DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. As his team unloaded its tools after the final race of the 2003 season, crew chief Ryan Pemberton decided his team needed a break.
Although the NASCAR calendar didn't show another race for more than two months, Pemberton knew his team, along with every other team on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, was entering the worst part of the schedule the off-season.
While football, basketball, baseball and hockey players spend the off months soaking up the sun in the tropics or playing golf every day, the off-season in racing is more hectic than the season itself. It's when teams rebuild their fleet of cars, make trips to the wind tunnel, then rebuild cars again for a season of 36 official races and two all-star events in 42 weeks.
''There is no off-season,'' Pemberton said. ''This is when you really turn it up a notch.''
Pemberton, however, was concerned his Jasper Motorsports team would be tired before the first lap of the season, so he decided to do something unique: close the shop. Although mechanics and fabricators still worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, he closed Jasper Motorsports for five days to let the workers enjoy the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
2003 Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth climbs in his car getting ready to go out on the track during pre-season testing at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2004.
AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, John Raoux
''The work doesn't stop,'' Pemberton said. ''But I decided to give everyone five days off. That's kind of unusual to do that, but you have to do that for the sanity of the people and their families. We're trying to keep our intensity up for the season, but we're trying to do it in a 10-hour workday.''
NASCAR cut an inch and a half off the rear spoiler to eliminate 125 pounds of downforce on the rear tires. Teams were forced to cut the bodies off their old cars and rebuild them to compensate for the change. In addition, NASCAR also gave the Ford Taurus a new front and rear bumper, in addition to a new cylinder head.
''I completely changed the balance of the car,'' said Richard ''Slugger'' Labbe, Michael Waltrip's crew chief.
''It made us work even harder in the off-season. We had to cut everybody off and rebuild every car. We've been to the wind tunnel 15 times, and when those cars got back, we usually had to cut the body off again and build it again. It's a lot of work.''
Robbie Reiser, crew chief for defending Nextel Cup champion Matt Kenseth, said his shop went to a 12-hour day in November and will maintain that schedule until April.
''We had to get some cars prepared before we left for New York (to attend the week-long champion's celebration during the first week of December),'' Reiser said. ''We've had to rebuild every car. You can't do that once you start on the road (during the season), so you have to get as much done in advance as possible. We had our Daytona car ready before we left for New York, and we plan to have our cars ready for the first four or five races done before Daytona.''
Seventeen teams tested at Daytona International Speedway this week for three days; 25 teams will test next week. The majority of those teams will apply the information learned at the test during another round of rebuilding, then cars will go back to the wind tunnel for final approval. After that, tests already are scheduled at Talladega, Las Vegas and Rockingham for most teams later this month.
''It's a tradeoff,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr said. ''The price you pay and all that good stuff. It's been a pretty busy off-season (at Dale Earnhardt Inc.). Everybody gets a week (of vacation) but it's spread around. Everybody worked right up to Christmas Eve, and they were back in there the day after Christmas. That's it.''
''There's a lot of people who know how to work on these cars, but the ones in there are the ones who do it because they love it.''
Dale Jarrett, who alsohas the daunting task of completely overhauling his Fords, said the lights were turned off at Robert Yates Racing for just one day Christmas during the off-season.
''You better have a team that's ready to spend a lot of hours,'' he said. ''The effort just to win the Daytona 500 is incredible. No place else do we test for three days. This is what it's all about.''
Once the season starts, teams then move into a routine of traveling on Thursdays, working at the racetrack on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, flying home during the night and working in the shop early Monday for the next race.
''That's why I wanted to give my guys a little time now,'' Pemberton said. ''It only gets worse.''
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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