Pit Pass: Lee Lindgren
On setting up a sprint car and midget racing
Text + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey
Spotlight | It’s a Friday morning in November, and the racing season has wound down to a halt in Northern California, but at the Tri-C Machine race shop in West Sacramento, Lee Lindgren is busy building a brand-new Spike Chassis dirt midget that will soon see action in Bakersfield and at the famous Turkey Night Grand Prix in Ventura. Besides the Indianapolis 500, the Turkey Night event is the longest-running race in the United States. Since 1934, the USAC midget race has been held on Thanksgiving night at select dirt and pavement tracks in Southern California. The historic event brings out the best open-wheel drivers in the U.S.
Lindgren and the Tri-C Machine team owner, 82-year-old Clyde Lamar, will field an entry for 2016 USAC National Midget champion and ’15 Turkey Night winner Tanner Thorson, 22. Lamar and his iconic number 3c sprint car have been racing in California since 1965 and have won innumerable sprint car races throughout the state.
Helping a family friend with his sprint car, Lindgren got his first taste of racing when he was about 8 years old. These days, Lindgren, 48, is still in love with the sport and has worked with some of the best sprint car drivers on the West Coast, including Tyler Walker, Paul McMahan and Stephen Allard.
Taking a break, the affable Lindgren took a few minutes to talk about Tri-C’s midget racing journey and setting up a sprint car.
What’s the best thing about working for Clyde Lamar?
He’s a machinist at heart and a very smart man. We’ve become good friends over the years, and he trusts me with stuff and that makes it nice. He’s a tough old, cross guy, but he does know his stuff. He’s been racing for quite a long time.
We have a car here that we’re going to restore. It’s the car that he won the Gold Cup with (in 1977) with Gary Patterson. We have so many trophies. He loves keeping the trophies. But there are a few that really stick out, like the Gold Cup trophy. It’s the centerpiece.
Our race shop is 40x40. We’ve got two sprint cars in here and two midgets.
How many races do you run per year?
We do close to 80. We ventured into the midgets this year. We have a midget program. So, we went out and ran Indiana Midget Week, Illinois Midget Week, and now we’re getting back into the midget season with Oildale coming up and Turkey Night … and an indoor invitational race in Illinois. Then there’s Chili Bowl in January.
Clyde said he always wanted a midget, and we ended up doing a little midget racing with DJ (Netto). Clyde loved that little car, so we’re building a brand-new car for Chili Bowl. It’s a really lightweight car.
This year (2018) we’ve won 13 races: 11 sprint car races and two midget races. I think we’ve won five at Chico this year. I’m not sure. It kinda all runs together.
Were you always interested in auto racing when you were growing up?
Oh yeah. Ever since I was a little kid. I used to have my open wheel in the middle of my school books. I’ve always been involved since I was about 8 years old. My stepdad’s best friend was Bill Strange, and he raced at Placerville Speedway, and every Wednesday we’d go work on the car on Wednesdays and go to the races on Saturdays. My job was cleaning the wheels and washing the wings.
These days, do you see a lot of young people getting involved in the mechanical and technical side of sprint car racing?
There are a few young guys out there, but I understand. The worst thing about racing in general is sparking interest with kids, just to get them off the couch and be interested in doing something mechanical. I have young kids that come by (the shop). I had a young guy that was helping for a little while last year and that’s pretty cool. If they wanna learn, there are people in racing to learn from.
Basically a sprint car or a midget is like a big X. That’s how they’re set up and how they work. Once that starts clicking in your head, how the car works, action and reaction. What you do to the left front affects the right rear and vice versa. That will just click with some people and they start learning and being intrigued by it.
I feel like we’re involved with the greatest sport in the world, sprint car racing. It doesn’t do well on TV, but watching it in person is pretty awesome. We’ve got to get those kids out there and get ’em to actually watch and wanna be involved.
I’m still learning every day. But that’s part of having a passion for the sport. It does wear you down. (laughs). It’s a lot of ups and downs, a lot of hours.
In general, what makes a good setup for a sprint car?
The car has to have a good balance to it. You can’t be flying the nose of the car but you gotta have drive in the car, you know what I mean? You gotta have rear-wheel drive, but it can’t just be popping wheel stands all over, and the biggest thing is the car has got to rotate through the center (of the turn) and then on exit, it can’t be hanging; it can’t be laying left. It’s gotta stand up on that left rear tire and drive. The straighter off the turn, the straighter the drive is going to be.
But every driver is different. The setup goes with your driver. Drivers have different feels and what they want out of the car. Basically, a good setup person has to be able to read a guy and get input from the driver. That’s the key. You’re kinda like a psychiatrist out there sometimes.
What are the key points on the race car to make setup adjustments?
The key things on a sprint car are stagger and wheel spacing. That right there are the two main things. Gear selection is important, but once you get it, you don’t change that a lot. You’re constantly messing with shock adjustments, tire stagger and right rear wheel spacing. Those are the main tools.
The shocks are rebound adjustable and you’re messing with the rebound on the shocks probably all night long. When the track is heavy, you’re tying down the left front, basically increasing the rebound on your left front shock to keep the car off the right rear. Like I said, the car’s an ‘X.’ So when you increase the rebound of your left front, you’re keeping the car off the right rear. That’s so when you don’t get in the turn, when you pick up the throttle the car doesn’t rear up and get on the right rear tire, especially when the track is heavy … but you want it to do that when the track is slick. It’s constantly changing.
So, you have to forecast how the track will change during a night …
Yeah, you gotta watch the track. Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.
Explain how a dirt track can have a different surface on different days.
Take Stockton, for example: In the middle of the year (summer), it’s 100 degrees all day. The track is slick and dry and when we go there towards the end of the year (November), it’s heavy and rough because the temperature is in the 60s and it gets cold at night. There’s a lot more moisture in the air. I’m not a big fan of the heavy racetracks. I kinda like the slicker ones. I feel like it takes more skill to get a car hooked up on something that’s slick. Unhooking a car on something that’s wet, we call it ‘hero dirt.’ It’s just wide open. The driver doesn’t have to pedal the car. It’s not a fun part of the year to me. The beginning of the year is always like that and the end of the year is always like that. In the middle of the year, when it starts getting hot, that’s when the racing, I feel, is the most fun because the tracks are slicker and more challenging.
When the tracks are slick they’re technical for the drivers. When they’re rough, it’s just wide open. Your driver just holds the pedal to the floor. Usually the young guys go forward and the old guys go backward. When it’s slick, the old guys go forward and the young guys go backward because they can’t pedal the race car.
On a regular night of racing, there’s only a few minutes of practice before the night. How do you decide what adjustments to make with such a short amount of time on the track?
We take a lot of notes and we basically have a b-line setup that we run all of the time, and we’ll make the shock adjustments for here, for there. You’re keeping a close watch on the stopwatch to see where the times are going. You need to know where your competitors are at. Sometimes, if the track is getting super fast, you better make some adjustments.
You’ve worked with some great drivers; what do you like to see in a driver?
Communication is key out of the driver. Being able to communicate what they’re feeling (in the race car) and you want them to give it their all. You don’t want them to drive it half-assed, especially in hot laps, or practice, so you can see what the car’s doing from that point, so you know where your adjustments are going. Feedback and a general work ethic, you know. Dedication. There are just some drivers that you super click with and some drivers that you don’t. Me and Tanner have been doing this for a while. I worked a lot with Tyler Walker. I’ve worked with Paul McMahan, my brother-in-law Greg DeCaires, DJ Netto last year. All those guys have different talents and they’re all good in their own right, but they’re all great drivers. They have their pluses and minuses.
How much has technology changed in sprint car racing in the last, say, 15 years?
Technology has changed the motors, of course. Tires and shocks have changed a lot. Other than that, there hasn’t been a whole lot of technology in these race cars. But the shocks are huge, and they keep doing different things with the tires to give the drivers different feels. But as far as the steering, the drivetrain, and stuff like that, it’s basically the same. It’s getting better as far as dependability, but it’s basically the same thing.
The motors, for sure. Head design. We’re getting more and more horsepower out of our stuff.
How many pieces and parts do you bring to the race track?
We have four more sets of shocks in the trailer, two spare rear ends, two spare front ends, a complete car, usually. Probably 10 right and 10 left rear wheels and tires, all mounted. We have everything to rebuild that car, if it gets crashed in the front, or back, or anywhere. Or, we can pull down the whole car.
And when you travel with the midget, are you as well equipped?
Yeah, we’re getting it there. Like, when we go down to Ventura, we’ll have a complete spare car ready to go.
Is a midget set up similar to a sprint car?
It’s pretty similar. But it’s different because of the weight and size. We took to it pretty good. They’re cool cars; they’re interesting. We just need to keep the engines together.
With his experience, is Tanner a part of setting up the midgets?
Oh yeah. Tanner’s helpful on everything. He’s young. He’s a student of the sport. He really wants to learn a lot. He used to work with Keith Kunz. He’s probably been around midgets more often than anything else.
Is Tanner going to be in the car next year?
You know, that’s a big question. I don’t know for sure yet. We’d love to have him back. It’s more on whether he’s going to get the opportunities to do what he wants to do there (NASCAR) and make some money. His dream is to have his own (sprint car) team so he doesn’t have to drive for anybody. But that takes money. He wants a development team. He wants to be able to come in and race a sprint car some, or a midget, but then give other people opportunities to be able to drive, too.