of purchasing and product development was assigned to spend a year embedded with the Newman/Haas racing team near Chicago for the upcoming IndyCar season.
The team already boasted legendary driver Mario Andretti and had just signed Nigel Mansell, a hotshot Brit coming off a championship season in Formula One.
As a vehicle dynamics engineer, Thai-Tang had the job of monitoring the race cars and ensuring they were performing at optimal levels. The yearlong stint taught him how to work on nearly every aspect of a vehicle, from electronics to powertrain to fuel levels, and how to quickly diagnose a problem during high-stress situations without ever getting behind the wheel.
"It shaped me into the person that I am," he told Automotive News.
The team's results that year were impressive: six victories, 11 podium finishes and the overall driver's and manufacturer's championships. Thai-Tang went on to become chief engineer of the Ford Mustang, among other high-profile product development roles.
"It was a watershed moment for me," he said. "It became one of the assignments that catapulted me in the company. To this day, I still talk about it."
Here are some of the stories — and lessons — Thai-Tang took from his year in IndyCar.
Thai-Tang learned early on how to manage the many personalities on the team.
During some tests before his first race, Andretti, the veteran, was consistently finishing behind Mansell, the new guy.
That didn't sit well with Andretti, who fumed at his team to find out why.
Eager to impress his new bosses, Thai-Tang began poring over the race data on his computer. He soon found the reason: Mansell's car had been outfitted with a valve that contained slightly more boost than Andretti's car had.
"I printed it off and ran up to him saying I figured it out," Thai-Tang said. "But the look on my team principal's face ... I quickly found out that I wasn't supposed to say that. It was a really important lesson; racing isn't quite as equitable as everyone thinks. There's an element of politics and favoritism."
One of Thai-Tang's jobs was to form a fuel strategy for the drivers.
During one particular race, Mansell was leading late but needed to pit one more time to get enough fuel.
Thai-Tang's manager asked him to calculate precisely how much Mansell needed to cross the finish line. He ran the numbers and came up with an answer: 6 gallons.
But Thai-Tang wanted to be extra cautious, so he rounded up, telling his manager that Mansell needed 6.5 gallons.
But his manager rounded up, too. So did the fuel tank operator and the guy actually putting it in the car in pit row.
Mansell ended up having a long pit stop and finishing in third place. A post-race inspection showed the car finished with about 5 more gallons than it needed.
"We found out everybody puts in a little provision," Thai-Tang said. "For me, it was an important lesson in human dynamics and learning how to make your team feel safe."
Carl Haas, one of the co-owners of the team, also owned the Milwaukee Mile racetrack.
"Carl would joke he'd intentionally repave it every year and put bumps in that only we knew about," Thai-Tang said.
Later that season, when it came time for a race on that track, the Newman/Haas team felt extra pressure to do well. Despite the team's perceived advantage, Raul Boesel, a Brazilian driver for rival Dick Simon Racing, was finishing well ahead of the pack on the 1-mile oval.
Thai-Tang's crew was flummoxed, so the team owners paid the wives of their mechanics to take spy shots of Boesel's vehicle as they walked up and down pit row.
They found that Boesel's car had been outfitted with side pod deflectors that made the vehicle faster by pushing away turbulent air.
Thai-Tang and his team quickly drew up a sketch of a similar device, faxed it to the team factory just outside Chicago, had the part overnighted and attached it to the car in time for qualifying the next day.
"It was like bolting on an extra half-second," Thai-Tang said.
Mansell beat Boesel in qualifying and took the pole position for Sunday's race. As Thai-Tang and his team were pushing the car onto the starting grid, he noticed about 15 other cars also had added side deflectors.
"It shows you how fast and quickly an idea catches on," he said. "I share that with my teams today. We can go buy a Tesla, Honda or GM and tear it down legally. You have to have this fanatical paranoia about the competition that they know something that you don't."