By Joe Ewert
Wisconsin has its fair share of ties to the Indianapolis 500. Driver Pancho Carter was born in Racine, Wisconsin’s own Duane Sweeney was chief starter for the race for many years, and there have been a slew of drivers, crew members, and other important figures in the race all from our great state. Never a crew chief, though.
Sam Brundidge is changing that.
Brundidge, a Wausau native, is trying to win today’s 100th Indianapolis 500 from atop of the crew chief’s stand for Dryer & Reinbold-Kingdom Racing’s Sage Karam.
Brundidge is no stranger to Indianapolis, having worked for some teams in the past. This year, however, he calls the shots for the youngest driver in the field. Brundidge says Karam, 20, has what it takes to win the coveted Borg-Warner trophy this year.
“I’m a big fan of forward thinking and envisioning victory, and if you envision that, it will happen,” Brundidge said. “I’ve never worked with a driver that is as focused as Sage is. It is really refreshing. He has his eye on the prize. He will joke with the guys but aside from that he is all about winning this thing.”
Brundidge began his love for racing around the short tracks of central Wisconsin, piloting his late model around tracks like Golden Sands Speedway. When his friend, Bryan Reffner, went south to drive in NASCAR for team owner John Menard, Brundidge went south as well, working for Menard’s team until it closed its doors. From there, Brundidge moved to Penske Racing’s IndyCar efforts and its driver, Sam Hornish, Jr.
This year, DRR-Kingdom Racing called Brundidge to be Karam’s crew chief. It was an opportunity he could not refuse to let slip.
“They’ve called me almost every year,” said Brundidge. “For one reason or another, it’s never worked out. But this year, being the 100th and all, and with Sage being on board, I had to take this opportunity. It’s a great group of guys and it’s a lot of fun.”
Teams have most of the month of May to prepare for the race. During this time, mechanical mishaps happen, drivers crash, and any number of things can go wrong. For Brundidge and his driver, things couldn’t have gone better.
With no mechanical failures and no wrecked race cars, Karam qualified into this year’s Indianapolis 500 at a speed of 226.436 miles per hour. That was good enough to start from the middle of the eighth row in 23rd alongside Conor Daly and Max Chilton.
“We’ve spent about ninety percent of the time working on race setups and only about ten percent on qualifying trim,” Brundidge said. “It’s good to qualify up front, but the race is the biggest deal and if we can qualify for the race, we can work on the next 500 miles to get to the front.”
Working on race strategy, Brundidge has had to plan for every scenario he could think of – rain, early mishaps, fuel mileage, etc. He says doing something different may pay big dividends as the race goes on.
“We might try to pit off sequence from other cars,” said Brundidge. “It’s hard to do, because Roger Penske is the king of doing that. It may be more like follow the leader with those guys and see how that works. If we do get in a spot where we have good track position late in the race we may try to save some fuel and see what happens.”
The fact that Brundidge is the first Wisconsinite to serve as crew chief for the Indianapolis 500 is something he takes a lot of pride in.
“I think the Wisconsin people, mechanics in general or just anybody, we have great work ethic,” said Brundidge. “It’s unlike any other. You just don’t give up.”
The halls of Indy excellence echo with names like Foyt, Andretti, Fittipaldi, and Unser. More recently they have been filled with Castroneves, Kanaan, Wheldon, and Dixon. With an undying passion and a steady focus on the task at hand, the 100th Indianapolis 500 trophy may just go to Sage Karam, who will have done so thanks to our state’s very own, inaugural Indy crew chief, Sam Brundidge.
What: The 100th Indianapolis 500
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
When: Sunday, May 29, 2016 at 11:20 a.m.
Broadcasts: TV- ABC at 10:00 a.m.