Time - Tested
David Poole, Charlotte Observer
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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."
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
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
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."