Jeff Olson

Quick question. Ever change a tire on the surface of the sun?

I haven’t, but last week I watched others do it. For about 15 minutes at a time. Once the heat became unbearable, I retreated to the sweet relief of conditioned air and a few gulps of water. I had three bottles in the car, each getting warmer by the minute.

Crew members at last week’s universal aero kit test at sweltering Sebring International Raceway didn’t have the option of regular doses of AC or lukewarm water. They had only one chance to escape the heat during the nine-hour session in central Florida. For lunch, everyone crowded into transporters to cool down, dry off and rehydrate. Then it was back onto the surface of the sun for more lifting, kneeling, wrenching and sweating.

Oh, yeah. Almost forgot this part. Nearly everyone was wearing black.

If you haven’t noticed, this is the beginning of an ode to labor in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The people who do the actual work – the people most vulnerable to the peaks and valleys of an often shaky economic scene – earned their checks last week with every drop of sweat. We should be in awe of them, start a GoFundMe to cover their laundry expenses and give them free electrolytes for life.

Before this ode begins, it needs some background. First, there’s Sebring. If you’ve never been to the 12 Hours of Sebring, you’re missing everything magnificent about motorsports. Google “Sebring burning couch” for context. It’s part endurance sports car race, part spring break, part bar fight and every bit as invitingly strange as that sounds.

It’s also uniquely spartan. To get to the area of the short course where INDYCAR tests are held, one must traverse a rickety, one-lane bridge whose traffic flow is controlled by a single traffic signal. At the top of the bridge, at the precise moment when nothing else ahead can be seen, the urge to get the General Lee off the ground is deliciously tempting. Once it lands, you’re on your own. There are restrooms. That is all.

Then there’s the weather down here. I live a few hours from Sebring; I’m accustomed to the oppressive heat and humidity of this part of the world. Unlike most of my neighbors, though, I’m not bright enough to leave during the offseason, which is roughly April to October. While most snowbirds are up north, I’m stuck here with Florida Man and hurricanes and humidity that can only be described as sinister grease. The mold here has mold on it.

With that thought in mind, I headed to Sebring to cover the test, the final step in INDYCAR’s four-stage development of the 2018 body kit before the task is handed to manufacturers and teams. As Sebring tests go, it was meager. Just four teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Ed Carpenter Racing – were in attendance. Penske had two transporters, the others just one apiece. Each team had a small awning for shade. Otherwise, there was no escape except the transporters and a smattering of cars in the infield.

Did I mention almost everyone was wearing black? That includes four-time champion Scott Dixon, who donned a fresh black firesuit that, by the end of the day, had left its freshness far behind. He chuckled at the notion that he picked the perfect time to wear black. Then he went out and drove several long stints that would’ve melted the average glacier.

But crew folk are not your average glaciers. They’re tougher. This is not a good time to be a member of a race team, especially if you’re on the low end of the totem pole. The work is largely seasonal now, the wages not good. The dozen guys working on Dixon’s car had just survived a round of layoffs that affected the lives and families of 45 other CGR employees, as the team announced it was cutting back from four to two cars in 2018. Not all the layoffs were labor, but most were.

There’s no union, few perks and, as we saw at Sebring, little shade. Yet here they stood on the surface of the sun, lifting and kneeling and wrenching and sweating, without complaining or retreating to an air-conditioned car and a few warm bottles of water.

Instead, they made a running joke of the entire day. At one end of the pits, a crew member rode a truck dolly as another pushed. At the other end, they rolled up the sleeves of their black shirts to ward off farmer tans. Every cryptic joke was about heat and humidity, weight loss and sunburns. It could have been the most miserable day of their lives, but they turned it into something comical.

I’ve known people who spent years working up the ladder from tire changer to some form of middle management, only to voluntarily leave the job – with heartache – after decades. They leave because of money, or to find stability elsewhere, or because they want to spend summer weekends with their kids. Others aren’t so lucky as to leave it voluntarily.

What all share is the reason they chose the job in the first place. They love the sport. They’re seduced by the thrill. They don’t just watch the Indianapolis 500, they participate in it. No desk job offers that. It’s worth fighting the instability of a weak advertising market that seems to affect them first. They don’t do this for any of the trappings they could find in other careers. They do it because it speaks to them. They do it while wearing black on the surface of the sun.

That’s worthy of our respect. And a cold bottle of water.