NMPA
c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
P.O. Box 500
Darlington, SC 29540
Phone: (843) 395-8811

Feature Writing
First Place

Time - Tested
David Poole, Charlotte Observer

          A dry-erase board hangs just inside the door to Wayne DeLoriea's office at Roush Racing. Drawn on it is the future of a NASCAR Nextel Cup pit stop.

          Scribbled notes speak of a "10-second stop." For DeLoriea, pit crew coach for Roush's five Cup teams, this is the future - four tires and two cans of fuel in, from "stop to drop," less than 11 seconds flat.

          "If a 10-second stop could've been done the old way, it would have been done by now," DeLoriea says. "There has to be a change made and I've got to find it before Matt Clark does."

          Matt Clark is the pit crew coach for Jimmie Johnson's and Jeff Gordon's teams at Hendrick Motorsports.

          "Matt is out there thinking about the same thing," DeLoriea says. "I know he's got a diagram somewhere looking at it, thinking, 'I've got to find it before Wayne does.' "

          If Clark has such a diagram, it does not hang on the conference room wall at the Hendrick complex near Lowe's Motor Speedway. He does have a laptop computer on the table in front of him, with its on-screen image projected onto a wide-screen television.

          Using a controller like the one your average 15-year old uses to fend off alien invasions, Clark goes frame-by-frame examining every aspect of a pit stop. DeLoriea has similar technology at Roush's shop a few miles away near the Concord airport. They break down each member of each crew on each stop during a Nextel Cup race. DeLoriea spends about 15 minutes on each stop.

          With five teams each making as many as 10 stops per race, Monday usually turns into a very long day.

          But with everything at his disposal, ask Clark to choose the most important tool in his job and he reaches for a $20 piece of equipment that fits in the palm of his hand.

          "A good pit stop is all right here," Clark says. "The stopwatch."

          In a sport where lap times from the fastest to the 20th-fastest car might differ by less than a second, the adage that pit road is the best place to pass has never been more true.

          During Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, pit crew performance could be particularly pivotal.

          With the 1.5-mile track featuring a newly paved surface, NASCAR has made the precautionary move of requiring teams to use smaller, 14-gallon fuel cells for the circuit's longest race.

          Originally, the fear was the new pavement might cause tire problems, but a harder compound provided by Goodyear seems to have addressed that. Drivers have lobbied for NASCAR to go back to 22-gallon fuel cells, so far to no avail.

          Unless NASCAR relents, pit road figures to be extraordinarily busy Sunday, with cars getting only 35-40 laps on a load of fuel. Depending on the timing of caution flags, a car completing all 400 laps could easily stop more than a dozen times.

          "We are going to tire those guys out," Elliott Sadler said of the crew on his No. 38 Ford. "They better get a good night's sleep this whole week."

TEAMS MORE PREPARED

          A decade ago, a Cup team could keep up on pit road with 18-second stop-to-drop stops - timed from when the car stops in its pit box to when the jackman twists the handle and drops the car to signal the driver it's time to go.

          Today, an 18-second stop is a disaster. Most crews get bonuses for each stop done within an acceptable time, and these days anything slower than 14 seconds flat usually doesn't pay.

          Today's top-tier crews are more prepared, physically and mentally, than they've ever been to meet these challenges.

          Most Nextel Cup teams provide fitness facilities at their shops for their crew members and schedule workouts up to four days a week. Strength and conditioning coaches work with each crew member on core fitness as well as skills specific to his over-the-wall task. Several teams employ nutritionists to help their team members know what to eat to properly fuel their bodies for those jobs.
Every top-flight team also conducts regular pit stop practices, up to four times a week. These practice stops are videotaped, just like every stop on race day, and carefully reviewed to help each crewman refine his footwork or pick up his hand speed.

"All of the stuff we're doing on a regular basis, the consistent conditioning and training, looking at techniques, have helped bring pit stop times down," Clark says. "But it all starts with good people, people who want to get to the next level. It's guys who are hungry and have the drive for excellence who've brought us to 13-second pit stops."

And who keep working to get faster. DeLoriea says the crew on Matt Kenseth's No. 17 Ford recently did a four-tire, two-can stop during a race in 11.75 seconds.

"Robbie Reiser is the sage as far as pit stops go," DeLoriea says of Kenseth's crew chief. "That guy has got it together. He is the Dali Llama of pit stops. A lot of this stuff he invented or innovated. I am just honored to hold that guy's stopwatch."

Reiser says he sees little difference between pit road and the track.

"Doing fast pit stops is as important as building fast cars and having the best driver," he says. "All of that goes together. To try to win championships and do the things you want to do in winning races requires every part to be the best. It's just another function of what we do. We take a lot of time and put a lot of effort into this part of it. You can't just win with your race car, you have to win on pit road, too."

'Killer Bees' swarm

At a recent practice, Reiser stands a few steps back off the car's right-front. As the wheels stop, five crewmen are already in attack position on that side of the car.

"They call the 17 crew the 'Killer Bees,' and it's not just because they wear black and yellow," DeLoriea says. "It's because of the way they swarm the car."

Jackman Russ Strupp pumps the car off the ground as tire changers Justin Nottestad and Jeremy West send five lug nuts flying. Strupp leaves the jack and pulls the rear tire, while Nottestad grabs the front, pulls it free and rolls it past the front corner of the car toward the wall.

Front tire carrier Chris Brook and rear carrier Zak Yarnot slam new tires on the studs. Nottestad and West zap on five lug nuts. Strupp relays the rear tire to Brook, the front carrier, who rolls it toward the wall. Strupp hustles back to the jack and drops the car.

The transition to the left begins. In one sense, it is a mad scramble. In another sense, it is anything but. Many hours are invested in choreographing what DeLoriea calls "the dance" governing this transition.
The stopwatch has not yet counted off six seconds.

Over at Hendrick Motorsports, Clark punches up a four-tire, two-can stop at Texas for Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.

With the right side finished, gasman Rich Gutierez comes back to pit wall and hands off the first can, which when filled with just under 12 gallons weighs 85 pounds, and shoulders the second.

He waits until rear-tire changer Tim Ladyga and carrier Ron Malec run by - "letting the train come through," Clark says - and returns to the car.

Catch-can man Mike Knauer is there, plugging in the overflow container that, by rule, must be engaged and attended whenever fuel is flowing into the car.

Ladyga hits the ground and sheds five lug nuts as Mike Trower does the same up front. As Malec completes his run around the left rear, a new rear tire is rolled from behind pit wall toward the car and into position for Malec.

Jackman Chris Anderson, after his long run from the right side, arrives and powers the car off the ground. Old tires come off and front carrier Art Simmons and Malec hang new ones into place. Trower and Ladyga hammer on five lug nuts on in just over a second.

Anderson watches Trower tighten the front tire. Knauer signals that fuel is in the overflow valve, meaning the cell is full. Malec blocks Anderson's view of the lug nuts on the rear tire, so Anderson waits on Malec's signal.

When it comes, Anderson twists the jack handle. The car comes back to the ground and Johnson is gone.

The computer's timer shows the verdict - 13.3 seconds.

Shaving time

Teams once employed two jacks and four air guns on their stops, but in the mid-1990s NASCAR instituted the rules that are still in place today - seven men over the wall to work on the car, with only one jack and two air guns.

Today's 35-pound jacks and the guns connected by hose to tanks of compressed air aren't vastly different from the ones being used when 18-second pit stops were the industry standard.

Those five seconds have been shaved away a tenth or two at a time through practice, refined techniques, better conditioning and recruitment of more mobile and agile athletes to do the increasingly specialized jobs on a NASCAR crew.

"When the small video cameras started coming out, we started studying our pit stops," says Jeff Hammond, a former crew chief now working on Fox Sports' race telecasts. "But we ran into an issue of time. We didn't have a pit crew coach - that was me - and the crew guys also all worked on the cars all week. You had to decide whether to practice pit stops or paint the car or build a gear. You never got the chance to really polish those skills like they do today."

As an owner of the Pit Instruction Training school in Mooresville, where prospective crew members learn the craft, Hammond knows how different things are today.

"It's down to a science now," he says. "We know how much time it should take to remove five lug nuts. We know how long it should take you to get from the wall to the point to take those lug nuts off. The breakdowns of every movement you make means we know where the parameters are. We have to work on your movements, strength and agility.

"Racing has gone to a different level, it's not just being strong and fast, it's addressing the muscles that make you strong and fast. If a guy bench-presses 300 pounds but can't get out of his own way, he's in trouble."

Crews at Joe Gibbs Racing work on their agility by running through net ladders, like the ones Gibbs puts his players through as coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins.

"We are probably eight to 10 years behind the major sports in the developmental curve on nutrition, strength and condition, choreography, tape review and all of those things," Clark says. "But we are catching up."

Methods vary

The quest for faster stops goes on unabated.

Since front-tire changers and carriers jump off pit wall as their car is coming to the pit stall, they're already on the right side as the car stops.

The rear-tire changer and carrier wait until the car arrives, however, putting them "behind" the team up front.

Someone figured out that using the jackman to pull the rear tire meant the changer didn't have to do that. That saved as much as a half-second and let the rear "catch up" to the front so they'd have a better chance to come to the left side together.

Mark "Hollywood" Armstrong is a veteran tire changer of several Nextel Cup teams and is now with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, working on the No. 40 Dodge.

"When I was changing front tires, I learned that I had to take my first step out with my right foot," Armstrong says. "When I moved to doing rear tires, that first step has to be with your left foot.

"Out of habit, I was moving my right foot first. I'd step straight forward with it and then move out. But that first step was a wasted step. Until I saw it on film, I didn't know I was doing that."

DeLoriea watches the pit stalls on either side of the box he's standing in during a race, watching for new approaches. His team members catch their peers' new tricks, too. "Most of the time it's just different, but it doesn't save time," DeLoriea says.

Methods and techniques vary from team to team, and even from stop to stop on the same team as a crew chief calls a different "play" depending on what changes or adjustments might be required.
But there are universal truths up and down pit lane.

"You can't make up time," Clark says. "Everybody says that but not everybody lives it. If a guy burns time missing a lug nut or the jack falls, you cannot make that up. When you try you burn more. The only thing we can do is control it. Don't carry problems to the other side of the car. Don't compound a mistake."

DeLoriea uses a domino analogy. "Once the dominoes start falling on a pit stop," he says, "you have to get out there ahead of the dominoes and stop them from knocking any more down."

Consistency is key

Another mantra is a familiar one in racing, that slowing down can be the best way to go faster. For a driver, it means that 20 smooth, consistent laps can be better than 10 fast laps and 10 where the car slides all over the track. For pit crews, it means no mistakes.

"I am a terrible tennis player, but I can beat some people if I don't try to hit kill shots," DeLoriea says. "If I return everything and let them make the mistakes, I will win points. If you keep putting it in play, at some point they're going to hit the net.

"If we keep hammering away at 13.3-second stops, somebody else will do a 14 and we're going to get them. Now to try to make that up they'll need a 12.5 and in trying to do that it'll be another 14, or a 15. And we've got them."

Chad Knaus, crew chief on the No. 48 Chevrolet, says consistency is where his team has made the biggest gains since it came together for Johnson's rookie season in 2002.

"We fought it," Knaus says. "Sometimes we'd have to adjust our pit calls because we didn't feel like we had a team that was capable of putting it out there every single time without a mistake. But now, I feel like we have the best crew out there.

"These guys have been around and they know how to react in different situations. They've seen it and done it. They know how to adapt. Sometimes it's not about having the fastest stop, but how to overcome a situation when it arises."

Top crews, Clark says, live for the opportunity to help their team make up spots on the track. "They know they can make a difference and they want to be here to make it," he says. "They want to have everything on the line.

They want the pit stop with 25 laps to go. They know what time it is. They want the ball."

DeLoriea wants machine-like crews, punching out stop after stop at a consistently fast pace, with that relentlessness fueled by an almost animalistic drive.

"I want them to be lions," he says. "This is an aggressive deal, it's not passive. I want them to see the meat and eat everybody else's lunch."