When seconds count: Inside NASCAR’s crazy competitive pit road

Chris Trotman
Getty Images The No. 88 pit crew services Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet. Rowdy Harrell is second from right.

The race is hours away but pit road is humming already. Over-the-wall guys hustle to get their stalls ready. Tire changers check their air guns. Tire carriers align their Goodyears just so. Jackmen make sure their jacks are safely out of sight.

With NASCAR’s stage racing offering more chances to win points, those pit crew athletes’ performances have become more important than ever. It used to be that a bad pit stop in the middle of a race cost a team only track position, but that could be made up later. Now a bad mid-race pit stop can cost a team points, too, especially close to the end of a stage.

If that adds pressure, there is no evidence of it. The atmosphere along pit road at Michigan International Speedway is like a massive outdoor locker room that smells like oil and rubber instead of sweat and Ben Gay. To listen to pit crew members talk to each other is to learn that nobody is good at anything, ever, which is the same as it ever was.

Rowdy Harrell
Rowdy Harrell shows off his Alabama football rings, including three national championship rings.

Rowdy Harrell, the No. 88 team’s rear tire carrier, stands near the wall. He holds a tire that he eventually will put on the rear of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car. He grips it by wrapping his fingers around the only spoke on the wheel that lines up with a lug nut hole. He grabs every tire that way every time, because that helps him aim the five holes on the rim at the five studs on the car.

He dabs sweat off of his glistening forehead. His face will be behind a mask when he goes over the wall later today, when it will be even hotter than it already is. He wears the mask because one day at practice two years ago, a lug nut hit him on his left lower eyelid and left him bruised. An inch higher, and he might have been blinded. “They’re moving twice as fast as a helicopter rotor spins. It’s a little hulk of steel. If it touches you, it’s cutting you,” he says.

He finished the stop with his eyes closed. After that, he started wearing a luger’s helmet with a full-face shield. So many lug nuts have pinged off the mask that he no longer flinches when they do. That’s important because if he flinches, he’ll be slower slamming the new tire in place, and if he’s slower slamming the new tire in place, he’ll be out of a job. Harrell seems to revel in how ridiculous this is: NASCAR pit road is so competitive he has had to learn to not react when a lug nut moving twice as fast as a helicopter blade flies at his face.

RELATED: At home on the mounds with Rowdy Harrell

‘Pit crewing is a symphony’

Like many pit crew members, Harrell played sports in college. He won three national championships as a linebacker for the Alabama Crimson Tide, graduated in spring of 2013, joined Hendrick Motorsports, and the following February won the Daytona 500 as a member of Earnhardt Jr.’s team.

Hendrick Motorsports hiring Andy “Papa” Papathanassiou as a pit coach in 1992 helped usher in a new way of thinking. A former football player at Stanford, Papathanassiou, now Hendrick’s director of human performance, came into NASCAR knowing nothing about the sport, an advantage because he wasn’t beholden to pre-existing biases to do things the way they had always been done. The first time he saw a pit stop, he thought it looked like a sports play. That observation led to a revolution in how pit road operates. A pit stop changed from a mechanical event to an athletic one.

The fact pit road is overrun with athletes from other sports is well-known and well-documented. But it is not very well understood. The use of that term — athletes — is slightly misleading, as it’s not necessarily their athletic skills that make them valuable.

Athleticism is, of course, a nice foundation to build upon, and an uncoordinated schlub is not going to become an elite pit crew member. But blazing speed, massive strength and catch-a-fly-with-chopsticks hand-eye coordination, while certainly attractive, are not prerequisites for success.

An example: It’s good for a tire changer to have short-burst speed so that he gets to the other side of the car and back in as little time as possible. But that’s two sprints of six or seven steps at a time. The difference between the best and the worst times among the elite teams is not large. Even if a particular tire changer is super-fast, it doesn’t matter unless the rest of the team is that fast, too, because an over-the-wall team is only as good as its worst member.

Pit crew members work out at Joe Gibbs Racing’s gym.

This is an important distinction between pit crews and teams in every other sport. In football, the running back can make up for a bad offensive line by making defenders miss. A pit road team with a blazing fast tire changer gains no advantage from that because however quickly he gets done, the driver still has to wait for the rest of the team to finish before he can leave. In this way, a pit road team is more like a musical group than another sports team. Pit crewing is a symphony,” says Derrell Edwards, jackman for the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevy driven by Paul Menard. “Everything has to be in sync for it to sound good.”

RELATED: JGR’s push for excellence extends to pit crews

Between the ears

So many athletes are on pit road because of the mental acuity and character traits athletes bring with them. “It comes down to what kind of head do they have on their shoulders?” says Scott Bowen, human performance manager at Roush Fenway Racing and former tire carrier. “How do they react when things don’t go as planned?”

Five hundred mile races are very occasionally won and far more often lost based on the six inches between pit crew members’ ears. They must be resilient, solve problems on the fly, work well on a team and have the ability to practice the same tasks over and over again. Those are skills athletes have honed in stick-and-ball sports for years before they try out for a pit road position.

Pit crews train year-round, and yet their weekly time “on the field” is measured in seconds. Even a closer in baseball and kicker in football see more action than that. Pit road teams spend far more time working on their flexibility, agility and explosiveness than they do actually pitting cars.

The ability to stay focused and not get bored or distracted is a skill, and a person who doesn’t have it won’t last on a pit crew. Pit crew members also must be able to shake off bad pit stops because another stop will be coming soon, and they can’t spend that time wallowing in self-pity, anger or, worse, fear of screwing up the next one, too. Pit crew members must be confident they will succeed in the next stop even after they have failed.

“It’s the guys who can handle the pressure and do it over and over and over again who are the best,” says Trent Cherry, pit road coach for Penske and author of Money Stop: The Pressure on Pit Road Has Never Been Greater. “We have guys who played in the NFL who are average pit road guys. And we have guys who barely made their high school team who are great pit road guys.”

Shaun Peet
Shaun Peet, a former jackman, is Chip Ganassi Racing’s pit road coach.

Shaun Peet, pit road coach for Chip Ganassi Racing and former jackman, says he doesn’t take athleticism into account at all when he’s scouting for talent. He looks for integrity and work ethic first and figures with proper training, he can turn anybody with those traits into a good pit crew member.

Peet and Mike Metcalf, his fellow coach and gas man for Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevy, jokingly call themselves, “The Department of Unrealistic Expectations” with the slogan, “Failure’s Coming!” because setting as a goal changing four tires and filling a car with gas in 10 seconds every time is to guarantee failure.

Always watching

Perhaps the greatest sign of how competitive pit road has gotten is the investment teams put into the success of their over-the-wall crew. Teams regularly recruit the best at each position — think of a five-star high school quarterback — and once acquired, outfit them with trainers, full gyms at their race shops and travel for more than 30 events per year

Some teams hold tryouts to find new talent. Most develop pit road team members by starting them out in lower levels, the same way drivers work their way up. The competition for the fastest pit crew members is fierce, and it’s common for one team to poach from another.

All of that is well known. What is not is how teams collect information about which crew members to recruit. At every track, teams affix video cameras to pit boxes and fences and whatever else they can find and point them at opposing pit stalls to record their pit stops. They do this because nobody produces stats related to pit crew members. Teams create those stats themselves by watching their videos. When a pit road coach or crew chief needs a new crew member and wants to hire someone from another team, he identifies candidates by consulting the stats his team created via their video library.

And gets entertained in the process.

“Sooner or later someone will notice there’s a Go Pro pointed in their direction,” says Hendrick’s Papathanassiou. “Guys on other teams will finish their pit stop and go up to your camera and give it a thumbs-up. You don’t want to be a big butthole about it. But if you know the guys on the other team, it doesn’t turn into fisticuffs, usually.”

The video cameras and TV coverage ensure there are no secrets on pit road. If a team discovered a new trick to shave fractions of seconds off of their time, that new trick would be unique to them for one weekend, maximum, after which every other team would copy the new technique. The cameras are perfectly legal, a logical by-product of NASCAR’s policy to have open air garages and pit roads.

In addition to being filmed by opponents, each Monster Energy Series team has multiple cameras recording itself on each pit stop. Coaches study the tape frame by frame, looking for the smallest inconsistencies to improve. This is often done literally seconds after a pit stop ends. Teams across all sports study film. But they don’t break their plays down into fractions of seconds like NASCAR pit crews do.

A breakdown in seconds

Every team starts pit stops the same way: When the driver hits the line one stall down, the jackman, front tire changer and front tire carrier jump off the wall and run across the pit box in front of the car. The rear tire carrier and rear tire changer wait and run behind the car. Once on the other side of the car, the tire changers quickly squat down onto their haunches, a maneuver made possible, in some cases, by weekly yoga sessions.

Mike Metcalf
Mike Metcalf coaches Chip Ganassi Racing pit crew members at the team’s facility. Photo by NASCAR Digital Media

RELATED: Inside a Chip Ganassi Racing team’s pit crew practice

The clock starts ticking the instant the car stops. The times that follow come from Chip Ganassi Racing and were verified as within the margin of error by several other teams.

From the time the car stops, the front tire changer has 0.2 seconds to hit the first lug nut. The front-tire changer is expected to remove all five lug nuts in 1.0 seconds. The rear tire changer has a bit longer — up to 0.9 seconds — to make the first hit because the car is usually moving away from him. Once he hits the first one, he also has one second to remove all five.

In the meantime, the jackman has 1.2 seconds from the time the car stops to slide the jack onto the jackbolt, crank the jackhandle once, and lift that 3,500-pound car skyward.

Once the tire is ripped off, the tire carriers have 0.9 seconds to slam the new tire into place. The changers then have 1.0 seconds to tighten all five lug nuts. The jackman drops the car when the last lug nuts on both the front and rear tires are tight (which he discerns by watching and listening), then he has 3.8 seconds to run around to the other side and lift the car again.

As all of that is happening, the gas man — carrying what Peet calls “a 100-pound bomb” on his shoulder — has 0.3 seconds from when the car stops to when the nozzle of the can is supposed to be inserted into the car. He pours gas in for 5.0 seconds, then disengages the can, throws it to the wall, and grabs the second can. That transition is supposed to take 2.4 seconds.

When the left side tires are being bolted on, the jackman watches and listens for both changers to tighten their five lug nuts. On some teams, the rear tire carrier uses a hand signal to alert the jackman that the rear tire changer is done. When the changers have secured all five lug nuts on both tires, the jackman drops the car, and the driver speeds off.

As complicated as that sounds, it’s even worse because there are so many details that can go wrong. Changers miss lug nuts. Guns jam. Tires bounce away. Rear tire carriers slip on lug nuts or spilled gas. Drivers slide through pit boxes or stop too close to the wall. Cars are dropped too soon or not soon enough.

Kyle Larson pit stop
Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images

On top of all the things the pit crew can do wrong and get blamed for, sometimes they take heat for miscues completely out of their control. An offshoot of the hyper-competition on pit road is that there’s always someone to blame, even when there isn’t. Cherry says one of his toughest jobs is figuring out when a tire changer is telling the truth about his air gun malfunctioning and when he’s using that as an excuse.

Or consider the final run of the 2017 Daytona 500. In the last pit stop, gas man Mike Metcalf poured every last drop he could into Kyle Larson’s gas tank. There was, Metcalf says, no room left in the tank to hold any more gas.

As Larson peeled out of pit road, the No. 42 team crunched the numbers. The math of how much gas the tank carries, how much gas the engine uses and how many miles were left in the race added up to it was going to be close. Very, very close. And somehow that became Metcalf’s responsibility, even though the only thing he could control — filling the tank — he had done exactly as he was supposed to.

As the end of the race approached — with Larson in contention — Metcalf was nervous enough on his own because he wanted to win the Daytona 500 and didn’t know if he would. On top of that, he had to deal with inane questions. “Mikey, are we going to make it? Are we good? Is it full? How full was it? Really full? Barely full? Was it a little bit over full? Or was it a lot full?”

Metcalf laughs as he tells this story. It’s funny now … almost. Not even close then. “I’m like, why are we having this conversation?”

Larson was leading when he ran out of gas coming out of Turn 2 of the final lap. That means the tank needed to be roughly 32 ounces larger (and full of that much more gas) for Larson to have not run out. But as every gas man knows, if the driver runs out, it’s not the driver’s fault for being too hard on the gas, it’s not the engineers’ fault for not designing a more efficient motor, it’s not the crew chief’s fault for figuring the numbers wrong. It’s the gas man’s fault for not putting 21 gallons of gas into a 20-gallon tank.

The Richard Childress Racing No. 27 pit crew goes to work. Photo by Sarah Crabill | Getty Images

What’s next?

Its name is Lolo Jones. It weighs “20-something” pounds, has a long aluminum handle and can lift a stock car with one crank. “That’s my baby,” says Edwards, the No. 27 team’s jackman, and he means the jack, not the Olympic sprinter it’s named after. Edwards takes special care to make sure Jones’ maintenance is up to date so that when he slams the jack under the car, it lifts it high and fast. Edwards has a backup jack, too: Her name is Kim Kardashian. (Edwards doesn’t name them, he just uses them.)

Very few people know exactly what’s going on inside air guns and jacks, which are like the drills and jacks you have in your garage in the same way the Chevy in your garage is like the one Earnhardt Jr. races. Even the guys using them don’t really know, and unless they have engineering degrees, they probably wouldn’t understand anyway.

Pit stops have arguably reached the point where, without an advance in equipment, humans will not get markedly faster, so teams instead focus on consistency. A team would rather have five 11-second stops than four 10s and a 15, especially if the 15 was the last stop of the race.

Cherry, a former tire carrier, poses a hypothetical question: If a team could choose the best training — speed, strength, conditioning, injury rehab, etc. — or the best gun, which would it take? “I guarantee you 100 percent of the coaches would say, ‘Give me the gun,’ ” he says. “That’s what’s changed the face of the sport is the equipment. The people have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, too. It’s a race between human performance and equipment. As soon as one catches up to the other, the next surpasses it.”

And teams aren’t just looking to optimize pit guns and jacks. “There’s all kinds of crazy stuff that’s been on my list forever,” Papathanassiou says. “Pit crews are only hustling in one direction. Why not have shoes that are purposely designed to turn left for a front tire changer, to turn right for a rear tire changer?”

Why not, indeed?

And as soon as one team has high-banked shoes, they all will.