News & Media

Pit crews move to forefront on All-Star weekend

May 18, 2012, David Caraviello,

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It begins with the sound of an electronic bell and the whir of impact wrenches, and ends with six men huffing and puffing to push a 3,400-pound stock car across an arena floor to the finish line. The Sprint Pit Crew Challenge brought thousands of enthusiastic fans and plenty of NASCAR insiders to Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday night, to watch over-the-wall specialists ply their trade in a competition that paid more than $80,000 to the winning team.

NASCAR's only sanctioned indoor event made for a boisterous evening, capped by Jimmie Johnson's crew snapping the two-year winning streak of Denny Hamlin's team. It was only the beginning of a long weekend that promises to put the usually anonymous crew members front and center in a variety of different capacities -- from the breakneck battle for bragging rights on Thursday, to the four-tire pit stop that factors into Friday's qualifying format for the Sprint All-Star Challenge, to that final mandatory pit stop before the final 10-lap segment of Saturday night's main event, where $1 million will be at stake.

"From the weight room to the field to the practice pad, we know we finished second. We know who beat us. We replayed it in our minds a hundred times. When it came down to us and the 11 team this year -- there was no way we were going to let the 11 team beat us."


"This weekend is a lot bigger than it normally is on pit road," said Jeff Kerr of Kasey Kahne's No. 5 team, winner of the individual jack man title Thursday night. "But every week you prepare for this kind of weekend. You have to be ready for any kind of situation that [presents] itself. When it comes available, you have to be your best at it."

That much was certainly evident at Time Warner Cable Arena, where drivers and team owners milled around watching pit crews do their thing. The Pit Crew Challenge consisted of four stations -- jack man, gas man, and front and rear tire changer and carrier -- in which each crewman attacked their individual discipline before running to another vehicle that had to be pushed 40 yards. There were plenty of other differences from race day, from the gas cans being filled with water instead of fuel, the engines not required to be operational, and wives and children sitting in the seat instead of the usual drivers. Who knew that Kim Burton could wheel it?

But those differences didn't detract any from the pride competitors feel in winning this eight-year-old competition. "It means a lot to win it," said Tim Sheets, front-tire changer on Jeff Burton's No. 31 team, who paired with tire carrier J.D. Holcomb to win their individual event. "You're going against your peers, and it's competition, and you're trying to put up a faster time than anybody else. Everything's equal. Even though it's different than it is at the race track, it's still five lug nuts and two tires."

Of course, crewmen are going to get their fill of the real thing soon enough. The order of finish in the Pit Crew Challenge will be used to determine pit stall selection for the All-Star Race, and qualifying for the non-points exhibition also includes a four-tire change. Then there's the main event Saturday, which for this season has been broken up into five segments, with the winners of the first four 20-lappers getting the top four spots heading into a mandatory pit stop entering the 10-lap finale. No tire changes are obligatory, leading to the possibility that one or more teams may decide to take fuel only, and try to turn old rubber into a million bucks.

Regardless, pit crews know they'll be under the microscope Saturday night and all weekend, and will have a chance to be recognized for performance rather than mistakes. "Pit crew guys are kind of like linemen," said Holcomb, whose 31 team will have to race its way into the All-Star event through the Sprint Showdown preliminary race. "We don't hardly ever get much credit until we make a mistake, then everybody knows. These next few days, we get to showcase our skills and have a good time with it."

Ordinarily, pit crews only get noticed when something goes awry -- like a dropped lug nut that takes a driver out of winning position, or an accident that knocks a tire changer to the concrete. That much was on vivid display last weekend at Darlington Raceway, when the crews of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch were involved in an altercation after Busch allegedly sped through the No. 39 pit box on a late pit stop. Performing quick pit stops to help their car gain positions on the track is their primary duty. But if push comes to shove, sometimes quite literally, they're quick to defend their territory.

"That's our area," said Eric Wilson, pit crew coach for Richard Childress Racing, and a longtime jack man. "That 15 by 30 [foot] box is our area, and when something goes wrong ... it's frustrating. There's so much pressure, and it's so intense."

Sometimes more than others. Mentored by legendary car owner and jack man Junior Johnson, whose tactic of slinging the jack around the vehicle was so effective it was eventually banned, Wilson said there are always a few drivers who nobody wants to pit around. One was Rusty Wallace -- the pits around the No. 2 car were always the last ones selected, he said, because the former NASCAR champion always seemed to cut it close around crewmen. Of course, there were always ways to fight back.

"If they do it too many times ... you can always fill up that air gun with oil, and as soon as he's right there, squirt it and get it all in his window," Wilson said. "You can have a tire out there and bust their left-front fender up. In the old days, you could do that. The cars are a little tougher now. ... There are all sorts of little things. But tensions rise, and the crew chiefs usually end up talking about it and getting it all straightened out during the race. But when they don't, you have to do something about it. You have to stand your ground."

All-Star fever

Getting ramped up for the 2012 Sprint All-Star Race? Make sure you check in on the race site for both the Sprint Fan Vote and all the information on the eligible drivers.

Todd Parrott can relate. The Richard Petty Motorsports crew chief carried tires for 10 years, and would sometimes run out into pit road to force opposing cars to steer well away from his crew. His father, former crew chief Buddy Parrott, would throw grille brushes at cars that got too close. It didn't always work -- Todd Parrott said he was run over, tossed up onto the hood of a car, and knocked down onto pit road over the course of his over-the-wall career, vivid reminders of how perilous the job can be.

"I know what those guys go through," he said. "It's not fun. It's dangerous. It's a contact sport, and those guys, when they go over the wall, the best thing to do is try to block it out of your head. But I think for the most part, with NASCAR slowing the pit road speeds down and the safety stuff, the crew guys wearing helmets and things like that, it's safer. But it's dangerous. And that's just the way it is."

Even drivers are well aware of that. The most scared Burton ever gets on a race track is when he enters the pits, and there's a car already in the pit behind his box. That means he has to pass within inches of another team's jack man and right-front tire changer and carrier to squeeze into his space.

"It's really close," he said. "And to me, that's the scariest part of racing for me, is coming onto pit road and a guy already being in his pit box. You have to get close to them. There's no other way to get into your pit box. And if you misjudge it a little bit, and he misjudges his exit a little bit, somebody gets hurt. That to me is the scariest part of racing. Nothing else really scares me about the sport. But that scares me, because I know how close it is."

Thursday night, though, those hazards were absent, allowing crews to focus solely on performance. Nobody showed more of it than the No. 48 team, which posted its fastest time of the five-round competition in the final, edging the No. 11 crew by three tenths of a second. Johnson's bunch had plenty of motivation -- Hamlin's team defeated them in the final last year, a fact they were reminded of before this competition when their pit crew coach sent his charges a photo of the No. 11 team beating them a season ago.

"It is something we thought about," said R.J. Barnette, front tire carrier for the winning team. "From the weight room to the field to the practice pad, we know we finished second. We know who beat us. We replayed it in our minds a hundred times. When it came down to us and the 11 team this year -- there was no way we were going to let the 11 team beat us."

Now it's on to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where just like every other pit crew on All-Star weekend, the No. 48 team will play a prominent role in determining the outcome. "This group of guys knows how to handle it," said Calvin Teague, Johnson's rear tire changer. "Because we're not doing a pit stop for any certain fan. We're not doing a pit stop for a camera. We're doing a pit stop for the six guys that are here. So I think we can take the spotlight pretty well."