Brian Fellows returns to fulltime spot on IndyCar series
By Bill Richardson
Brian Fellows couldn’t have been more wrong when he thought his days working full-time on the NTT IndyCar series were finished.
For the past four years, the 1991 Vincennes Lincoln High School graduate was quite content, running his business, Grass Sweepers LLC, in his hometown of Vincennes and filling in on pit crews for the Andretti Autosports IndyCar team when needed.
“I was really happy doing that,” he said. “I liked having my summers. I liked not being so busy.”
That all changed while Fellows was attending the Andretti Autosports Christmas party in Indianapolis last winter. He’d passed on opportunities to return on a fulltime basis in the past, but this time the offer was too good to refuse. Fellows couldn’t turn down the offer to be the lead mechanic for Alexander Rossi, an electric, 27-year-old, American driver who won the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016.
“This year they convinced me to come back and do it fulltime,” said Fellows, who also will serve as Rossi’s jackman during pit stops. “When they told me it was Rossi’s car, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’”
Rossi, driver of the No. 27 Honda that is sponsored chiefly by NAPA Auto Parts, is only one of Andretti’s heavy hitters who will be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month, preparing for another edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing on May 26. Others in the stable include Marco Andretti (No. 98, U.S. Concrete), son of team owner Michael Andretti and grandson of 1969 champion Mario Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28, DHL), winner of the 2014 500, the up-and-coming Zach Veach (No. 26, Gainbridge), and Conor Daly (No. 25, U.S. Air Force), a 27-year-old who has five Indy 500 races under his belt.
Not what he had in mind
Traveling the IndyCar circuit isn’t what Fellows, 46, had in mind, when he completed the Automotive Technology program at Vincennes University. He actually spent a few years as a mechanic for Leonard Ford in Vincennes, before getting his start in racing through Rollie Helmling, a well-known Vincennes grocer, who also owned a successful sprint car team. That led to jobs with Championship Auto Racing Series, which at the time was a rival to the Indy Racing League. His first job in big-time racing was in 2000, with CART driver Mark Blundell.
Throughout his 20-year-career, Fellows has been associated with dozens of drivers, including some of the sport’s biggest names — Scott Dixon, Rossi, two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr., Andretti, Fernando Alonso and 2017 500 champion Takuma Sato. In recent years, he’s spent the month of May at Indianapolis working for the Andretti Autosports “fifth car,” and last year was assigned to the team of Carlos Munoz.
“I never dreamed I’d be living the racing life,” said the son of Doris and Steve Fellows, Vincennes. “I went to VU to work on automobiles, and did that for several years. This came up because one time I helped a buddy get a job on a race team, and later he returned the favor.”
When he was younger, Fellows was offered a job with Helmling’s sprint car team, but couldn’t make it work. He recommended his friend, Rusty Shelton, who could. By the time Shelton moved on, Fellows was ready to get on board, and he worked his way up from midgets to the big-time.
“I’d always wanted to do it, but never really chased it, so to say,” said Fellows. “But when the opportunity showed up on my step again, I jumped at it.”
Fellows stresses that the job isn’t all “glitz and glam.” The hours can be long, and the work is often physical and tedious. During the season, the Andretti team usually spends the early part of the week at its Indianapolis headquarters, setting up the cars. Then, it flies to the race site, usually on Thursday, and begins the long process of preparing for the competition.
Something went wrong — and very right
“You’re at the track for 10 or 12 hours or more,” Fellows said. “And that’s if nothing goes wrong.”
In 2011, when Fellows was the first-year chief mechanic for Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro at Indianapolis, something went really wrong. That’s when Fellows made his name.
Things were going smoothly for Fellows, de Silvestro and the HVM team, as it was turning practice laps at competitive speeds. Two days before qualifying, though, a rear suspension failure led to de Silvestro crashing violently into the third turn wall, catching fire as it slid upside down on the track.
Fortunately, de Silvestro — who’d finished 14th at Indianapolis the previous year — escaped with burns to both hands. The only thing shaken was her confidence.
“I never dreamed I’d be living the racing life.” — Brian Fellows
The brand new car, however, was toast. Fellows didn’t bat an eye. Under his leadership, the team went to work, preparing a nine-year-old backup chassis. The crew worked pretty much around the clock for 48 hours, and de Silvestro did her part, piloting the vehicle to a spot in the middle of the eighth row during qualifying.
“We got it to where it was almost as good as our primary car and let the driver do the rest,” Fellows said. “I’m sure (de Silvestro) went through a lot of pain, but at the end of the day it was worth it. It was awesome, the guys were just ecstatic.”
The storybook ending wasn’t to be. On race day, handling problems forced the Swiss driver out after 44 laps, en route to a 31st-place finish.
The efforts of Fellows, however, did not go unnoticed. He was the recipient of Clint Brawner Mechanical Excellence Award, presented each year to the chief mechanic who “exemplifies the mechanical and scientific creativity, ingenuity, perseverance, dedication, enthusiasm and expertise” of its namesake. Selected by the Clint Brawner Foundation committee, the winner is annually presented a $5,000 check and has his name added to a permanent trophy housed in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
Fellows is the owner of three Indianapolis 500 championship rings, through his work with the Hunter-Reay, Rossi and Sato teams. He fully understands the tradition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Truly a team
“(Indianapolis) is long, and sometimes it can be painful,” he said. “But it’s definitely the best race, because it’s the one you most want to win. I’d rather win the Indianapolis 500 than a (season) championship, any day. Indy is that big a deal.”
Winning any race, but especially the 500, takes a group effort, according to Fellows. It’s never won or lost by the driver alone, or in the pits.
“Everything has to be just right, and in a row, for a win to happen,” he said. “Whoever does the best job at that wins the race. It starts with the guys at the shop and the engineers, putting the right set-up on. The race strategist has to call the proper race, and it continues to us in the pits doing our job and the driver doing his. There are a lot of variables.”
Sometimes, Fellows has learned through two decades of crisscrossing the continent, one of those variables is very simply, luck.
“Bad luck for someone else, and good luck for you never hurts,” Fellows said, with a chuckle.
He knows this, too. He’s ready to try his luck again, full time, with Andretti and Rossi. Maybe, just maybe, the month of May will lead to another Indianapolis 500 ring.
“Every job has its ups and downs,” he said. “That’s why I originally got out of it. I just got tired of the traveling. I missed my summers. But I’ve had my fun. Now it’s time to go back to work.”