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Innovation has brought tire changing to new level

August 14, 2012, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Close your eyes for just a second and picture this scene.

It's 1957, and you're helping pit Lee Petty in the dust and dirt of Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania. Are you ready for this? You'd better be, because he's here ... go! You're supposed to change the front tires, but you've got nothing more to work with than the very most basic four-pronged lug wrench.

You hit the first lug and after a lot more effort than you expect, it finally breaks loose. It's not all the way free just yet, so you give one of the prongs a whack with your left hand so that the whole thing will spin in your right. Finally, the lug nut is free.

UPS... Game Changing Moments

That's one of five on just this tire ... and that's only to remove it. You've got to do the whole process over again in reverse to replace it with fresh rubber. If you're really, really good -- and lucky -- Lee will be back on the track in a minute or so.

Now open your eyes back up. Could there possibly be any more beautiful a sound for a Sprint Cup tire changer than the shrill whine of a fully automatic impact wrench? Nowadays, compressed air does the work muscles and brawn did 50 years ago.

A giant leap

For the first decade of NASCAR competition, that's all a team had to work with -- the four-pronged lug wrench. Somewhere along the line, somebody got the idea to put a sleeve around one of the prongs so that it would spin easier in the hand. As far as evolution went, that was about the extent of it.

Enter Leonard Wood. Smokey Yunick's team was taking "just" 45 seconds to bolt two new tires onto the car being driven by Fireball Roberts, and that was just about the best of the best in 1960. Wood went about the task of improving on that for his family-owned Wood Brothers Racing.

Bingo. What about a regular ol' impact wrench that anybody could buy down at the local parts store? That would have to be faster than what they'd been using.

"It was just a stock air-operated power wrench," Wood said. "That's what we used to start with. Right away, we were down to 25 seconds for two tires and gas."

What passed for a lightning-quick stop back then was more than enough to raise eyebrows up and down the rest of pit road.

"They really wasn't paying that much attention until we come out like half a lap ahead," Wood added with a hearty chuckle. "That got their attention."

As much of a progression as the stock impact wrench was compared to the tire iron, team sponsor Ingersoll-Rand then upped the ante that much more. The company came up with a high-speed gun with settings to vary the power that was applied while taking the lug nuts on or off.

"You didn't want it to tighten tighter than you could get it off," said Wood, who changed the front tires for years on the Wood Brothers Racing entries. "Some might want it a little more powerful coming off. I kind of liked it 50-50. Then, you could improve the performance a little bit more yet by going in and polishing and reshaping the ports a little bit."

So advanced did the Wood Brothers become in their stops, they were dispatched by Ford Racing to pit Jim Clark in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. All they did together was go out and win one of the most prestigious races in all of motorsports.

All the while improvements were made to the impact wrenches being used in NASCAR. Once upon a time, tire changers often had problems with lug nuts getting jammed in the air gun's socket. The solution was genius in its simplicity. Just stick a spring in the socket, and presto, no more jammed lug nuts.

"They really wasn't paying that much attention until we come out like half a lap ahead. That got their attention."

--LEONARD WOOD

Easier to ask forgiveness than permission

Jason Keller's pit crew pulled a fast one on Aug. 25, 1995, at Bristol that could have changed the face of pit stops as we know them today. There happened to be only one small problem. The grand idea had not been approved by NASCAR, and it was not about to be.

As Keller prepared to make an upcoming pit stop, his crew busily prepared their impact wrenches and hoses just like hundreds of teams had done during hundreds of races. This time, however, they suddenly strapped on portable SCUBA-like backpacks that contained the air supply for their impact wrenches. That allowed them to go hose-free during the stop.

"It was kind of one of these don't-ask-permission-ask-forgiveness type of scenarios the way we went about it," Keller admitted. "The crew loved it. They were tickled to death. Anything you could try to get an advantage on, they were all for it."

Before the stop was over, KEL Racing had plenty of company in its pit stall. Keller, however, at least had some plausible deniability in the caper. He was just the driver. Steve Addington was Keller's crew chief at the time, and former Sprint Cup crew chief Lee McCall helped oversee the pit stops.

In effect, Keller says ... they did it.

"I wasn't in the pits at the time they used it," he said. "When they got back over the wall, we were kind of laughing about it on the radio. There were a lot of NASCAR officials in the pits when I left the stall."

The very next week, wherever the meeting might have taken place, the team was informed it could not use the backpacks again.

"They said from the safety standpoint it was good. It had great ideas. You wouldn't get tangled up in the hoses. But, right now, we couldn't use them," Keller recalled. "NASCAR, I do remember them saying that they have to protect the guys over the wall, and they didn't want people getting run over with a jet pack on their backs."

What's next?

As much as a jump as today's impact wrenches are from a four-pronged tire iron, Leonard Wood sees at least some room for improvement.

"The only thing I would want if I was still doing it would be making the gun as light as possible, and powerful and fast," Wood said. "I'd tailor it to fit the power that you'd like and the speed you want. Guys like it a little bit different. I used to jack the air pressure up way more than anybody else. It'd about throw the gun out of your hand when you pulled the trigger if you didn't hold on. I wanted it fast. Some people might not like that. I'm saying it might be an advantage for the air-gun manufacturers to custom fit each tire changer."

Here's a thought. If Keller and company's SCUBA-like impact wrenches won't work, would some sort of cordless air gun be feasible?

"They're doing great wonders with batteries," Wood concluded, although not sounding quite sold on the idea.

Maybe it's just food for thought.