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IndyCar Indianapolis 500

When a championship-winning NASCAR crew chief engineered an Indy 500 team

The idea of a crossover is usually thought to be strictly among drivers, but the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 featured a venture into unfamiliar territory by a NASCAR Cup Series champion crew chief.

nascar-cup-homestead-2017-2017-champion-martin-truex-jr-furniture-row-racing-toyota-crew-c

Cole Pearn cut his teeth in NASCAR’s top level, helping guide Martin Truex Jr. to 24 wins over five seasons and the 2017 Cup title.

After stepping away from the sport full-time at the end of 2019, though, he opted for a unique one-off opportunity to join Ed Carpenter Racing and engineer Conor Daly for the Indy 500 in 2020 – which was moved from May 24 to August 23 in a race behind closed doors due to the COVID pandemic.

“It was totally out of the blue for me,” Pearn told Autosport.

“You know, not something I had really planned to be doing, but 2020 was a weird year for everybody. So, might as well just have gone with it. I was still more freshly removed from racing at that point in time, so it seemed a little bit easier to go back and get that experience.

“I really just did it because my old engineer, Pete Craik, worked there and said they were in a jam, so it seemed to make sense. That's the main reason I did it.”

Even though a stock car and an Indycar are complete opposites from a design standpoint, Pearn found the engineering aspect similar.

Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

“You're still trying to achieve the same thing,” Pearn said. “It was interesting. I was quite nervous about it, but the load path is the same. The corner banking, corner geometry is the same whether you’re in a stock car or you’re in an Indycar. The way that that the thing loads and what you’re trying to achieve was very similar.

“Once I kind of saw that, I was just like, ‘Oh, this is actually not really that more complicated as what I was worried about.’”

There was promise in Pearn’s initiation to the IndyCar Series, setting up a Chevrolet-powered entry for Daly that appeared strong in the build-up by landing in the top 10 four times in the full field practice sessions, including second on Fast Friday, when the boost is turned up.

It was a different story the rest of the way, though, as Daly qualified 18th and then was left finishing 29th after spinning out of Turn 4 and nearly saving it, being hit by Oliver Askew on lap 92.

Although Pearn adapted well with the transition, it is unlikely a return will happen anytime soon as he keeps busy operating Golden Alpine Holidays, a lodging chain in British Columbia, Canada.

“If I didn't have anything else going on in my life and I was sitting around with my thumb on my butt, maybe then it would be cool to go do it, but I just really can't see that happening,” Pearn said.

“I found it hard too because I'm kind of an all-in or all-out guy and I had come off working on a championship race team and you're into it. I was involved in everything in terms of technical development, all the things you're working on and you're really pulling the rope together and then you go into those deals and you're just the third wheel a little bit.

“That's nothing bad in any way. It is what it is. I felt it hard to be in that type of role, just being the kind of one-off thing and not being part of the program on a regular basis. So, for me, I found that difficult. I'd never done anything like that before, so I didn't know what to expect. That was one of my takeaways. You go racing, you gotta do your best and it's hard to do your best when you're not part of it on a weekly basis, I felt.”

Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota team celebration

Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota team celebration

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Pearn also remains involved in NASCAR from afar, handling the aero mapping for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“We have wind tunnel and I surface fit all the data for the simulation and manage that all through the year between different rules packages as we find updates and all that side of it,” Pearn said. “I do it all from BC.”

Team owner and driver Ed Carpenter relished having Pearn part of the team, noting how quickly he picked up the nuances of an Indy car.

“We had a good time with Cole,” Carpenter said. “He is a really intelligent guy. You know, obviously what we do is quite different, but he adapted well, adjusted quickly and it's always interesting to hear a different perspective from another discipline. We enjoyed having him around and he’d be welcomed back if he ever wanted to come do it again.”

Carpenter was also quick to point out that it would be good to see Pearn return to at least get the full scope of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with the tradition and fanfare that goes along with it.

“Yeah, for sure,” Carpenter said. “He missed out on what it's really all about because that one just didn't feel right from start to finish. But I still think he enjoyed it.”

While Pearn enjoyed the experience of seeing how the process goes, there was “too much practice” for his taste. He compared how the Cup Series is usually suited to a couple of hours maximum per race weekend, which is similar to every IndyCar round except for the Indy 500.

“You get yourself screwed up pretty quick just because you're bored, and you got to do stuff and try stuff,” Pearn said.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is known by many to be sensitive and temperamental, which is why Pearn would rather not keep chasing the track when the race notes keep everything grounded.

“I felt like that was a bit challenging,” Pearn said. “I’m like, ‘Why are we changing all this stuff? We have a plan. Why are we getting ourselves screwed up here?’ I don’t know. You get bored and you have to do stuff. It would’ve been great to see the fans and all that side of things. That was kind of a bummer. I was really looking forward to that part of it, getting to see the atmosphere, but I don’t know, just the exposure and working in something else and seeing it from a different point of view was definitely good.”

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