Being a part of NASCAR probably has crossed many of our minds at one point or another. For anybody that claims to like cars, it’s nearly impossible to resist the thought of rocketing down the backstretch, three wide, rubbing fenders as you fight for your line at 180 miles an hour! Most of us can only dream, though.
Although most people tend to romanticize their NASCAR fantasies (like we do) by always pretending to be the driver, most of the magic actually happens right down there on pit lane. We’ve all heard the saying, “Races are won and lost on pit lane” and it’s been ingrained in us as a universally known truth. But have you ever really stopped to appreciate what happens on pit lane? That “special something” that wins (and loses) races?
The amount of pressure that befalls over-the-wall pit crew members is tremendous. The entire race, the season, and their careers: everything rests upon their ability to perform an extremely hurried set of technical procedures, under pressure, lightning fast, and perfectly…every single time.
If all that wasn’t enough pressure for a pit crew member, NASCAR is no slouch when it comes to enforcing rules for safety. Getting a car out of the pits in under 12 seconds is already an astronomical undertaking, but you’d better make sure you do it right!
NASCAR has rules to follow, your team has rules to follow, your crew chief has all kinds of rules to follow…If you wanna survive here, you’d better get good at following the rules!
If you’ve ever paid close attention to the pit lane action in any given NASCAR race, you’ll notice that the pit crew members are all identified by a numbering system. Upon first glance, this may seem trivial to you, as it doesn’t really matter what number a pit crew member is, as long as he’s doing his job, right?
Wrong! Teams are recording and monitoring every second of the “over-the-wall” action when a car pulls in, and they analyze the daylights out of it post-race to see where improvements can be made to the pit stop process. Reduced team size means every aspect of the pit stop will have to be “re-thunk” for upcoming seasons—and nothing goes unnoticed, either.
NASCAR prides itself on safety. Running 180 mph, three-wide, in tight formation as you come off the backstretch (on a hot restart) doesn’t do much to promote safety on its own—NASCAR, by nature, is very dangerous. It’s also unfair. Big-money teams have much deeper resources that tend to bar the little guy from even having a chance.
In an attempt to curb this trend, NASCAR has reduced the “over-the-wall” number of allowed crew members from six to five. Additionally, there are very specific rules as to what function each pit crew member is allowed to undertake. The refueler can no longer perform other duties, such as helping with tires and making chassis adjustments.
The stress of getting a car fueled up and out the door within an acceptable time window is critical. A few extra seconds on pit lane can mean the difference between six or seven spots out on the race track. So naturally, they want to make things “flow” as smoothly as possible. A kink was introduced to the flawless pit stop in 2011 when a new, environmentally friendly gas can was introduced, with the intent of eliminating excess fumes from escaping into the atmosphere.
It was good for the environment but bad for the poor fuel guy who had to make extra sure he nailed his job right the first time (or lose a race). This innovation also removed the need for the seventh over-the-wall man (at an estimated cost of $45,000 per fuel can).
Every member of the crew is equally important to the overall success of the team. If you pay close attention to the pit action, you’ll notice that the team moves with a calibrated swiftness that is forged from thousands and thousands of practice runs; the well-rehearsed symphony is a perfect synchronization of actions that keep everyone moving nearly the entire time.
The tire changers will even begin to pull the tires off before the car is in the air. To do all of this in the span of 12 seconds takes one jackman, two tire changers, two tire carriers (now reduced to one), and a gasman working to the absolute limits of their potential—with zero mistakes allowed.
NASCAR pit operational theory runs just about as deep as the racing techniques that drive those lightning-fast pit stops. Every little variable has to be considered. If it takes 6.5 seconds to empty a fuel can (not to mention the additional one second for the gasman to reach the car from the wall) a thirteen-second pit stop is already a pipe dream.
Technical workarounds, creative substitutions, and the “long game” come into play here. Sometimes, teams will opt for a “short pit” (two tires and one can of fuel), hoping that a caution will come out soon enough to bring the car back in for the unfinished work before they need the extra fuel and the two new tires.
As it’s probably becoming clear to see, pit stops are pretty complex animals and the choreography of the “new pit stop” is still being dialed in. As with most things in NASCAR, a lot can still change over the next season; teams take notes from one another and eventually find their sweet spot.
Every team is always striving for the perfect pit and new theories are tested every day. Being down a man doesn’t seem like much to the outside perspective but it essentially means the whole entire pit stop has to be re-written. Drivers don’t seem worried about the changes, however; since they affect everyone equally, it’ll ultimately come down to who can get their cars out the fastest—just like it always has.
There is a complex hierarchy inside every race team and there is nothing short of a pile of rules to accompany each roster slot. The organizational layer of the team consists of managers, IT guys, and the brass. Three managers are allowed (or four with two cars). The road crew consists of the crew chief, mechanics, and general utility crew (12 members).
The pit crew, though, is five members only. Submitted exempt crew: drivers, trainers, etc. (unlimited). Road courses and Indianapolis do allow for an extra crew member. So, for every blistering lap you watch your favorite driver burn through on TV, there are dozens of support staff members there, all doing their part to make it happen.
The enormous responsibility of ensuring a smooth race falls largely upon the shoulders of the almighty crew chief. It’s his job to coordinate pit stops with the driver, monitor fuel consumption, lap times, track tire wear, ensure that all service gets done (during and between races), as well as just about everything and anything else you can think of.
He’ll delegate duties, of course, but it’s his job to know exactly what the car is doing (relying on both driver reports and those of this pit crew) to keep it as fast as possible throughout the race. This is no small task, even on a good day.
An inside view of the world of NASCAR pit stops comes to us from Michael Lingerfelt. The 41-year-old veteran pit crew member has been changing tires for top teams for 23 seasons. During that time, he’s seen a lot of things change. Lately, he says, it’s getting more dangerous. The increasingly strict nature of the rules stretches each pit crew member thinner and smaller tire changers are showing signs of fatigue during high-frequency pit races, like Atlanta.
Not only is fatigue a danger; an increasing sense of urgency for drivers to get back on the track can also be very dangerous. Lingerfelt would learn this firsthand when his leg was broken by Tony Stewart’s racecar as he blazed out of the pits just a fraction of a second too early.
The 2018 rule change meant that the finely-tuned pit stop—the same one that had been hammered repetitiously into the muscles and minds of the six-man pit crew—had to be completely reworked. “We’ve had very specific roles to fill,” says Jimmie Johnson. “[A guy needs to be] a certain size and weight to operate the jack,” he continues (NASCAR).
He goes on to outline the metric of the shifting workload, “To have this change now,” speaking of the 2018 rule change, “essentially somebody has to do two roles.” Double-duty, by necessity, is now just something pit crews must learn to live with.
We lost our beloved Dale Earnhardt Sr. on February 18, 2001. His loss was the result of a loophole in safety that had previously been unexposed—the danger was always there but Dale’s tragic accident would highlight just how important safety was. Since 2002, after a major safety restructure, all over-the-wall pit crew members are required to wear helmets, full fire suits, and gloves.
The odds of a pit crew member being struck by a moving car are slim, thanks to their calibrated reaction times and the exceptional skill of the drivers, but accidents are always a mere few inches away in any given direction.
This is less of a “rule” per se and more of an “if you want to keep your job” type of guideline, but NASCAR does to participate in tire testing; how else would they know how their tires perform on race day? Goodyear reserves the right to commission whichever race team they like to perform tests on their tires—and that means the entire crew goes for a field trip.
It’s more of an extra day of work than anything else, but somebody’s got to do it. After all, those tires don’t change themselves! This last January, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, and Daniel Suarez were the lucky contestants.
The worst member: it’s a title you don’t want because you can’t hold it for long. A tire changer must have an exceptional ability to perform short bursts to and from each side of the car and possess the ability to flawlessly zing wheels on and off like a robot. However, he can be as fast as he wants; everybody has their own job to do, and if there is a weakness in production, it will show.
A pit crew is only as strong as its weakest link. In 1992, Hendrick Motorsports went through the trouble of hiring Andy “Papa” Papathanassiou, a Stanford football player, as their director of human performance (because there actually is such a thing).
It’s a lot harder than you think to become a premium pit member because the road to the top is long and hard. Although NASCAR sources the best athletes from everywhere that’s viable, you have to work your way up, no matter how rad you are. Often times, this means laboring as a pit crew member for a local racing series near you.
Once you’re proven somewhere, you may have a shot at a low-level NASCAR series, where you’ll have to prove yourself all over. Teams will often hold tryouts to recruit new young talent but you’d better get good—and fast. The average career of a tire changer is a short one and you'll wear out well before your time.
It may sound crazy to hear but a Jalopnik probe into the top racing teams found that many pit crew members never even had NASCAR careers on the radar until being recruited for the job. Even when they want you in, it takes years to build up to top-level performance.
Jalopnik’s probe found that over half of the teams’ crewmembers they were able to gather data on were involved in college-level athletics. Another 21% had participated in either a form of professional sports or Olympic events. Meanwhile, only 6% of them had previous racing backgrounds.
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a method of recruiting pit crew members that only seemed to make the most sense. Since every function of the pit lane was of a mechanical nature, it was only reasonable to assume that sourcing talent from mechanical industries was the most logical thing to do.
However, this has proven to be the opposite of what’s true. The mechanics never turned out to be real performers. So, rather than hammer performance into unwilling mechanics, why not train athletes to do the same job? After all, they were already used to moving fast—all they had to do was learn to jockey a jack around.
In the same Jalopnik probe, Terry Spalding was outlined as the prime candidate for a NASCAR pit crew. He played football and basketball in college but he fell in love with the allure and challenges of pit crew life after seeing Austin Dillon’s No. 3 car slide effortlessly in and out of the pits in the 1990s. He wanted in so bad, he offered to quit his job and work for free. Eventually, someone took a chance on him and he would unwittingly agree to work for three months, at 90 hours a week—all unpaid. It all would work out for him in the end but it took a big gamble, all his savings, and a whole lot of faith to see it through. Think you have what it takes?
Spalding had an intense “break-in” period with the team before they started paying him but what his story is missing is how hard it was to even work for free for Jimmy Spencer’s team. He’d walk up to the shop to try the conventional front-door method.
When he was immediately turned down, he proceeded to double back around the shop to a vacant field, park his car, and trespass his way across the field (and into the shop) where he could plead his case with someone else (all the while risking everything that trespassing into a multi-million dollar race shop entails). He’s been involved in racing ever since but it took an enormous risk. (Being risky, as you can now see, is a part of the pit crew mantra.)
Not that they need those little numbers on your uniform to identify who you are but they sure do help decipher a crewmember in a tangle of fire-suited arms and legs during go-time. The simple reality is, they are watching all, measuring all, and scrutinizing all.
It’s not a dig on you as a pit crew member—if they didn’t trust you to do your job, you wouldn’t be there. But the razor-sharp edge of competition is always changing shape and teams are always looking for ways to shave a precious few tenths of a second from their pit times.
This is less a rule of technical racing as it is an unwritten rule of the pits; they don’t say, “Races are won and lost on pit lane,” just because it sounds good. Since the 1940s, NASCAR pit stop times have been trimmed down by about 88% of what they once were (State Water Heaters). In the 1940s, when pitting was rare, 55 seconds wouldn’t be anything to lose your brain over.
Today, you’d lose every race with just one 55-second pit stop. The art of the pit stop is so important today that cup teams employ full-time performance coaches just to keep the team operating at cup-level performance throughout the season.
Your car is coming in to pit. You line up on the wall, ready to spring into action. Just before the car pulls into the box, you start to bolt out behind it as it skids to a halt, inches in front of you. That was half a second. You follow your tire changer to the rear of the right side. He’s already gunning the nuts off as the jackman pumps the wheels off the ground— 2.5 seconds.
As soon as the rear tire is off, you slap your tire on the hub and run across the car to hold the fuel can while the fuelman runs back to the wall for his new tank—5.0 seconds. Once he returns with a new tank, you run to the wall and toss the old tank over, grab another tire and prepare to slap it on the hub—7.5 seconds! The tire changer tosses his tire aside, you slam yours on, and he zings it on with a marksman's precision—9 seconds, tick tock!
Fuel is still pouring into the tank as the jackman drops the left side. The driver dumps the clutch and the wheels start spinning before they hit the ground—11.8 seconds. The car is off! Congratulations, cowboy, you’ve kept your job—for now.
Sources: USA Today, Quincy Compressor, ESPN, NASCAR, Jalopnik, and Wired.