Crews confront dangers in pits

Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2001

CONCORD, N.C. -- This is the first time in 16 years that Lee McCall's job description doesn't include jumping in front of speeding traffic during a pit stop.

He considers himself one of the lucky ones. In 15 years of changing tires on pit road during NASCAR Winston Cup Series races, he's never been seriously hurt.

''I've been hit by cars a couple times,'' he said, ''but it only led to a bunch of bumps and bruises. Nothing serious.''

As a crew chief for Sterling Marlin's new Dodge, McCall now watches pit stops from atop his toolbox. From there, he winces every time a 3,400-pound car speeds down pit road as five men simultaneously jump over the wall to fill the gas tank and change tires.

The margin for error is often mere inches.

''We had three guys get hit this year at Texas,'' McCall said. ''It wasn't anybody's fault. A couple cars got together and one of them wound up in our pit stall. Things like that happen.''

All three men were injured, but none so seriously that it forced them to skip their final stop of the race. One needed X-rays on his ankle, and the other two needed stitches in their legs. All three were back on the job a week later at Martins ville, Va.

Success for a driver is measured in split seconds, and the clock also runs on pit road. The faster a driver gets to his pit stall, gets his service and gets back on the racetrack, the better.

Multiply that urgency by 43 teams, and a routine pit stop suddenly becomes a wild ballet of men and their machines.

It doesn't take much for the may hem to get out of sync. When that happens, crewmen are certain to lose a one-on-one confrontation with an automobile.

''You just have to do the job, dive in and do the one thing,'' said Aaron Pieratt, a rear-tire carrier for Ken Schrader. ''Whatever's happening around you is just going to happen.''

Pit crews will be pressed into action during tonight's qualifying session for The Winston all-star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Their work will be every bit as important as a regular season race, but it will come without the customary dangers.

Open only to the 17 most recent winners on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, a pair of former series champions and the winners of two qualifying races, the race features unusual qualifying procedures. Each driver circles the 112-mile raceway for three laps, and the session also includes a mandatory pit stop for four tires.

Crewmen know every second saved on pit road translates to about 100 yards on the racetrack. But since cars will qualify one at a time, they don't have to worry about being struck by another car as they do their work.

There is nothing ordinary about the race. The qualifying lap begins with the four-tire stop, and the main event includes a field inversion and three segments of 10-lap sprints at the end for $500,000.

The car that wins the pole position will earn $50,000 $25,000 to the driver and $25,000 to the pit crew. In the past, most drivers have donated their shares to the crew as a show of appreciation.

Despite all the ceremony associated with The Winston, the pit crews will be back under fire sometimes literally a week later in the Coca-Cola 600. That's when their work is judged by fractions of a second, and where a mistake can be fatal.

''If you have a fear factor or a problem with it, it's probably not somewhere you want to be,'' Pieratt said. ''You're there to play the game. That's your job.''

That job sometimes includes collisions with cars that are going from 180 mph to a dead stop.

Mike Rich was killed instantly while he was changing a rear tire for Elliott at Atlanta Motor Speed way in 1990. Rich was struck by Ricky Rudd's car after it spun out of control while stopping for service. Rich was pinned between both cars.

''We're fully exposed,'' said Jeff Chandler, Bobby Labonte's front tire-changer. ''They come in behind you, they hit you, and you never know what happened.''

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