Story Credit: Jared DePouw
Photo Credit: Jared DePouw
Competition. You don’t have to look far in the NTT IndyCar Series to see competition of all types. Between drivers, teams, and engineers there’s no shortage of rivalries in the paddock. But behind the scenes there are battles being waged every race weekend between mechanics and the rulebook, with only a team of tech inspection workers maintaining the line of fairness.
At the helm of tech is Kevin “Rocket” Blanch, a self-proclaimed hillbilly who grew up on a farm in rural Indiana. Like most people from Indiana, Rocket admired Indy car racing and since 1989 hasn’t missed a single race whether as a fan, team mechanic, or series official.
“One of my favorite guys,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company. “If I was making a movie in Hollywood and said to central casting ‘Send me a mechanic’, Rocket would appear. He’s the epidemy of the title.”
A naturally competitive person, Rocket got his start as a simple race car painter where he would get his first taste of race competition. After a season of painting cars for Patrick Racing, a mass exodus of mechanics allowed Rocket to move up to the role of mechanic. Over the next decade Rocket would work his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming the Chief Mechanic and Crew Chief of Panther Racing where he would help the team win two Indy Racing League championships.
One thing most people don’t realize is that despite all the glitz and glamor of working on Indy cars, it is a major mental & physical drain to work and travel so many hours. So back in 2003 when the Indy Racing League needed a new Technical Director, Rocket switched sides from Mechanic to Referee.
“Back when I started in 2003 there was just no organization to this side of the series” said Rocket. “Everyone was a part-time employee, there were no full-time employees. I’m still the only full-time employee, but back then there just wasn’t that ‘working on the car’ level of experience like we have today so that helped bring up the respect level.”
In the world of sports officiating, some of the best officials are former players as they already know the rules and can provide a unique perspective. However that transition requires a complete change of mindset, especially when it comes to competition. While not overly common, teams do occasionally attempt to bend the rules to their advantage, and it’s Rocket’s job to stop them.
“He’s a good guy, very strict and to the point. Tough, but fair” says Bob Jansen, Chief Mechanic for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “But he’s also the guy that just after yelling at me about something, 20 minutes later he’s talking to me about hunting or whatever you’ve got going on.”
As any sports official can tell you (myself included), thick skin and a disconnect from emotion are required in order to excel. “There’s a lot of people in the paddock that are my friends,” Rocket quoted. “But once I enter this paddock, I don’t have any friends. Everyone here is trying to take advantage of me, whether you’re my friend or not.”
So, what does a competitive person do when they switch to a far less competitive job? They seek out new challenges. In the last 15 years Rocket has turned to nature to fill that competitive void through fishing and hunting. But if you think Rocket is a traditional bow hunter, you’d be wrong. Most bow hunters sit up high all day looking for deer, but Rocket finds his thrills in hunting from the ground, often coming within 50 feet of a deer mere moments before taking it down.
In fact, the Indy Racing League almost lost Rocket back in 2004 when he nearly made the Pro Fishing tour. But not knowing the rules, Rocket threw back one fish he thought was too small. That one fish was the difference between making the pro tour by finishing 10th and missing out. Good thing for us all because the NTT IndyCar Series is far better off having Rocket around. Believe me, if Rocket had the chance again you better believe he would have kept that fish.
“No matter how bad the day is, I’ve been able to make a living for 31 years in some form of racing which to me is pretty cool because I’ve never really had to go to work for a very long time” concluded Rocket.