Note from TSO Ladder: This series of My Mazda Road To Indy features during the off-season have been fantastic, but this is Steve’s favorite. It serves as a great reminder that the Mazda Road To Indy isn’t just for drivers, but also for team owners, engineers and mechanics.
You can follow “Rotor” on Twitter Follow “Rotor” and also make sure you check out his unique artwork on Amazon Rotor’s Art on Amazon.
My Mazda Road to Indy: Dave “Rotor” Lehman
The essential mission of the Mazda Road to Indy is to serve as a development platform for the Verizon IndyCar Series and other major forms of motorsports – not just for drivers, but for teams, mechanics and support personnel as well. One such graduate is Dave Lehman, aka Rotor.
Rotor worked for Belardi Auto Racing on both their Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires teams before heading up Team Pelfrey’s title-winning Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires effort. Moving up to the “Big Show” with a job this season as a mechanic for Dale Coyne Racing, Rotor talks about his experiences on the Mazda Road to Indy, the differences between the ladder system and IndyCar – and how he managed to reach his 20s with no interest in racing at all.
What got you into racing?
I grew up in the north suburbs of Chicago. I was big into art – abstract, graffiti, painting, drawing. And I played music in two different bands for about nine years. I didn’t have an interest in racing or in anything mechanical until I was in my 20s. We took my dad indoor karting one Father’s Day and I was hooked. I kept going back with friends, then joined a league, then started racing. At that point, I was working as an apprentice electrician in Chicago.
I read an article about a nearby family whose daughter raced nationally and I contacted them about buying a kart. I started going to the track with them, learning how to work on the kart, how to make setup changes. I learned pretty quickly that I was better at working on them than driving them!
When I won my first championship with them at Iowa Speedway, that sealed the deal and I quit my job the next day. I put myself through tech school while I was working on the kart. We won six championships in two years and it didn’t seem like work. Of course there were days that sucked, but it was worth it.
How did you get into the Mazda Road to Indy?
I got lucky enough to find a job with Liberty Motorsports, which is now Belardi Auto Racing, conveniently located about an hour away from me in Illinois. Chuck (Lessick) and Brian (Belardi) gave me my first shot.
They were the team closest to me and since they were running in USF2000, they ran on the same weekends with IndyCar, which was really cool. 2010 was the resurgence of USF2000 with Dan (Andersen) taking the helm of it again and, honestly, I didn’t have anything to lose. So I just fired them an email, asking for an apprenticeship or entry level job. They liked my attitude and I started the next week. I was there from 2010 until October of 2013, doing USF2000 all four years plus some Indy Lights the last two years.
Working for the team gave me the opportunity to work with some veteran mechanics, guys who had been around a long time. It can be easy to learn bad habits, but suddenly I was working with guys who had worked in Champ Car, IndyCar, NHRA, and they really knew their stuff. In 2011, it became Belardi Auto Racing and we ran Anders (Krohn) and Jorge (Goncalves) in Indy Lights and I got to help out with that.
My last year there, I headed up the USF2000 program, with mechanics underneath me. It was a big undertaking, since we had a five-car team. I loved the challenge: I was still the lead mechanic on a car, but it was up to me to make sure everyone was on the same page, with no issues, and that everything was done right, neatly and on time.
I went to Team Pelfrey in late 2013 to help bring the team back to prominence. They had dominated Pro Mazda two years earlier. They had a whole new staff in 2014 and we worked hard to rebuild the team. By the mid-point of the season, [driver] Nicolas Costa was at the front of the field, earning four podiums [including a win at Mid-Ohio]. Team Pelfrey ended up third in the team championship. Last year was very successful for the team, winning the Cooper Tires Winterfest with Jack Aitken and earning the series championship with Santiago (Urrutia).
Pelfrey is involved in so many levels, from F1600 into Indy Lights, and that’s a great thing to see. I’ve worked with great guys like Peter Dempsey, Scott Anderson, Peter Portante and Colin Thompson, who is now a factory McLaren Academy driver. I’ve been competing against Sage Karam as a mechanic since he was 8 years old. He’s one of the first guys to go through the whole Mazda Road to Indy and make it to IndyCar and I remember him running around the paddock as a crazy kid.
You took the last step up the ladder to the Verizon IndyCar Series with Dale Coyne Racing this year. How did that come about and how much of a transition was there?
Our old chief at Pelfrey, Roy Wilkerson, had been in IndyCar forever, and he went to Coyne as a fill-in last year. This year, he’s chief on the #19 car for Luca Filippi. He got to assemble his own crew, so he asked me to send in a resume. It was something I had wanted to do, but then everything fell into place and I got lucky.
The biggest difference is that I’m not in charge of the entire car anymore. At Pelfrey, I was the only full-time Pro Mazda employee so I rebuilt the cars in between races. In Indy Lights, there are two mechanics per car. Now I’m responsible for only the rear of the Indy car. That being said, the uprights and the drive shafts are attached to the rear end, but I don’t do them. Nor do I touch the gearbox. I’m one of five or six guys at the track and everyone has their own thing. It forces you to communicate with people and work as a team and I haven’t had to do that before. It’s a change, but a welcome one.
Looking back now, what did you take from your years in the Mazda Road to Indy?
I’ve worked with some really great people who have lots of IndyCar experience. You learn from all of those people and that’s where the Mazda Road to Indy really helps. That was key for me. Like John Brunner at Belardi; he used to run Forsythe, so he brought in guys that used to work at Forsythe in Champ Car. These guys really know what they’re doing and you learn good habits from them. You can’t learn it if you’re not exposed to it.
It doesn’t matter what level you’re on: a race car is a race car. If you do something wrong, you’re going to hurt someone. If you’re serious at being a good race car mechanic, you have to be on your guard, do things right, always pay attention. Getting a chance to work on an Indy car, or working at some of the sports car races I was able to do last year with JDC and Riley Motorsports, you realize it’s all the same stuff. It’s all the other bits that take some getting used to this year, like the warm up procedures with all the things you have to do.
What advice do you give kids who want to do what you do?
I went to tech school and now I’m setting up Q&A seminars at that school and hope to expand to more campuses. These kids come in and they have delusions of grandeur; they see racing on TV and don’t realize what’s involved, like putting up the canopy and putting out all the boxes and tools – and then taking it all apart again, no matter the weather conditions. That’s all us. There is so much other stuff that no one knows about so I want to give kids an idea of what to expect. I tell kids to take their resumes and physically drop them off. Go talk to people.
It’s easier to start at the entry level. That’s why the Mazda Road to Indy is so perfect; there are so many teams willing to take someone at the entry level as a floater. You do the grunt work and get your feet wet. Then you know whether you want to stay or not. You get so much exposure to the trials that make or break people, and that’s a good thing.