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Rebuild a car in 48 hours? Shelby Crackston shows what women can do in the garage

The radio crackled to life. “Fire,” a voice yelled, “James’ car is on fire!”

People ran, grabbing fire extinguishers, toward the track.

Shelby Crackston, though, beelined for the pit area and went to work clearing the space, an effort to create some calm in what was to be — and already was — one of the most chaotic challenges yet for the RTR Drift Team.

Drift racer James Deane had taken to the track with a journalist in his Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5 last week.

They went around one corner, and around the next. Then, flames suddenly burst from the engine bay — and in mere seconds, the fire rapidly climbed up the car.

Video shows Deane and vlogger Kevin Darwish escaping from the car just as flames and smoke start to take over.

“Just when the excitement peaks,” Darwish said in his YouTube video, “chaos erupts — the roar of the engine is drowned out by the ominous crackle of flames.”

For Crackston, the chaos had only just begun. But by now, she’s adept at tackling challenges.

Crackston is a special projects manager and lead technician for RTR’s Formula Drift program. She’s one of several women mechanics who have successfully made their way in the traditionally male-dominated world of motorsports, some of whom have been out at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach this week.

“It’s been tough throughout my whole career,” Crackston said, “hoping for people to look past the fact I’m a female in the industry and just allow for me to let the work speak for itself.”

The fire that engulfed Deane’s car last week was the latest opportunity for Crackston to show what she can do.

The blaze happened at last week’s press event for the Grand Prix of Long Beach — where IndyCar, sports car and drift racers show off their skills, often with journalists in the passenger seat — which took place just four days before the Formula Drift competition in Long Beach, the preamble to the Grand Prix.

In less than 96 hours, the race would begin.

In about 48 hours, Crackston and the rest of Team RTR would need to discover what started the fire in the first place — and rebuild the charred car in time for Friday practice laps.

It was a herculean effort for anyone, any team.

As the Mustang was brought back to the crew, “charred to a crisp,” on the flat deck truck, Crackston took a deep breath and grabbed a pen. She made a list, an assessment, of what needed to be done to the car.

Checking the electrical was first. She peered at both sides of the firewall, searching for what could be salvaged.

Plumbing and the engine were next.

Electrical connectors would have to be ordered — which meant Crackston and her partner needed to build a wiring harness from scratch.

“Dividing to conquer was the name of the game,” Crackston, 31, said.

The clocked ticked. The Formula Drift competition barrelled closer and closer. Crackston took more deep breaths. Sleep was a luxury neither she nor other team members could afford.

“My past job was literally diagnosing vehicles every single day,” Crackston said. “I never knew what each day was going to bring.

“I was made for this,” she added about the current challenge. “Everything I went through in the past set me up for now.”

Back to the beginning

Growing up in Edmonton, Canada, Crackston always had an interest in cars and machines and human biomechanics. She spent a lot of time on her mother’s family farm and attending quarter-mile races with her parents.

After high school, she went to work at a heavy-duty mechanics shop and started an automotive apprenticeship while working at a Ford dealership. Vacation time was spent flying to race events, including Formula Drift competitions, where she’d volunteer her services.

“A lot of red-eye flights to make it back to my regular day job on time,” Crackston recalled.

Gracie Hackenberg is a damper engineer for Arrow McLaren. (Photo courtesy of Alex Brisbey/Arrow McLaren IndyCar Team)
Gracie Hackenberg is a damper engineer for Arrow McLaren. (Photo courtesy of Alex Brisbey/Arrow McLaren IndyCar Team)

Crackston isn’t alone in having an early love of engineering. Gracie Hackenberg had it too — and that love also drew her into the world of motorsports.

“I’ve always been interested in engineering,” said Hackenberg, a damper engineer for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team as well as a tire changer (inside front) for driver Alexander Rossi.

“I’ve always loved taking things apart,” she said. “My parents are always annoyed with me because I would always take apart the electronics, anything I could get my hands on.”

When she wasn’t tinkering with her family’s DVD player, Hackenberg grew up working on cars with her grandfather.

She’s a self-starter. While studying at Smith College, she started her own team to compete in the Grassroots Motorsports Challenge, where competitors must build a car for less than $2,000. They prepped a Mazda Miata into a race car — which Hackenberg still races and keeps at her Indianapolis home (along with three other cars and a motorcycle).

It’s the creative side of her job in IndyCar that she loves.

As one of three damper engineers with the Arrow McLaren team, Hackenberg, 28, is responsible for designing, building and servicing suspension components on the car. It’s the only part of the car that is not “spec,” she said, meaning there is more leeway to develop and design and create.

“It’s a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving,” Hackenberg said. “I identify more as a mechanic than an engineer, and that has been my work experience leading up to this job, so it’s a good mix for me. I still get to have my hands on, building, but I also have a piece in the design and data analysis portion.”

Crackston, too, relishes the newness found in her job.

Off the track, she has a home lab in North Carolina dedicated to motorsports wiring and she averages anywhere from 80 to 100 hours a week on special projects, including with Ford Performance. The off-season, she said, is often busier.

Looking ahead

The IndyCar Series season kicked off last month in St. Petersburg, Florida, with the Firestone Grand Prix.

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden took first, with Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward and Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin following.



But Hackenberg is focused on the pit stops from that race.

Hackenberg joined Arrow McLaren nearly four years ago as a mechanic. But then she saw the gearboxes and decided she wanted to focus on that. And then came dampers.

But Hackenberg is an athlete, a rower, and it’s the pit stops that are her favorite part of the job.

She and the rest of the crew work with a trainer who specializes in motorsports. They practice tire changing daily at the shop and then work through specific movements in the gym with the trainer.

“We spend a couple of hours in the gym every day, and then I spend even more time over in the gym because it’s a little harder for me to compete against all men in a very strength-oriented sport,” she said. “I have to put a little more into the physical side of it, but I enjoy it.”

That extra work has paid off. She’s got personal bests for every tire she’s done.

And in St. Petersburg, the team was second fastest in the pit lane.

Her goal for Long Beach: to be first.

Crackston and her RTR counterpart Ray Shake, meanwhile, formed an assembly line of sorts last week, working around the clock to rebuild the wiring harness.

They ran out of supplies near the end but adapted.

“It was amazing now that I had time to reflect,” she said. “I don’t know that many people in the world would have attempted this rebuild with a two-day deadline.”

“Our team is, without a doubt, wild and one-of-a-kind,”Crackston said.

It’s been a “wild and tough time” throughout her career already, Crackston said, especially as a woman in motorsports.

“But I knew what I was getting myself into. I am aware that other women are watching, and I really enjoy sharing my experience with them, and, in a way, helping to open doors for women,” she said. “It’s all about skill and knowledge, not gender.”

It was skill and knowledge, not gender, that mattered in getting the Mustang ready to compete in the Formula Drift competition on Saturday, April 13.

Deane made it through the first round.

By the time the second round was ready, so was the rain. Threatening clouds leaked droplets; wind off the ocean barreled around the track, a ticket-less spectator to the sport.

Timeouts were called in the middle of Deane’s tandem battles.

Judges issued several “one more time” orders — meaning there wasn’t a consensus on who won those head to heads; the drivers had to run again.

So Deane took his car back on the track again.

The car was “like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” Crackston said — and there could be no doubt left about her ability and work.

In the end, it was Deane who stood atop the Formula Drift podium.

He had won.

Crackston and the RTR team had done it.

Source: Orange County Register

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