Every pit stop tests ability of crew

Posted: Thursday, August 24, 2000

The deafening roar of race cars served as a backdrop to a group of men huddled around a computer monitor Sunday at Michigan Speed way. The action on the racetrack was intense; the competitiveness was electric.

But for Jeremy Mayfield's over-the-wall gang, nothing was more mesmerizing than watching the replays of their most recent pit stop over and over again.

All seven men watched their own movements, looking for a hiccup of activity in what's become organized mayhem a pit stop on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

There are tires to be changed, a gas tank to be filled, a windshield to be washed and a driver who needs a drink all in 15 seconds.

''There's a lot of rhyme and reason to all the chaos of a pit stop,'' said Andy Ward, the pit coordinator for Mayfield and Penske-Kranefuss Rac ing's Mobil 1 Ford Taurus. ''What surprises me, even now, is how easy it looks but how incredibly hard it is to do. Everything that happens is choreographed and planned down to a tenth of a second.''

That's why most teams videotape every stop. Each action is studied, and every move is calculated. No matter how perfect a stop feels, everyone knows there's room for improvement.

Glenn and Leonard Wood were the first car owners to recognize the importance of making a quick pit stop. They revolutionized stops more than 30 years ago with specialized equipment and crews. They turned minute-long stops into 25-second ballets of flying lug nuts, swinging elbows and mind-numbing pressure.

Now stops can be done in 15 seconds or less.

''Tenths of seconds are big to us,'' said Mark Mauldin, pit crew coordinator for Petty Enterprises. ''You can lose a tenth by looking away or losing your focus. Fifteen seconds in the pits this week at Bristol (Tenn.) is a lap. One second is half a straightaway. It amazes me every time we go to the race track. I look for every way to shave a tenth of a second off a stop.''

At a superspeedway like Mich igan, an extra second on pit road costs a driver 100 yards of ground on the track.

Seven crewmen are allowed over the wall during a pit stop. What happens after that is a blur:

n As the car screams to a halt, the front-tire changer, tire carrier and jack man are running around the car. As it stops, the rear-tire changer and carrier are running to their marks on the right side of the car.

n With one hefty pump, the car is lifted off the ground as the fifth and final lug nut falls off the front and rear tires.

n As the new tires are mounted, the gas man is dumping the first of two 11-gallon cans of gas into the tank. A catch man is on hand to get the overflow of gas and to direct the old rear tire to the wall.

n The front-tire carrier can wash the windshield and pass the driver a drink in the seconds it takes the tire changer to take one tire off and put a new one on.

n The rear-tire carrier can take a wrench and make any necessary adjustments to the rear suspension. He can either tighten or loosen the rear springs to change dramatically the car's characteristics in the corners.

n As soon as the fifth lug nut is tightened on the front and rear tires, the jack man drops the car as the tire changers race to the left side of the car and repeat their work. When the final lug nut is tightened on the left side, the car is dropped and the driver returns to action.

Not only do crewmen have to have quick feet to move around the car and change two tires in less than 15 seconds, they have to be strong. Each tire weighs 72 pounds, Mauldin said. One can of gas weighs nearly 80 pounds.

Pit stops not only test a crewman's physical and emotional abilities, it takes him dangerously close to calamity. Mike Rich, a crewman for Bill Elliott's team, was killed at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1989 when he was pinned between two cars. Countless others have suffered broken legs when they were struck by cars speeding down pit road.

''It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to jump out in front of a race car,'' Mauldin said. ''There's potential for problems. I got taken off my feet at Martinsville last year. It's in the back of my mind now. I used to never look, but now I catch myself glancing out of the corner of my eye when I step out on pit road.''

A year ago, five of Jeff Gordon's over-the-wall gang jumped over to Dale Jarrett's team. All five were part-time crewmen, hired only to make pit stops. Hired hands on race day can demand as much as $1,500 a race plus expenses to do less than 90 seconds of actual work.

''We don't have any part-time guys doing our pit stops,'' Ward said. ''All of our guys work in the shop during the week. We're fortunate because we have the resources that allow us to pull these guys off their regular duties to work on pit stop practices and weight training.''

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