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Think you're organized? Meet Mr. Channell

5/28/2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- Hang out long enough at the Red Bull Cheever Racing garages at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and you might see Rob Channell. Tall and rail thin, with blue eyes that seem to take in seven million things at once, he's tough to miss. But if he doesn't stop to talk, don't take it personally. He really doesn't have time. Seriously.

Channell serves as Operations Manager for Red Bull Cheever, third in command at the rapidly growing racing operation, and the point man for all things requiring planning and organization. And the Indy 500, beyond being American racing's seminal event, is a logistical nightmare that lasts beyond the month-long build up to Sunday's race.

Preparations begin weeks before the team arrives at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Being responsible for the needs of 42 people, "It's a matter of making sure we have parking passes, proper credentials, that we're supplying lunch, and possibly dinner," he says, trying to boil down his duties into a manageable list, "Setting up the garages are a big deal at Indy. Internet. Making sure we have plenty of that for people to communicate with the shop (located in Indianapolis) radios. All that gets set up."

Channell also manages the crews, takes care of any necessary hotel accommodations, purchases food for the trailers and the garage (which means dealing with caterers as well as picky eaters), and manages those 42 distinct personalities. Oh, and there are the cars, too. It's also his job to make sure everything needed to maintain the Nos. 51 and 52 cars of Alex Barron and rookie Ed Carpenter is on hand and ready. That's everything, from the smallest bolts to the approximately $100,000 tub, essentially the driver's cockpit. "I have my hands in everything. Whatever needs to be done, so that everything operates and everything looks good." Like M*A*S*H*'s Radar O'Reilly, Channell tries to handle all business before team owner Eddie Cheever Jr. even thinks to ask.

Channell broke in with Cheever as a truckdriver during the team's infancy, not only hauling gear from one race to another, but also -- as is common among "truckies" -- organizing and cataloguing everything the team owns. Eventually, he was placed in charge of moving the team and equipment to the IRL stop at Motegi, Japan.

The entire team, save humans, was packed up and accounted for, carefully dancing around the complicated box weight restrictions and strict accounting procedures of Japanese Customs officials. More and more responsibility was added each year until last summer, when Red Bull Cheever took steps to join the Marlboro-Penske's and Rahal-Letterman's that occupy the upper tier of IRL teams, adding a new trailer and improving considerably their team garage facility. Coincidentally, the existing team manager left the team, and Channell was called into a meeting with Cheever.

"Eddie asked me if I could run this team. He just needed to hear me say yes," Channell recalls, "I was kind of doing it anyway. I just filled the void. The guys wanted me to lead, and it just kept going. I'm 35, and I expected it to be another 10 years before I was a team manager or operations manager."

He likens himself often to a team mom or camp counselor, keeping the kids in line, extinguishing clashes and conflicts, and attending to their special requests (Barron likes plenty of peanut butter on hand, in PB&J and Power Bar form). But mom's soccer squad usually isn't this big, and camp counselors never had to run two-car race teams with a season budget around $14 million. A sampling of Channell's Indy order list includes:

  • 110 cases of water.

  • 290 cases of Red Bull (both for team consumption and shared for intergarage good will)

  • 3,750 Twizzlers (15 boxes, 250 per box)

  • 35 boxes of Box Shop Towels (300 towels per box)

  • 252 granola bars

  • An absolutely dizzying amount of car parts, ranging from $8,000 exhaust systems to wax and polish.

    And after all that, it's usually something simple they forget.

    "A mop bucket," Channell says, laughing, "or a coffee maker. It's never nuts or hoses. We prepare for that." This year's Indy snafu? "Laundry. Where's the laundry going to be? Does it go out every day? If it goes out every day, does it come back every morning? Do we put it in our own bags?" Parts are constantly being ordered, and they don't always arrive when promised. It's an undertaking the casual fan may not understand. Why should they? Drivers generally don't. "Some guys know how logistically huge it is, but most don't have a clue." And those best laid plans, the hours of meetings and labor, can -- and usually are -- turned upside down instantly.

    When Barron crashed during qualifying, much of Red Bull Cheever's race strategy was tossed out the window. "It complicates my whole plan. That's a car we kept and didn't even run until qualifying. It was supposed to be our race car. All brand new everything." Immediately after the crash, Channell and the crew chief inventoried every part that needed replacement. "We do it in corners, and then the tub damage and gear boxes," he says. Barron's seemingly innocuous crash "took off three corners, cracked the gear box main case, and damaged the tub. That crash totals about $150,000. Even a little accident here is big." Barron qualified the next day in the backup car, but now his original ride needs to be rebuilt for the Bombardier 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12.

    Cheever used to liken his team to a "bunch of pirates" that would come and steal races from the big boys. Now out from behind the wheel, he's looking for more structure, treating Red Bull Cheever more like a business, pouring the intensity he used to expend on the track into ownership.

    At Wednesday's autograph session, fans brought material not just for Barron and Carpenter, but for Cheever as well, indicating the '98 winner is still a popular figure at Indy. But behind the owner and his drivers is Rob Channell, handling the day-to-day requirements of running a race team. It's 100-percent on the job training, 100-percent consuming, and he loves it.

    "We're learning and growing. All of this provides two race cars and drivers, whether it's a bottle of water or making sure the air jacks work, helping the engineers do their job," Channell says, "when all that comes together, then the magic happens."

    Andrew and Brian Kamenetzky are frequent contributors to ESPN The Magazine, Page 2 and 3. They will be filing periodic updates from Gasoline Alley and beyond throughout Indy weekend for ESPN.com.