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Evolution of the pit stop: A roundtable discussion

January 14, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Evolution of the pit stop: A roundtable discussion
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Five of NASCAR's best in the pits talk about how much has changed in 50 years

In a rare moment recently at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, five gentlemen who have had much to do with the always ongoing evolution of the pit stop got together to talk about how much has changed through the years in that regard.

Sitting down for an exclusive interview and roundtable discussion with NASCAR.COM were Leonard Wood of Wood Brothers Racing; eight-time championship crew chief Dale Inman; Kirk Shelmerdine, who helped Dale Earnhardt win four of his record seven driving championships; former championship crew chief and car owner Ray Evernham; and Greg Miller, current pit-crew coach for Michael Waltrip Racing. Here is what they had to say:

Question: Let's start with Leonard, who has been credited with helping revolutionize the art of the pit stop to the point where in 1963, Wood Brothers Racing was asked to pit the car for eventual Indianapolis 500 winner Jimmy Clark. What did you first see about pit stops that led you to start working so hard at refining them?

Roundtable


Joe Menzer sat down with five icons from pit road -- Leonard Wood, Dale Inman, Kirk Shelmerdine, Ray Evernham and Greg Miller -- and discussed how dramatically things have changed on pit road throughout the years.

Wood: I remember back in 1960 at the very first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Fireball Roberts and [crew chief] Smokey Yunick were the top team at that time. We noticed it took 'em 45 seconds to change two tires and take on fuel.

Of course, back then they were using a four-prong lug wrench. Even then, you took and put a sleeve over it so it would roll freely in your hand to speed up even a four-prong lug wrench. But we saw there was a lot of speed to be gained, so we started working on it right away.

We went to power guns and we were down to like 25 seconds in a little while. What you do is, say you're trying to put your lug on your gun, but it's getting hung up. So you think, 'Well, how can I get it on quicker?' So you streamline the socket. Then you put a spring in the socket so you can just go from one lug nut to the other. You just take each thing. Figure out what's slowing you up, you know, and how can I get faster? Speed the jack up and the fuel or whatever.

Q: So you were able to improve how much in a relatively short amount of time?

Wood: We were able to take it to 25 seconds in just a short time. Of course, it looked like we were half a lap back when we would make a pit stop -- but we were half a lap ahead. Of course, it didn't take long before all the other crews saw what we were doing and started to do the same thing.

Q: That takes us over to you, Dale. Back in the day, you even helped pit Lee Petty's cars on hot days with no shirts on -- before going on to help Richard Petty win his record seven Cup championships. Did you see what Wood Brothers Racing was doing with their pit stops and kind of build on that?

Inman: That was way before Leonard was racing [when he helped pit Lee Petty's cars]. Richard was part of the pit crew. Mainly it was me and Richard and Maurice, Richard's brother. Yeah, it was cool to be without your shirt on and go over the wall at some of these tracks. You went over the wall and out on the race track to do the pitting of the cars. There were no pits; you were pitting on the race track. A lot of [the events were] 100-mile dirt races, so there were no tire changes or anything. You'd just have to dump some gas and the big thing was trying to keep the windshield clean. When the race started, you might be geared to do one thing. Then something would happen during the race, and you'd have to be geared to do something else.

It was in the early 1960s and everything, like Leonard said, before they really started paying more attention to the pit stops. You had to modify your equipment; that was about all you could do. We didn't have the trainers and everything that they have today to get you in shape. You just kind of played it by ear when they came down pit road.

Q: Didn't you often just kind of go through the shop before leaving for the race weekend and grab whomever might be available to work as the pit crew that given race weekend?

Inman [laughing]: Yeah, and there weren't many people to pick from, either. And not that many cars, either. We had maybe one car for years. They didn't allow a backup car until I don't even know what year. And then they kept it under lock and key until everyone could kindly get a hauler that could haul two race cars.

Not to get off subject too much, but I remember towing the cars to the race track behind the family car on the ground. And then putting them on the trailers a little later on. Then we finally got enclosed trailers and all that.

Q: Getting over to Kirk, you became Earnhardt's crew chief in 1982 and filled that role for four of his record seven championships. Did you draw from some of the stuff you saw guys like Leonard and Dale do to improve your pit stops?

Shelmerdine: Sure. Especially starting out, when I was just a kid working on one of the real small teams. If you wanted to learn and see how things were done right, you would go down and see what the Pettys or what the Woods were doing -- how they were setting their pits up, how they were doing things. They were the big guys when I was just a teenager. I still feel honored just to sit here with them.

But we took what they had and learned how to do it ourselves. And as the years went by, I got with better teams -- and pretty far down the road, we ended up beating them and a lot of others. It was a big transition period, but it's always evolving. It's gotten to the point now where we probably wouldn't recognize it if we were out there trying to do it. All of the pit crews are a lot closer than they used to be. I remember when I was doing it, there really were only about 12 to 14 really sharp groups and the rest of them were just there. You just tried to be the best that you could among that [elite] group.

Q: We have to ask. How was Dale in the car after a bad pit stop?

Shelmerdine [laughing]: Well, thankfully we didn't have that many bad ones. We were a team. We got along pretty well. Dale was always trying to do his best and we didn't yell at him too much when he made a mistake, and it was the same thing with us. If we goofed, everybody knew we goofed. He didn't have to point it out, and it was all fixed by the next stop.

Q: Ray, you are credited with helping take the science of a pit stop to a whole new level when you joined Hendrick Motorsports as Jeff Gordon's crew chief in 1993. Talk about your ideas to bring in more athletic guys and actually start practicing the stop and so forth -- ideas that weren't initially embraced by everyone in the garage area ...

Evernham: Again, you don't really revolutionize anything. I wasn't that innovative. What I did was take what these guys before me -- Leonard and Dale and Kirk -- and try to improve on it. Kirk says he's honored to sit here with all of us; well, I'm honored to sit here with all them, too, Kirk included. They laid out that thought process of making things better. By studying these guys my whole life, by reading about them and by watching them on TV, they drive you to try and refine -- not to go in there and reinvent the wheel.

At that time [in the early 1990s], there were pretty good jacks and Ingersoll-Rand was doing a pretty decent job with guns. So I thought to myself, and I saw a lot of gains to be made in the people. The guys who were doing the pit stops at that time would have work on the car for 14 to 16 hours a day, and then they'd have to pit the thing on Sunday. And they didn't get a lot of time to practice.

I went to Rick Hendrick and said, 'Look, if I can save you a little bit of time here, can I have a budget to bring in some people?' And we brought in the original Rainbow Warriors. I'm gonna tell you, those guys did not make a lot of money. There were no big extra salaries. There were some bonuses and things like that. They ended up starting to do better later, but a lot of those guys came in as volunteers. We'd buy 'em gas for their car, buy 'em a sandwich, and give 'em a shirt -- and they'd come in on Sunday. That's how it started. I just figured that if we had guys who could train and concentrate just on pitting the car, it would help. You could not ask for a man to work the way we worked on those cars, work all day getting ready to go race -- and then have them pit the car as effectively on Sunday as someone who was fresh.

We struggled with it a little bit at first. We had to go and get a budget. I went in and said, 'Hey, we've got to go buy some weights and some other stuff.' And they said, 'No, you can't have it.' Well, Rick Hendrick pulled in there one day and we had guys running up and down the driveway, carrying each other on their backs. They were carrying wheels over their heads. And they had a pull-down bar that they had made out of some old roll-cage tubing that they were working out on. He came in and said, 'What in the hell are you guys doing?'

So we explained it to him, and he started watching to see what we were doing and the progress that we were making. And I think right then and there, he started to understand and support us. The sport was changing so much and there was so much work going on with the cars that you just could not expect a man to pull off a 15- or 16-second pit stop -- which was good for that time -- on Sunday after working as hard as he had to on the car the rest of the week.

Q: And now to bring it full cycle, we come to Greg, who is considered perhaps the most innovative pit-crew coach in the Cup Series garage these days. Talk about some of the new things you're doing at Michael Waltrip Racing ...

Miller: I'm definitely honored to be with these gentlemen. All I've been able to do is take what I've learned from their experiences of years past and try to continue to build on it. We've been able to get the specialized athletes in here and train them, get them stronger and faster and work on their hand-eye coordination and things like that.

Some of the things that we've done in recent years have been designed actually to build the team morale. Now we've got a group of seven finely-tuned athletes to work the stops, but most of pit road is equal in that regard now. So how do you take your group of seven and make them better? We try to do that by building teamwork -- by doing things like showing them motivational movies in addition to the rest of the training and everything else. One of the things I'm most proud about is when I was with the Red Bull [Racing] group, I took a whole day and went up to the Wood Brothers shop. We spent the day walking around with Leonard and looking at the old jacks and the old cars and how they used to do things. That really opened my eyes as to helping me remember what we really are here for.

It's just continuing to build on years and years and years of what these guys have developed that allows us to keep making faster pit stops. We've just tried to put it all together and developed bigger, stronger, faster pit crews.

Q: In general, knowing it can perhaps vary on where you're pitting, what do you consider an exceptional four-tire pit-stop time to be?

Miller: Down in the 11s, actually. Our No. 00 pit crew came out of [last August's race at] Bristol with five pit stops under 13 seconds, and that's considered average these days. When you start dropping down under the 12-second mark, that's when you're really getting it done.

Q: Leonard, what do you think about that -- going from 45 seconds for a two-tire and fuel pit stop back in your beginning days to in the 11-second range today for four tires and fuel?

Wood: That's awesome. But, you know, over the years you would think you were as fast as you could get. But with these guys and their training and everything else, you've always got more than you think you have that you can save [time-wise]. If you just keep practicing, you find that you can pull off another second that you didn't know you had. With them pushing you and preparing you and conditioning you to the level that they do these days, you can gain another second you never thought you had if you keep practicing and keep at it.