Alan Mertens designs chassis used in IndyCar races. It is a detail business in a sport that moves along at 200 mph. A man has to be fast -- and good -- to keep up the pace. Mertens, who came up with his own, original chassis design this season, is both.
In May, his Galmer chassis, driven by Al Unser Jr., won the Indianapolis 500. It was the Galles race team's second victory of the season, making it the first team to manage the feat.
"Alan is so successful because of his single-mindedness," says Mertens' wife, Dawn. "He gets on with the job, and he doesn't let anything distract him."
Unser says: "Alan spends 14 hours a day and goes home and eats a bowl of soup at 3 in the morning and thinks that's fine. But he also has a family, two little children. I know he is concerned about being away so much. And I know you can't do your best work, when another part of your life is out of sorts. I tell him all the time that he should take some time to smell the roses."
From January to late October, Mertens, whose home is in Quainton, England, spends nearly all of his time traveling across the United States, from racetrack to test track to the site of the next weekend's race. A month ago, he was testing his car in Loudon, N.H. Today, he is back there, his team ready for the New England 200 IndyCar race.
During the past year, nearly all of Mertens' time has been spent designing the unique Galmer chassis. Outwardly, it looks different from other Indy cars, with its pointed, needle-like nose. Inside, among many significant modifications, the tub of the car is manufactured with torsion rigidity to provide a more stable platform for the suspension. The chassis is designed around the driver to provide better aerodynamics.
"The difference between the other race cars and the one Alan has designed for me is its strength," says Unser. "It's like comparing a Volvo to a Ford Pinto."
Though the car performed well at Indianapolis and has shown promise on road courses, it is struggling on banked ovals. Last weekend, Unser finished seventh at the Miller Genuine Draft 200 West Allis, Wis., and today's race on a new, 1.058-mile oval could be trying.
"Life is always so instantaneously demanding," says Mertens, awarded the 26th Schwitzer Award for his design of the Galmer 9200 chassis. "You don't know if you've achieved anything or not."
Back in Quainton, life is much slower.
"We do it all at half-a-mile an hour instead of 200 miles an hour," he says. "You go to bed [there], and you cannot believe any place can be so black and quiet. It's like somebody switched off the lights of the world."
Quainton has a population of 1,200, a post office, a general store, a butcher-cum-greengrocer, an antiques shop and three pubs.
"Every Friday evening, we all go to the pub for a pint," says Mike Barton, a friend and neighbor of Mertens'. "We all love going with Alan when he's home. When we heard his car won the Indianapolis 500, we let out a yell. We were all so happy for him."
As an engineer, Mertens has been on the fast track since joining March Engineering in 1976. At March, he designed the winning )) chassis at Indy from 1983 to 1987. In 1988, Rick Galles talked him into joining Galles Racing. While Mertens spent his time redefining the Lola chassis, which would take Al Unser Jr. to the 1990 driving title, Galles continued to talk to Mertens about working on their own car.
"My dream was to have my own chassis, and his was to have his own business," Galles says. "We worked it out."
The race shop, which carries out research and development, is about 12 miles outside of Quainton. The company, Galmer Racing, is a 50-50 venture, combining the first three letters of Galles' name and the first three of Mertens'.
"I've always been lucky in achieving goals," says Mertens, 42. "I keep setting them, and I keep reaching them. But, it's funny, achieving them has not been like what I thought it would be. It's never felt as good as I thought it would.
"I've won Indy with my own car. I'd like to win the national championship with my own chassis. But it worries me. What is there that will be left?"
Mertens is a successful man, but at the thought of that, the corners of his mouth twitch.
"Success," he says. "I suppose you think you'll be big, famous -- rich and famous -- if you're honest enough to admit it . . . but I don't feel any of those things.
"Is it more important to achieve goals or have wealth? It's just as well if it's the achieving that's more important, since I'm broke. I don't know how to make money. I'm just an engineer."
Mertens makes a generous salary, and he got a percentage of the $1.4 million Unser collected for winning Indy. But, except for buying a gold Rolex for his wife, nearly everything he makes goes right back into Galmer Racing.
And most of his time goes into Galmer Racing as well.
It has been weeks since he's been home. The single-mindedness that has been key to creating successful chassis over the years does not play particularly well on the home front.
"I think Dawn feels I treat home like a hotel, because when I am there, I still have to spend a great deal of time at the shop," Mertens says.
"It does get more and more difficult," Dawn Mertens says. "But . . . we get by. I do think he needs this part of his life to keep him sane."