People power: How Arrow McLaren attacked IndyCar hiring challenges to add its third car
The recruitment pitch to join the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team started with the 21st century social media version of a corporate headhunter’s cold call.
Kate Gundlach, a performance engineer at Arrow McLaren, was leafing through a sports car magazine a couple years ago when she stumbled upon a story about Grace Hackenberg, an Oregon-based racing engineer.
“I messaged her on Instagram, ‘Hey, I think you’re super cool, you’re really killing it, and if you ever want to work in IndyCar, let me know,’ ” Gundlach told NBC Sports. “I’ll see what I can do help you out. She’s like, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Gundlach forwarded Hackenberg’s contact information to an Arrow McLaren hiring manager, and the match turned out perfect.
In Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Gundlach and Hackenberg (a damper specialist who also works on pit stops) will begin their third year together in the engineering department of Arrow McLaren as the team enters its most critical season yet in trying to become a perennial powerhouse championship contender.
“Gracie is a rock star and can do anything,” Gundlach said. “She’s a complete unicorn and super hard worker. And I found her in a magazine and just reached out to her.”
As in any industry, networking and recruiting are cornerstones to motorsports, where big-league success is predicated as much on driver and car as the countless people who support the stars and build the machines behind the scenes for any IndyCar, NASCAR or Formula One team.
And it’s especially true during a season with the kind of expansion that Arrow McLaren has undertaken for the 2023 season.
Adding 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi as a teammate to Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, the team will be running three full-time cars for the first time (and a fourth Indy 500 entry for Tony Kanaan).
After starting last season with 61 employees, the Arrow McLaren payroll mushroomed in the offseason. The head count was up to 94 by mid-February and is expected to be at least 100 by the end of March.
Over the past year, the team has received tens of thousands of resumes – sometimes hundreds specifically for an open position – while transforming its staff.
Some of the new faces are at the very top.
Racing director Gavin Ward, who oversees day-to-day operations as the direct report to McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, started last July after working as head engineer for Josef Newgarden at Team Penske.
Staffing has been a top priority at Arrow McLaren for Ward, who says he initially “was naïve to how hard it is to recruit for talent right now in this sport. So it’s been a challenge, but I’m really happy with how we managed to hit it in a short period of time.
“It’s been a time of tremendous growth for the team, and most of that growth has come since the end of last season,” Ward told NBC Sports as many of the new team members scurried past him with fresh parts and data during a break from preseason testing at The Thermal Club in Southern California last month. “And that’s across the board, both commercial and operational. Obviously, we’re very happy with what we’ve managed to pull together in recruiting talented people at a time where it’s a scrap for talent out there.
“We have an ethos here where we don’t necessarily want to do things the way they’ve always been done in the IndyCar world. We want to pull the best of the world of motor racing and beyond. Whether it’s grabbing a badass mechanic out of World of Outlaws and introducing them to IndyCar. We’ve done a bit of that. We’ve pulled a No. 1 mechanic out of F1. Then we’ve got some really experienced guys from other IndyCar teams as well.”
The team also has been aggressive outside racing. New hires have come from Fortune 500 companies, major brands and other professional sports – an eclectic roster of past employers that includes Disney, SalesForce, the Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Rays, Republic Airways and Boeing Defense, Space & Security (to name a few).
Though casting a wide recruitment net dovetails with McLaren’s progressive outlook, Ward said it’s also by necessity because “for sure, the whole paddock has been in a fight to get the best people.”
With sponsorship dollars generally on the rise in IndyCar, and manufacturer money pouring into rival series such as IMSA and F1, it likely never has been harder for hiring across U.S. motorsports.
Just like the U.S. business world since the “Great Resignation” of 2020-21, one of the loudest narratives in racing has been the difficulty of hiring and keeping strong personnel since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world’s workforce.
“That’s definitely not a rumor,” said O’Ward, who is entering his fourth season of driving McLaren’s No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet. “I feel like it’s been so hard to find people in all departments. From talking to not just the people in our team, but from other drivers and friends, they’re like, ‘Man, it’s hard to find people.’
“I trust the team. The group of people that are in charge (of) who joins the team, I think they know exactly what we need, and I trust they’re going to make the right decisions. Honestly, there was already so much talent in the group, and I feel like so much more has been added on which is just going to help us to really get us where we want to be.”
Jody Scott, McLaren’s director of people who joined the team a year ago from Anthem, Inc. (now Elevance Health), said there was no target for the number of hires outside motorsports.
“Our leadership team was just looking for the best,” Scott, who also worked at Stanley Black & Decker, told NBC Sports. “But we’re also pretty realistic that you can’t rob Peter to pay Paul, so we’re not always going to be able to hire from motorsports and especially other IndyCar teams. So we just are thinking strategically on how can we find candidates with transferable skills outside our industry if we can. I think that also helps to diversify the portfolio of talent that we have internally and the ability to learn from one another and grow as a team.”
The team has drawn from a large pool of international candidates through its connection to parent company McLaren Racing, the United Kingdom-based Formula One team that also posts Arrow McLaren IndyCar openings on its site.
Scott said more than 50 percent of applications are trending from outside the United States, which has helped the team to hire from Canada, Australia and England (including Chris Stafford, who left a position as the lead mechanic for the Williams F1 team).
Arrow McLaren uses applicant tracking software to determine the best matches on background, education and experience. That helps winnow down the applicant pool for hiring by an executive team that includes Ward, competition director Billy Vincent, operations director Max Neyron, performance director Nick Snyder, marketing vice president Mo Murray and general manager Brian Barnhart (Murray and Barnhardt also have joined within the last few months).
“We’ve really tried to stretch ourselves to find the best and the brightest no matter where they live,” Scott said. “This is certainly an exciting company to work for because the brand is quite well known globally, and that certainly helps from a recruitment perspective. We’re not shy to hire a visa candidate” who might require extra effort to obtain work permits.
With the explosive growth and importance of computer-based simulation in racing, there’s as much emphasis on software engineering now as there once was on traditional mechanics. Ward noted two important additions from the world of Big Data and analytics in data and strategy lead Michael Gethers (who came from Salesforce) and engineer Eric Hestekin (who arrived from Boeing Defense).
“When you want to build a high-powered racing team, software is really, really important,” Ward said. “When you invest in software, you invest in the efficiency of a lot of your people. Right from the get-go for me, that was a high-priority item to try and spruce ourselves up. It doesn’t happen overnight. Honestly, this team comes from humble beginnings in the IndyCar world. We obviously have the resources to tap into and the shared knowledge of the greater McLaren Racing group. But there are teams in this paddock that have been investing in software heavily for a decade, and now you want to play catch up in a year. It takes some investment.”
Arrow McLaren was known as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports before McLaren Racing gradually became the majority owner in mid-2021. The IndyCar team since has been integrated with McLaren Racing’s F1 operations, which naturally led to some growing pains. During a recent episode of his “Off Track” podcast, Rossi noted the Thermal test hit some snags as the IndyCar team learned to communicate with McLaren’s software systems in England.
“We’ve got all these new people, all this new equipment,” Ward said. “We’ve got a lot of new stuff that we’re now gelling the team and figuring out how to work together and build on the processes. But also building a machine of a race team that can develop all year round, not sort of go racing in the season and do development in the offseason.
“We’re not where we want to be right now, but that’s normal. That’s racing. No one’s ever going to say we’ve got everything figured out. Progress always comes painfully slow, but then when you look back over a larger period of time, you’re like, ‘Oh hey, we’ve done a hell of a lot.’ ”
The Arrow McLaren organizational hierarchy was restructured with last year’s departure of Taylor Kiel (who left to become team manager for Ganassi). Kiel’s team president role essentially was split between Ward and other managers. Ward said McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, who also oversees the F1 team, attended more IndyCar races last year and will continue to be a more constant presence this year as the team ramps up.
“Getting Zak more plugged into the team has been a fantastic side effect of this change,” Ward said. “People get to see how much enthusiasm Zak brings. How much he loves IndyCar. And wants to make this something special. So that’s infectious for everybody.”
Though staffing up still was “very difficult,” Rossi credited attracting talent to McLaren’s high-performance reputation (the company also is known for its sleek street cars).
“Maximizing and encouraging people to bring ideas to the table is so often overlooked in motorsports,” Rossi said. “Zak also leads the charge in that. It’s pretty amazing to me with how involved he is with every aspect of the IndyCar organization, the F1 organization.
“I don’t know how he’s in so many places at once, seemingly. He makes an effort to keep everyone up to date from top to bottom as to where things are, what the current objectives are and what’s the future look like. I think Gavin kind of feeds off that and has a similar style as well.”
Upon joining Arrow McLaren, Ward said his No. 1 staffing priority wasn’t hiring.
“(It’s) retaining the people you’ve got,” he said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that. That comes from a focus on the culture of the team. I think the vibe is fantastic. We’ve got a lot of positivity. I don’t think there’s a better IndyCar team to work for right now.”
Racing teams typically face double-digit turnover after the season. Scott said Arrow McLaren has lost only three team members since last year’s Sept. 11 finale at Laguna Seca, “an unheard-of number” that she attributes to working hard on trying to give back to employees with extra cash and time off.
The team overhauled its total rewards package (which includes benefits and incentivized bonus plans) to stay competitive with other IndyCar teams – as well as the other high-tech and Fortune 500 companies in the Indianapolis, Indiana, region (home to roughly 2 million) where Arrow McLaren is based.
Nearly 50 percent of the team is comprised of engineering, commercial and finance -- positions with skillsets that transcend racing.
Though rivals such as Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport “hold pretty tight to their total rewards packages”, Scott said Arrow McLaren annually surveys its employees about benefits.
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“All we can do is look across what corporations and companies are doing when people tell us we could do better in one space or another,” she said.
There are some inherent advantages for a team in IndyCar, whose 17-race schedule is more manageable than NASCAR (36 races in 37 weeks) and Formula One (which has expanded to 24 races around the globe).
Ward said the schedule was among the reasons that engineer Ryan Kelly chose to join Rossi’s car after multiple seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“I think people start to realize that IndyCar is a pretty fun place to be and not a bad way to go racing,” Ward said. “If you embrace it for what it is, the American culture and the IndyCar experience, it’s a neat option for these guys. I think it’s a more family friendly way to go racing.
“We’ve got intense bits of the season. Last year, we did five races in four weekends. We’ve got to take care of our people through those hard stretches, but for the most part, it’s a little less time away, the travel’s not quite so far. The time zone changes aren’t quite so big. We come back between most races. Those are the nice things that people want out of family who do this.”
There also is an appeal to being a professional sports team.
Focusing on more diversity through a “Path to the Pits” internship program that identifies future talent, Scott has been struck by the interest from youth.
“People are curious about IndyCar even if they’ve not been involved in the past,” she said. “As I have posted roles throughout this last year, I’ve found a large number of youths all around the world that’s interested in getting into motorsports. It’s high schoolers. It’s collegiate students wanting to grow a career. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
Arrow McLaren still has done much of its hiring through the paddock’s traditional word of mouth manner.
Rossi’s signing was followed by the arrival of Brian Barnhart, the former IndyCar VP of competition who called strategy in Rossi’s final season at Andretti (when he ended a three-year winless drought). But Ward said it wasn’t necessarily a driver-executive package deal.
“We needed to fill the car communicator role, and Alex was pretty happy with (Barnhart) previously,” Ward said. “But then Brian is a great resource for me, for the team. He complements my strengths very well, and his experience is a good buffer. I’m new to this role; he’s lived it before. He’s a great personality to the team. Super positive. He’s happy to be here; we’re happy to have him.”
Before his championship run with Penske, Ward spent more than 12 years as an aerodynamicist and engineer with the Red Bull F1 team.
His expansive Rolodex comes in handy but hasn’t been key in expanding to a third car.
“I think we want people who want to be with the team, so it’s not so much about trying to headhunt people,” he said. “We’ve had more people come to us than we’ve reached out to other people. It’s more about we’re happy and want people to know, and word spreads that this is a place that’s trying to be good to its people and gunning for the very top.
“We’re putting the resources behind it but trying to do it in a sustainable way that’s good to the people that are working here as well and also just to have fun. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, but I think we’re doing a good job here. It is a fun group. It’s the best team I’ve ever worked at in terms of mechanics, engineers, commercial. Just the camaraderie. So we just have to keep that, and we’ll be all right.”
Rosenqvist, driver of the No. 6 Chevy, is entering his third season at Arrow McLaren and said it’s been virtually seamless as the team doubled in size.
“There’s one person coming in every other day, and it just becomes normality,” the Swede said. “But when you look back, I think obviously marketing and that kind of stuff is becoming pretty huge in our team. It’s a big focus to get the McLaren brand out in the world and do good content, which I think we’re probably the leading team in that sense now. That’s exciting.
“The engineering is growing more slowly but continuously. I think the general direction of the team, just kind of goals and ambitions, you can feel that everyone’s targeting something different than they did two years ago. I think everyone in the team feels that we should perform and win instead of like, it’s a luxury to win. It’s a mentality shift that’s good. People are hungry and people feel like we’re out here to do damage.”
There is one way in which Arrow McLaren’s transformation is noticeable. Women comprise nearly 20 percent of its staff with many in the engineering department.
In addition to Grace Hackenberg, Gundlach also played a role in the team’s acquisition of systems engineer Lizzie Todd, who came from previous roles at Andretti and Penske.
“I think we’ve got a very good tribe of people here, and part of that includes just diversity of humans in general,” Gundlach said. “I’m really happy to be working with (Todd) because it’s a different culture for her. I work really well in it, and I’m excited to bring her in and experience that. I think that it is very important to see that the company emphasizes bringing the right people in, and the right people are women.”
Gundlach, who recently was announced as a finalist for “Indy’s Best and Brightest,” previously worked cars that won two championships with Scott Dixon at Ganassi. Since arriving in the fall of 2019 at the former Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, she said she has watched Arrow McLaren grow while maintaining its gritty origins.
“We’ve expanded our operations pretty significantly,” she said. “We started from a team that had always been competitive and hungry to find the very last bit, and that is still the backbone here that came from the small, really hungry team. That is still here fueling this and educating all the new people coming in to continue that mentality. Because it’s so easy to get sucked into a more corporate environment. That’s what we like to avoid doing because you lose a little of the human touch that way.
“It’s really exciting to be part of a group that still has ties to everyone being very hungry and ambitious and could do all sorts of roles and do whatever needed to be done. I think that’ll grow into a bigger, better version of a big team than there is. I’m excited to see how it goes.”