to sit down with these students and talk to them. It’s just a phenomenal experience that these kids have,” Hagaman added.
Harrigan’s first day was spent learning about the different pit crew jobs, the planning involved in prepping the Honda-powered open-cockpit car to race and the technical aspects of the car, from the gearbox to the suspension to the chassis.
The following day, Harrigan trained for the job he would be doing on race day — working with the tires. He worked closely with pit crew member Cole Jagger, a Lincoln Tech graduate, who is an open-wheel mechanic and front end specialist.
Then came the race.
“Race day was very exciting,” Harrigan said. “It was very fast paced. There was a clear way to hurry in the pit. They only have so much time. They had to get the car ready as fast as possible. They sent it to inspection, brought it to the line and then the race would start.”
An IndyCar pit stop typically takes between seven and nine seconds.
Harrigan’s race weekend responsibilities included taking used tires to the Firestone tent for replacement. He also assisted Schmidt Peterson crew members in taking critical tire measurements to assess wear and make adjustments to the cars suspension. Tire analysis is extremely important in developing and adjusting the team’s race strategy and enables the crew to adapt to the changing race scenario.
A Firestone crew member came and marked off what was done. Harrigan then collected the tires and brought them to the Firestone tent. He estimates he worked four or five pit stops.
“You had to get everything done as quickly as you possibly could to keep things moving and keep the pit clear,” he said. “You had to learn on the fly. I felt a little flustered at the beginning. But once I had a pit stop or two under my belt I got a little bit more relaxed and was faster.”
Hinchcliffe finished 15th in a field of 21, two laps behind race winner Will Power. The season ended Sept. 16, with Hinchliffe coming in 10th in the IndyCar series points.
Harrigan said the Lincoln Tech classroom and his work as a mechanic have given him a strong foundation for a career in Indy.
“I started off knowing absolutely nothing about cars,” he said. “Within the last 12 months, I have worked on every aspect of a car. I really studied my butt off. With the hands-on experience and the one-on-one, a lot of my teachers were in the field, taking that to heart and listening to them has really guided me.”
He certainly impressed the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports president.
“Thomas joined Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in St. Louis and displayed all of the skills we look for in young talent,” Flack said in an email. “His positive attitude, willingness to pitch in, no matter how tall the task, and inquisitive nature really stood out. As we wrap up another successful season with Lincoln Tech’s mentorship program, it’s clear we’re getting an inside look at some of the brightest talent across their campuses.”