Dave Faustino, who's in his 11th year as race engineer for Will Power, explains to David Malsher what it took to capture the 102nd Indianapolis 500, and how swiftly they switched focus to trying to capture a second IndyCar title.
He’s in his late 30s, a truly driven workaholic, brutally honest about any screw-ups, loyal, sincere, humble and analytical. He’s never boastful, takes quiet pride in the wins, and in the first couple of minutes after a victory can show a liberating exuberance. An hour afterward, he’s back into “What’s next?” mode.
Now that could be a description of Mr. Power, 2014 IndyCar champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner, but it is in fact a sketch of David Faustino, his race engineer – proof that if opposites attract, so too do like-minded individuals. If they share a near-obsession for success – and 33 of Power’s 34 Indy car triumphs have come in Faustino-engineered cars – they aren’t completely alike. In moments of low tension, Power knows how to maintain a 1000-yard stare and deadpan delivery whether he’s answering trite or repetitive media questions or making a quite outrageous off-the-record comment, sometimes a propos of nothing. Faustino, by contrast, can’t hide his emotions too well: unless he’s standing in victory lane, he has the natural look of an A-grade student, slightly concerned, slightly frowning, as if he’s permanently trying to work out the hypotenuse of the Bermuda Triangle.
Power, in his speech at the Indy 500 victory celebration, paid tribute to the man who moved with him from the shuttered Walker Racing at the end of 2007 to join KV Racing in ’08, lasted one more year there and was then called up by Roger Penske and Tim Cindric when Power became a fulltimer at The Captain’s table in 2010.
“I finally had an engineer who had the same passion for winning that I did,” said Power to the assembled throng in Indy. “It’s only your engineer or your wife that you can call after 10 o’clock at night, or have midnight conversations with. And Dave and I, even the night before the 500, we were talking about what we need to do to the car and what the heat’s going to do to the car. That’s the dedication we have, and the relationship we have – just gets better and better as we go along. It’s kind of like a marriage, actually. We know exactly what we’re thinking, we have our own language. It’s just been a fantastic 10 years working with you, so thank you Dave.”
Indy 500 build up – progress, then feeling “very average”
“I think we felt this year was our best shot in a while,” says Faustino who finished second with Power in the 2015 Indy 500. “But there was a still a lot of wonder about how the race would play out – obviously, we have no control over that – and then a lot of wonder also about the cars, and how they would behave in the heat. It was our first race with the new superspeedway aerokit. There was a lot of uncertainty.
“Early in the week and at the test a few weeks back, we tried a lot of stuff. We were trying different suspension geometry and switching wheelbases – the front can be moved two inches and the rear one inch, and that has got aerodynamic and weight distribution effects which will determine how the tires are loaded… We were taking some pretty big swings at it, trying to learn things quickly but also as thoroughly as possible. By Wednesday we thought, OK, we might be in the window here and have something reasonable, but just the fact that these cars were harder to drive, more unstable, worse in traffic, we were never quite sure if it was a good enough car to actually win the race. All we knew is that we felt good about it and about the things we tried.
“But then we come into the qualifying weekend and, mainly because of how quick Ed [Carpenter] was, we took another shot at changing some things. We didn’t quite get the speed but it was a big relief to at least get all our cars in the Top Nine on Saturday – our biggest goal. Trying to get Will, Josef [Newgarden], Simon [Pagenaud] and Helio [Castroneves] out of the areas where there might be messes at the start of the race.
“And then on Sunday we really went for the pole, not for the points [heavily reduced this year to deliver 9 points to 1 point for the top nine], but because it’s the Indy 500, and it means a whole lot to our team. One of the things that probably isn’t known is that we made some really big changes on the Saturday night for the Sunday morning practice, and when they didn’t work, we had just an hour to change the car back before we had to be in line for the shootout. The #12 crew got to work, ripping the front suspension off the car, completely tearing the car down, putting it back together again beautifully, and there was a lot of gratitude from Will and I that they did that, to at least help us try and find that speed.”
Faustino agrees with his driver that once they realized just how quick Carpenter was, they felt less bad about missing out on pole. “No way we were going to find a full 1mph that late in the game,” he says.
Preparing for the race
Back to the main focus of practice – finding the best race setup – and it had been notable that by Wednesday, just the second day of practice, Power was able to track Castroneves through the turns, not in the classic style of hanging the right-side wing and bodywork out into clean air, but following directly behind, and yet not pushing up the track.
“Yeah, you’re right, and I think we maybe got to that point slightly sooner than the others,” says Faustino, “so we were fairly happy. And then people have time to think about it, and by Monday practice after qualifying, everyone had gotten closer and suddenly we felt just average again. That’s Indy! You make what you hope is a bit of a breakthrough, and you give it a day and suddenly everyone is on top of you again.
“That Monday we ran a lot of laps [120, more than any other car], effectively four stints. And again, gotta give credit to our crew: after qualifying, we have to go through tech inspection obviously, then I think we got back to our garage at 7pm, we then had to change to our race engines, we were back out on track for the front-row pictures by 7 or 8am the next morning, and then we ran all those laps in the afternoon.
“Like I say, we now felt only average so that’s good because it pushes you – What can we try on Carb Day, our last hour? We made a small step, a few tweaks just to get the car a bit more comfortable for Will. And that was it.”
And, just as Power stated after the race and as Newgarden had predicted about all forms of the aerokit preseason, the four setups were quite different. No, not in terms of bodywork which is more spec than ever with the 2018 universal aerokit, but in terms of mechanical tweaks under the skin that have a direct and indirect effect on aerodynamics and/or handling.
“I think our four cars maybe converged a little bit as we came closer to the race,” recalls Faustino, “but there was certainly a lot of experimentation, different philosophies for tackling the understeer they’d felt in traffic. And to do that you can go down so many avenues. We have so much freedom when it comes to suspension geometry, where the rollcenter heights are, the weight distribution, the wheelbases, the skids and ballasts, the springs, the shocks, the anti-roll bars, the ride-heights… So when we were taking big swings at setup, the four cars took different approaches, and like always, we all communicated really well to figure out what does and doesn’t work. So I’d say that the cars were similar on raceday and the rest was just according to what drivers did and didn’t like.
“The great thing was that Will had stayed so calm the whole time. I think getting the Indy Grand Prix win was a big help, getting our first victory of the year. But the other part is that he has so much experience now of the big ovals, that if the car feels a certain way, he can then work out what kind of changes are going to help him in a given circumstance, like increasing heat and humidity on raceday. Going into the race, that gave us a lot more confidence to make changes without him being able to verify them until the first stint. He knows what he’s going to want the car to do and how it will react, and that only comes with experience and thinking hard.”
Indy 500 raceday
At the front of the field, the start of the race was reasonably normal, after a fast-starting Power let Pagenaud back into second, and they rode around a second apart in second and third behind polesitter Carpenter.
“The goal was to stay in the top three, nothing more ambitious than that,” says Faustino. “We knew – everyone knew – that this year, track position would be a lot more important because of how much understeer you pick up in the tow. If we’d dropped six to eight cars back, it would start getting a bit difficult.
“The way the race has played out lately, the fuel economy allows you to eliminate a pitstop if you can start saving fuel right away – in an all-green-flag situation. Obviously that never happens but that’s another reason people don’t make risky moves in the first stint. There’s a kinda calm until you see the first caution. Everyone goes long in that first stint and drafting along in third as we were, you can save quite a bit of fuel. And having a teammate ahead [Pagenaud] and behind [Newgarden] was great. Ed was really quick up front and it was nice having him pull us around in his draft!”
It wasn’t quite smooth sailing for the #12 crew. The first pitstop wasn’t a good one and not for anything the crew did wrong…
“We didn’t have a lot of flexibility of when to stop,” Faustino recalls, “because we were going right to the bottom of the tank to leave the option open of a five-stop race. Unfortunately, between the cars who all pitted just a lap before us and were on cold tires, and those who pitted with us, we got held up on both the in- and out-laps that first time around. I think Will’s last lap before pitting was only a 210, and so we dropped to fifth or sixth, last of the four Penskes. So Will had to gain a couple of spots on each of the next two restarts. His in and out laps after that were great.
“So nothing wrong with our crew when it mattered – we had the quickest guys on pitroad that day, cumulatively by two seconds. We had two front wing changes and we got them done cleanly. Will had felt the car was a little loose and edgy on Carb Day, and we’d made some mechanical changes even though we knew that would result in understeer initially and he’d have to manage the tools in the cockpit to combat that. Then we decided to claw back even more balance by adding some front wing in both of the first two stops – the green-flag stop and the first caution stop, where our inside front guy was so blisteringly fast that we made the wing change and still picked up three spots.
“And then the car was pretty good from there: Will was just making in-cockpit adjustments as needed thereafter.”
And he remained a leading contender – not the only Penske-Chevrolet driver able to run at the front, but seemingly the only one that could actually get to the front. However, as everyone knows, that fuel gamble by Andretti Autosport, Meyer Shank Racing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Scuderia Corsa with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing left respectively Stefan Wilson, Jack Harvey and Oriol Servia running ahead of Power after the final caution, caused by Tony Kanaan’s shunt.
“We were just one more caution away from those guys ahead of us making it on fuel,” admits Fautstino “so we were going to be running out of laps there. Could Will have passed them anyway? Well potentially he was a lot faster. He got around Oriol, and he was about to get around Harvey, so I was confident we’d have gotten second. But Stefan had made a bit of a break.
“On the other hand those guys were very close on fuel and had much older tires whereas we’d stopped a lot more recently so we were running full rich and our tires were much newer. I’d like to think we’d have done it but maybe it would have been a Lap 199 or even a Lap 200 pass… It was that close.
“Looking at their speeds the previous stint, it had only been Scott Dixon [next behind Power at the final restart] who had run slow enough to really make such an early final stop work. I think the Ganassi boys were committed to making it – Scott was running 209s, 210s at the start of that stint, whereas I think the three ahead of us had been running 216s and just been hoping there’d be another caution, or that any crashes would take longer to clear up. But whatever, their strategists seemed confident on TV so our directive to Will was, ‘They think they can make it on fuel. Go pass them!’
“They were right to do what they did – the race was becoming a classic example of cautions breeding cautions, so if your best hope is to gamble on another yellow coming out, then yeah, do it. And there’s a chance the race is going to finish under caution, as we’ve seen occasionally in the past. That was the worst thought that kept entering my mind; if we failed to get past them under green, that’s one thing, but if we’d never have gotten the chance because of one more caution… that would have been upsetting.”
Making history, keep on keeping on
So as is well documented, Power is now eighth in the all-time Indy car winners’ standings, with 34 victories, the same as Al Unser Jr.; he’s got 51 poles, only two fewer than AJ Foyt – albeit still 16 behind Mario Andretti; he’s now an Indy 500 winner and a series champion. Oh, and he’s always going to be the first driver to triumph in the Indianapolis GP and 500 and the first to do it in one month.
Aside from that first part-time Penske season in 2009, when Power won Edmonton and took pole there and at Long Beach too, Faustino has been an intrinsic part of those statistics. Ten years ago, did he ever consider he’d be contributing to the sport’s history, or even think the relationship would last so long?
“Actually, it hits me every time we reach one of those milestones,” he admits. “I go back to 10 or 11 years ago, and recall thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve got an opportunity to work with one of the quickest drivers in the world.’ You could tell that right away, and I realized that most engineers don’t ever get that chance, so I hoped things would keep clicking and keep working out. And it’s amazing that it doesn’t feel like 10 or 11 years. I look at pictures of us qualifying for our first Indy 500 in 2008, and man, I looked a lot younger, but honestly, it hasn’t felt like that long.
“When I see Will’s pole and win stats, it blows me away… but then I immediately think, ‘He doesn’t have enough championships; this is crazy,’ And up until a few days ago I’d also think, ‘He doesn’t have an Indy 500 win and he really deserves that too.’ So then I go back into hunger mode, same as Will, and that’s what keeps us fired up and pushing all the time. His stats are staggering and yet the big ones have eluded us too often. So every time we can redress that a little, it feels really special. I’m super proud of being part of it.
“But I’m also super proud of being part of Penske. Any win is special, any win at Indy is special, but to win that Grand Prix and give Roger his 200th win in IndyCar, that was super-special and the best part of winning that race. To put that ‘200’ hat on my head and be part of that picture… I’m really humbled to be there. And the same thing now with the team’s 17th Indy 500 win. That’s when you realize how lucky you are.”
The forgotten man
Over the years, Power has unashamedly admitted how much he learns from teammates, picking up time in different sectors of any given lap. Alex Tagliani and Pagenaud at Walker Racing; Servia at KV; Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pagenaud (again) and Newgarden at Penske. And, like his driver, Faustino is keen to give credit where due.
“I certainly couldn’t have had this level of success without the other engineers within Penske,” admits Faustino, “which is where the team’s whole ‘open book’ philosophy really pays off. Ron Ruzewski [Castroneves’ original engineer, now the team’s technical director], Brian Campe, Ben Bretzman, Gavin Ward who has a lot of Formula 1 experience at Red Bull Racing, Jonathan Diuguid coming back over with Helio from the sportscar program… Jonathan and Helio have had a few second places in Indy lately, so they’re really solid to lean on during the Month of May. Ben and Simon have had really good cars for Indy. Brian obviously won Indy with Montoya. So it’s not an individual situation we create here; it’s genuinely a team win when any of our cars win. And there are guys back at the shop who work so hard and get none of the glory, but they’re highly valued within the team.
“But there is a guy at the track who I think doesn’t get enough recognition – and I can’t really explain how important this guy has been to our success. Robbie Atkinson, our DAG [data acquisition and generation] guy has been with us since I joined Will at Penske for 2010, and he and I are the only ‘original’ members of the #12 crew. In fact, Robbie was on Will’s car before me, because he was in Penske’s 2009 sportscar team that ran Will part-time that year.
“Robbie’s absolutely solid as a rock and vital to our strategy because whenever we have to do a race where it’s critical to get fuel mileage, if we carry it off with extreme precision, it’s because of him. The strategist and I might ask the right questions, but the remarkably accurate answers Robbie provides allow us to look like heroes. And then back at the shop, he has a pretty high-end role, managing our electronics group.”
On Detroit and going for championship #2
Despite the Indy 500 being the crown jewel of the IndyCar season – indeed, the US motorsport season – and that victory at the Brickyard is the primary goal of any team member, Penske people have the time, resources and ability to think ahead even during the two-and-a-half weeks that covers the Indy GP, Pole Day and the 500 itself.
“More than three weeks ago is when I started thinking about the Detroit double-header,” admits Faustino. “Will’s pole in Indy GP earned us pitbox 1 in Detroit and that’s great, we’re putting our best foot forward for the rest of the season.
“During those days between Pole Day and Carb Day at Indy, a lot of us work together on what we’ll do for Detroit, and our guys start prepping the roadcourse cars, because it’s such short turnaround after the 500. Detroit has been one of Will’s more difficult tracks in qualifying, although he’s gotten two wins there, so we look at it as a really interesting challenge to get our car going really well on what may be a green track first thing in the morning. We know that after Indy, it’s the next most important event on the schedule for Roger because of where Penske Corporation is based, and Chevrolet for the same reason.”
Although Power and his band are coming off the back of two victories, the nature of IndyCar racing and its widely varied track types means that the existence of momentum is surely questionable, beyond providing adrenaline shots to the psyches of those involved in sustained success. What’s more tangible is that in the course of the two races at IMS in May, Power has vaulted from 10th to first in the championship, after one podium (second at Long Beach) and three accidents in the opening four races. Ask Faustino how soon after the Indy 500 win he realized this, and he admits “just 10 or 15 minutes,” despite the understandable hoopla and joy post-race. But he’s surprised when he hears it’s the first time since winning the 2014 championship that Power has actually headed the points table.
“Is that right? Oh maybe,” he says, but he then vows that he and Power won’t be sitting back trying to defend that (minimal) lead over Alexander Rossi and Newgarden. Attack is the best form of defense.
“There’s honestly never really a difference in our approach,” Faustino explains. “There might be an underlying feeling of, ‘Do we feel under pressure?’ if we’ve had a couple of bad results, and that can make things tougher. But basically, each race is about ‘How do we get the most out of this situation, this practice, this qualifying session, this race?’
“We like when we get substantial changes like the new aerokit, because I think one of the things we’re good at is getting the most out of that stuff quickly. That should help us because this aerokit means we run the cars quite differently than we did the last three years. It’s really a drivers’ car now and very difficult to get right, so we’re making compromises with the setup that we never thought we would.
“So to what you were asking, no, there’s going to be no difference to our approach. Having the Indy 500 monkey off our back will hopefully just keep up our positivity. But the important thing is just getting the most out of every session. Will hasn’t yet qualified outside the top three this year, and if we stay near the front and make good decisions in the races, good results will follow.”
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