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Evolution of pit strategy can be traced to Inman

September 04, 2012, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM,

A pencil and a scrap piece of paper.

In Lee Petty's heyday, that's basically all it took to figure the strategy for the majority of NASCAR races. Do the math and put in enough gas to make it to the end of a 100-mile race on some dusty, dirt bullring somewhere. That's all there was to a team's game plan.

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Well, that, and the shaker screen that kept pebbles and chunks of the racing surface from getting into the grille had to be cleaned. Otherwise, it was hammer down from the drop of the green flag to the checkered flag, and whoever got there first, won. Simple as that.

Strategy? Just get there first.

The Golden Era

Dale Inman was there every step of the way as pit strategies evolved through the decades, just one reason he was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. No other crew chief in the history of the sport has as many wins or championships, and nobody else can say that they called the shots from the pits for both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

For going on 60 years now, Inman has been a part of the NASCAR landscape. He knows a thing or two when it comes to pit-stop strategies.

"They've come up with a pit-road speed, which is OK," Inman said. "They've come up with the wave around. They've come up with the lucky dog. When you had somebody down a lap [years ago], by grannies, you kept him down a lap. ... So much has changed on strategy. But when they make these rules, of course, it dictates the strategy."

When Lee Petty ran the beach-and-road course in 1958, Inman was part of a team that serviced a modified on Friday, a convertible on Saturday and a hardtop during Sunday's main event. In all three races, nothing more was required during pit stops than putting gas in the tank.

Not that the team could have communicated easily about what needed to be done to the car. Two-way radios weren't in vogue yet, so participants had to make do with hand gestures and crude pit boards on which the crew could write short messages.

Inman to Hall of Fame

Between 1958 and 1992, Dale Inman earned eight Cup championships -- seven of those with Richard Petty -- 193 victories and 129 poles. His success and contributions to the sport led to his 2012 induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.


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2nd Place ... Hurry!

When Richard Petty made his racing debut on July 12, 1958, in a Convertible Series event at Columbia Speedway in South Carolina, the lack of radios nearly left cousin Inman in a fix.

"There was a lot of relief drivers," Inman said. "It was just a pat on your head if you needed relief. I was nervous. Richard said he wasn't, but he probably was. He'd go to patting his head. Going home that night, I said, 'What the devil? You went to your head like you wanted relief. I went and got Joe [Weatherly] to get his helmet on and his little golfing gloves.' Richard said, 'Oh, no. I didn't want relief. My head was itching.' He was trying to scratch his head through his helmet."

To millions, Petty is The King. To Inman, he is just Richard. That allows him to give his friend and relative a good-natured shot.

"That's what I've had to work with all my life," Inman said with a grin.

The following season, when Lee Petty eked out a photo-finish victory in the debut 500-miler at Daytona International Speedway, strategy in the pits still wasn't a priority.

"I don't think we changed but one tire during the 500 with Lee," Inman said. "It was just kind of a precaution that we changed the right front."

During the next decade, Inman, the Pettys and their crew often would drag the same car to dirt and asphalt races to do with it what they could. And they could do aplenty. Richard Petty became The King and Inman one of his most trusted confidants.

A call that Inman made -- over the radio -- handed Petty the seventh and final Daytona 500 victory on Feb. 15, 1981. It's one of the most well-known strategic moves Inman ever made, and it came in what would be his final race with Petty Enterprises until rejoining the operation in 1986.

Bobby Allison had the field covered for most of the afternoon. As Petty dropped onto pit road for the final time on Lap 175, Inman keyed his radio to talk to his driver.

"I told him coming down pit road, 'Be ready ... we're just going to put gas in,'" Inman said. "Halfway through the race, I figured out that the tire we had that day, if we put four on or we put two on, it didn't pick our speed up. I know I told him, 'Richard, no matter what happens, the tires are OK. They're not wearing. They're not picking your speed up. Bear with me.'"

Petty wound up with a lead of nearly 11 seconds following the round of stops, a margin Allison would not overcome. The decision gave the seven-time champion the victory, but another could have cost him.

"We figured the gas mileage, but not to the extent that they do right now," Inman said. "Then, when he went back, he ran wide open. Coming into the tri-oval to the checkers, he ran out of gas."

Crew Chief Emeritus

These days, Inman is to NASCAR mechanics what Petty is to NASCAR drivers. He is the benchmark against which their contributions are measured, the legend who still drifts through the garage on a regular basis. He hammers the younger generation when they need a ribbing, tell them that it hasn't always been this easy.

He doesn't mean it. Richard Petty likely never used the phrase "aero push" during his 35-year driving career. And adjusting a tire's air pressure by a fraction of a pound? No way. Inman probably never had access to an air-pressure gauge accurate to within two pounds, much less a quarter or a half.

Perhaps no other professional sport has evolved so much in so many different directions, and Inman was there through almost all of it.

"It's stressful on the crew chiefs making decisions," Inman said. "You've got to realize there wasn't much adjustment on these cars [back then], either. There were very few ways to adjust the car."

Today's pit road is almost unrecognizable from those of years past, with all the war wagons and computer and television monitors. What would Lee Petty have thought? Inman thinks for a second before answering with another smile.

"Well, the first thing, he would've been concerned about the cost," Inman said with a chuckle. "When the hamburger steaks got to be more than a dollar, he was out of business."