From garage workers to athletes, the pit stop has changed dramatically over the years
How far has technology progressed when it comes to pit stops in NASCAR racing? Ask walking encyclopedia Buz McKim, the NASCAR Hall of Fame resident historian, and he knows just the picture to drive the point home.
The classic black-and-white photo from the 1968 season depicts Junior Johnson‘s master mechanic Herb Nab over the pit wall and awaiting his driver, LeeRoy Yarbrough. Nab stands poised with his primitive air gun ready, but a closer inspection shows the early innovator’s preferred method of changing tires — the lug nuts are lodged in his teeth for quicker access.
Compared to today’s state-of-the-art pit stops in which the exchange of four fresh tires and the addition of 18 gallons of gas takes place in 12 seconds or sometimes less, the contrast almost makes NASCAR’s earliest crewmembers seem like cavemen before the invention of fire.
“It’s escalated now to where it’s unbelievable,” said Waddell Wilson, who turned the wrenches for three Daytona 500 victories and saw decades of advances first-hand. “If you were to take these boys now, put ’em back in the early ’60s at the race track, it would blow their minds. They could not believe how far it’s come in really not that many years, in a way. … It’ll keep escalating. Technology is unreal in this day and time.”
The art of performing a pit stop in NASCAR racing has grown from a rudimentary exercise with little emphasis in the sport’s infancy to the current-day orchestration with blazing speed, replete with all the pressures of big-time motorsports. NASCAR.com conducted extensive research, including interviews and the review of hours of footage to determine the turning points in the evolution of pit stops and the innovations that have stood the test of time.
The early years
Teams rarely needed pit stops in the formative years of the sport, primarily because most races were short, 100-mile affairs. The only race where pit stops truly factored in the 1950s was the ahead-of-its-time Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
When drivers did need to stop — usually because of tire issues or crash-related damage — their crew raised the car with old-fashioned bumper jacks and four-way tire wrenches until the mid-1950s and the advent of pneumatic air guns. Grainy footage of NASCAR Hall of Famer Herb Thomas pulling in with a flat tire at Lakewood Speedway shows that early stops to change just one tire took nearly a minute to complete.
Midway through the decade, floor jacks replaced bumper jacks with mechanical whiz Smokey Yunick believed to be the pioneer of that technology.
“Before that, they just didn’t know any better,” McKim said. “Smokey had a truck repair shop in Daytona and he was used to those big floor jacks, and he thought, ‘well heck, we can just use one of them.’ It’s the old ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, more or less.”
Speed on pit road didn’t take another quantum leap forward until the Wood Brothers made the earliest forays into choreographing their service. Their handiwork was showcased in the 1965 Indy 500 when they were hired to pit Jim Clark’s Lotus-Ford. Their speed assisted Clark in notching his only win in the fabled race and raised eyebrows up and down the Brickyard’s pit road, revolutionizing that series’ approach to pit stops.
The emphasis on timing and position shaved precious seconds from the time stopped in the pits, but it was still a laborious process. In the 1960s and into the 1970s — when speedways got bigger and races became longer — it wasn’t uncommon during caution periods to see teams change left-side tires, return to the track ahead of the pace car, then return to the pits to change right-side tires to avoid losing a lap.
Wilson recalled how the Mario Rossi-owned team for legendary driver Bobby Allison debuted another major time-saver in 1970 at the annual pit crew competition at Rockingham Speedway, gluing lug nuts directly to the wheel and making Nab’s iconic teeth-grinding methods obsolete.
“I thought we had it won with Pearson’s car because we were the quickest until they beat us out,” said Wilson, who was with the famed Holman-Moody team at the time. “We worked on that, and that made a big difference.” That practice continues today as teams participate in an every-weekend ritual of affixing lug nuts with high-tech rubber cement.
In terms of refueling, cars in NASCAR’s top series still used a gas cap attached by a lanyard until the rise of time-saving capless filler nozzles in 1974. That development, combined with advancements in ventilation and faster flow in gas cans pushed pit times even lower, down to the 30-second neighborhood. But major gains that dropped pit-stop times into the teens were just around the corner.
Moving toward modern
Andy Petree likes to tell the story about how one of his first big breaks in NASCAR came about. Junior Johnson hired him in 1981 to be a tire-changer in addition to other duties for the No. 11 driven by Darrell Waltrip, based solely on the recommendation of longtime family friend Ned Jarrett, now a NASCAR Hall of Famer.
What Jarrett was unclear of was that the extent of Petree’s training was his former employment at a tire store. Furthermore, the extent of his racing was of the weekend warrior variety in Limited Sportsman division races that were usually 25 laps with no pit stops required. The next thing Petree knew, he was riding in the team hauler to the series’ next race, all the way from North Carolina to Riverside, California.
“So the very first pit stop I ever made in NASCAR was when we were leading the race and Junior Johnson calls for four tires,” said Petree, now an analyst for ESPN. “So you can’t imagine — there was no pit practice, none of that, nothing. Just show up and do it. So you talk about pressure. I mean I can’t tell you how much pressure. I had family just getting started, my wife was pregnant, and here I am with all this pressure to make this deal work. Anyway, we end up winning the race and it worked out for me … but I tell you, I was about to throw up.”
Petree’s story underscores the growing emphasis on pit stops through the 1980s, but the work was still performed by mechanics and engineers whose primary duty was prepping the car for race day. Developments with lighter jacks, faster wrenches and improved fuel flow continued to offer help, but it wasn’t until the late ’80s and early ’90s that teams began to institute over-the-wall practice during the week to hone the craft.
To identify strong suits and pinpoint areas for improvement, NASCAR teams needed to review game film of their pit stops much in the way other sports teams did. Petree, who worked by then with Richard Childress Racing and the No. 3 team for Dale Earnhardt, originally began collecting footage with a cameraman standing behind pit wall but the deficiencies in showing every aspect of the team’s stops were evident. He next tried placing a cameraman in the grandstands with a long lens, but that also failed to give a complete picture.
Parallel to this, Petree had been introduced to the idea of small cameras that were the size of a lipstick or cigarette pack, mounting them on the car to gauge suspension travel and other data. When the first one arrived via courier, something clicked.
“I opened that thing up and a light bulb went off in my head and I said, ‘Uh oh, I think I got it.’ So I was the first one to put a camera on a pole above the pit stall,” Petree said. “That was 1993. For the longest time, I think it was almost the entire season before anybody figured out what that thing was. We were able to record that pit stop from above, and you can’t believe the things that we could identify and work on and get better, watching the process. We would review these stops every week, so it was a huge emphasis that we’d put on pit stops. And I think that’s when it really started.”
For all the advances in equipment, practice and timing, four-tire stops didn’t regularly dip down below 20 seconds until the revolutionary notion of shaping pit crews in the mold of a professional sports team, with each over-the-wall crewmember having their own specialty role. The pioneer was Ray Evernham, a former Modified racer who was just beginning to make his mark in the NASCAR garage.
When Evernham was paired with young phenom Jeff Gordon in the 1993 season, he formed the Rainbow Warriors, a purpose-built crew of professional athletes for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team. With the “Refuse to Lose” motto on their T-shirts becoming the team’s calling card, the concept ushered in a new attitude and new era on pit road.
“I think every great crew chief sort of revolutionizes things,” Gordon said of Evernham. “They’re always looking at what area can you find the most significant gain, and I think Ray really started focusing and understanding that races could be won or lost on pit road by just gaining a couple tenths of a second and being consistent with that and seeing how it was getting harder and harder to gain those positions on the race track because of aerodynamics and track position.
“Yeah, I think that pit crews evolved so much during that period of time where they were crew members or guys that worked in the shop during the week and then went to the track and were your best guys that could pit the car, where Ray said, you know what, we need to start bringing athletes in here and guys that were specialized and trained at changing tires, carrying tires, jacking the car, and I think it did revolutionize things.”
Other teams eventually followed suit, and over time the practice has helped numerous athletes from more traditional stick-and-ball sports enjoy a second career in NASCAR, whether they have a stock-car racing background or not.
But all athletes require coaches, and NASCAR teams have adapted to fulfill that need. It’s what prompted Team Penske to hire Jim Beichner, the wrestling coach for 18 seasons at the University at Buffalo, to help improve conditioning and fine-tune the powerhouse operation’s crew.
“We’re looking more at ex-athletes from different sports that are very talented,” Team Penske No. 2 crew chief Paul Wolfe told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We just kind of get them in the door and see what aspects they’re good at and where we think they could fit in. And then you just kind of train them to do the jobs we want. Those guys that are jumping over the wall are athletes today, and that’s all they focus on. There’s no concern to them about working on the race cars. That’s what it takes to be able to be successful on pit road these days.”
Better equipment has done its part as well, shaving more precious tenths of a second from stops. Jacks now require just one pump to lift the car, impact wrenches are now purpose-built tools manufactured for racing teams only, and the invention and progression of the “war wagon” pit box as a one-stop shop for race-day needs have all made crewmembers’ jobs more efficient.
But for all the advances in tools of the trade, the specialization of the men behind the wrenches has made the biggest difference.
“Now look at it,” Gordon said. “We have whole training facilities and recruitment and everything else to get the best athletes we can to do that.”
Safety and the future
The emphasis on speed hasn’t come without nods to safety. NASCAR officials instituted pit-road speed limits after the death of crewman Mike Rich in a pit-road accident in the 1990 season finale. Beforehand, drivers barely slowed as they pulled off the track to pit lane.
“I never thought about it, all the years I went across the wall,” Waddell Wilson said. “The cars would go by you so fast especially at Daytona and Talladega, the speed of them would just about turn you around. They’d come down pit road about as fast as they were running down the race track. That’s how they’d make up time.”
A pit crew’s attire has also come a long way. In the earliest days, crewmembers went over the wall with no helmets, dressed in only mechanic’s work shirts and pants. Not until later in the 1980s did teams begin using kneepads to help ease the pain in kneeling on the pavement to change tires. Now pit crews are outfitted in fireproof uniforms with full-face helmets, some with lights underneath the visors to improve visibility during night races.
Thanks to specialized pit crews and equipment, the threshold for a successful stop these days puts teams in the 12-second bracket for four tires and two cans of gas. But for all the advancements made in other racing series that have no limits on how many crewmembers can service the car, the nod to an old-school approach in stock-car racing still makes teams work for it.
“Really in NASCAR, it’s still just two air wrenches, six guys basically across the wall — that’s it. So with technology, it hasn’t really changed that much,” Petree said. “It’s really these athletes and coaches and everything that have gotten this process down. That’s what makes it amazing that they can do a 12-second stop with the basic same equipment when I started and was doing 24-second pit stops.”
But how much faster can pit stops go? Ten seconds? Eight? Chris Rice, competition manager for RAB Racing and a NASCAR.com analyst, said that only radical changes would push four-tire stops into the single digits on the stopwatch.
“We’re to our limit. I don’t think NASCAR wants us to be much faster,” Rice said. “You know, 11, 12 seconds is all they want to see. The only way to get faster is go to one lug nut, and I don’t ever see that coming because we’re running a stock car. A stock car, you can go in the Hall of Fame and the cars have five lug nuts — some even have six. Obviously people are going to get stronger and faster, but you’re at a point now that you can’t get the gas in fast enough to be any faster.”
Petree agreed, acknowledging the restrictions posed by fuel flow. But he hinted that the evolutionary nature of finding speed on pit road may still have room to grow.
“But what is the limit on a stop that doesn’t take a full load of fuel? We haven’t seen it yet,” Petree said. “I would like to say it would be 11 seconds, but I know it’s not because I’ve been there when I thought a 20-second pit stop was unheard of.”