Pit road is getting safer, but it’s far from safe in a NASCAR race
By the time David Ragan slid to a stop inside his pit box at Watkins Glen during last year’s Sprint Cup Series race, Dwayne Ogles had already jumped off the wall and was making his way around the back of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
The rear-tire changer was focused on the task at hand – hitting 10 lug nuts with his air gun as quickly and cleanly as possible.
Unfortunately, he never got the chance.
“As soon as David got his right rear in the box, I took off to go to the left rear to start the pit stop,” Ogles says. “It was time for [Juan Pablo] Montoya to leave his pit … it was just real tight; it just got my left rear leg and took me down.”
Montoya, who was pitted in the box directly behind Ragan, didn’t see Ogles until it was too late. The front end of his Chevrolet clipped the crewman, sending him sprawling onto the asphalt.
Examined at the infield care center, Ogles, who has since moved to Roush’s No. 99 team with driver Carl Edwards, says he suffered a gash in his elbow and “some knee pain.”
A week after he returned to work, the pain in his leg persisted. An MRI eventually revealed a cracked fibula.
Ogles’ story isn’t unusual. In spite of numerous safety changes made in recent years, pit road at a NASCAR race is still an extremely dangerous place.
It’s safer, but it’s far from safe.
“The first thing my guys told me,” Montoya says of his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing crew, “is that, ‘If you hit one of us, it’s our fault. Don’t worry about it.’ And I don’t; I really don’t.
“ You have to give the guys on pit road a little bit of room, but if their guy is running around … you are only focused on getting out of your box as quickly as you can.”
You hear the phrase often, but in truth, there’s really no such thing as a “routine” pit stop. In approximately 13 seconds, a team will remove and replace as many as four tires, fill the car with gasoline and make any necessary chassis adjustments before sending the driver back on his way.
And they’ll do this while other teams, at arms’ length, are going through the same hectic motions, each trying to gain as much of an advantage as possible.
A Game Of Chicken
When the caution flag flies, cars roll onto pit road in packs, loud and fast, and it’s up to each team to not only know what their own driver is doing, but what those who are pitting around him are doing as well.
“I was always aware of that, but now, after that incident, you’re very, very cautious,” Ogles says. “You pay more attention to the leaderboard, you communicate with the guys in front and behind you, ask them if they’re doing two or four tires because that will mix it up a little as far as when they’re coming out and when you’re going around the car.”
Working at the rear of the car, he says, is safer because those working on the front have to jump in front of their own car as it pits and be aware of any cars coming around them.
“It’s kind of like a game of chicken for the guys up front,” he says. “You have to jump out in front of the other guy, too, because they’re going to cut all the room they can, because if they slow you down and their crew has a good stop, they’re going to beat you out of the pits.”
Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Mark Martin, describes it as “a very controlled danger” when crews go over pit wall.
“Jason Hunt, our jackman, got hit at Watkins Glen last year,” Gustafson says. “We’ve had a few people hit, we’ve had some [tire] carriers get hit. Unfortunately, it’s part of the deal.
“It’s tough. As teams and drivers, you’re trying to get everything you can on pit road, but sometimes you cut it a little bit too close to the guys that are doing their job there. … The advantage you get on the race track isn’t worth the risk you give to your crew members.”
There is no standard size for pit stalls; they vary from track to track, as do the widths of pit road. Even the surface along pit road differs, with some tracks featuring a concrete surface inside the pit stalls while others are asphalt, and thus more likely to be slippery from fuel overflow or other fluids.
Pit road speeds change as well – ranging from 35 mph on the series’ short tracks to 45 on the 1.5-mile venues and 55 at tracks two miles or longer.
Track size, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton says, dictates how much room each individual track can provide along pit road.
“You can’t take an Indianapolis pit road and fit it inside a Martinsville,” he says. “So we’re stuck with the logistics of the individual tracks. Every place we go is different and presents different challenges. Pit road is not always straight; at one time they weren’t even on the same side of the track.
“It’s a safety issue, but it’s helping the competition remain as level as it can be on pit road, too.”
Such dissimilarity might seem insignificant to those on the outside, but for those who go over the wall each week, it can be the difference between a trouble-free race and finding yourself on the disabled list.
“Any place that had the bigger pit stalls I enjoyed more just because of the way I approached the car,” says Mike Bumgarner, a former tire changer who now serves as car chief for Martin. “I just had a certain way I did it. I could get far enough out, because the stall is so big, I could get around to the right side and get a big slide or whatever. Any place that had the bigger stalls, you always looked forward to those.”
At Charlotte Motor Speedway earlier this year, Tony Stewart clipped Kevin McDowell, the rear-tire carrier for Greg Biffle, when leaving his pit stall. Stewart did nothing wrong. Neither did Biffle, who was pitted just in front of Stewart’s No. 14 team. But because Stewart stopped at the very front of his pit stall, and Biffle was stopped toward the rear of his, Stewart had little room to maneuver as he pulled away.
“If you had a bigger [pit] box, that’s a non-issue,” Gustafson says. “And that’s really where the majority of our incidents have come from now – navigating around tight pit boxes. The places where you have the opportunity to make them as big as possible, I think they should look at doing that.
“[Tony’s] trying to do his job, he’s just trying to leave his pit box. I know Tony, the last thing he wants to do is hit somebody. I’m sure he was doing all he could do. But at the same time, you can’t sit there and wait because you lose [time]. His guys would be so mad at him.”
Today, Pemberton watches each race as it unfolds from the control tower. But he’s been on top of a pit box as a crew chief. And he’s gone over the wall, launching himself smack into the middle of the chaos.
Between 1995-2001, Pemberton guided Rusty Wallace to 15 Cup wins. He was crew chief for Mark Martin (five wins) and Kyle Petty (three wins) from 1988-93.
“You could feel the cars go by you at 90 mph and just two feet off your heels,” Pemberton says of going over the wall as a tire changer before NASCAR instituted a pit-road speed limit in April of 1991.
“You didn’t even have to pit in a pit box. You just went over [the wall] and hoped when your driver quit sliding he was close enough for you to start hitting lug nuts.
“We were at Daytona one time and Rusty … when he slid through the pits, I was getting ready to go down and when he started sliding I just whipped up the [air] hose and he slid right through it by 20 feet. And that was with a 55 mph pit-road speed.”
It was more than a decade after pit-road speed limits were imposed before NASCAR made helmets and firesuits mandatory for crewmen going over pit wall.
“At first, the helmets took some getting used to,” Bumgarner says. “I was used to being able to see everything that was going on around the car. Helmets limited what you could see. But there’s no question it’s much safer today because of them.”
In 2008, NASCAR instituted limits on how far down pit road a team could push a car that wasn’t under power (no more than three pit stalls beyond its assigned space), and decreed that outside tires could no longer be released until they were in the middle portion of the pit box or closer to pit wall.
Such moves addressed safety issues, but in some cases they involved competitive ones as well.
“Look at the rule we have now about the guys having to take the tire back,” John Darby, Sprint Cup Series director, says. “It used to be, and I’m speaking specifically of the rear-tire changer, that you could take the tire off and just lay it down. Complete the tire change, pick up the old tire and go on. That evolved into taking the tire off and laying it as far outside, as far to the back corner [as possible] to block the guy behind you.
“Now, you have to get the tires back, because if you hit one of them, there’s no telling where it will end up.
“Pit crew members aren’t always angels. There are a lot of things that happen on pit road that become unquestionably intentional. If I screw the guy up behind me, then I’m out before him.”
It’s because of that battle to be in and out of the pits before your fellow competitor that NASCAR doesn’t impose penalties when contact occurs.
“Accidents happen on pit road,” Pemberton says. “We don’t feel like anyone is aggressively brushing back crew members. We do know there are some that give less space than others. But there is also more than one side to this thing. If you penalized a driver or a team that had a run-in with a crew member, the other side of it is, now is it an opportunity to take a driver out of the running by flopping, so to speak, like they do in basketball?”
Such an action might sound ridiculous, and more than just a bit dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t take place under the right circumstances.
“People can say, ‘Oh, it wouldn’t happen,’ but in every aspect of what we do out here on the race track, on pit road, it’s all about winning races and getting any competitive advantage that you can,” Pemberton says. “And we feel that there would be an opportunity for somebody to take another team out of the race by faking the penalty.”
Competition aside, Pemberton says he doesn’t think the sport has seen “a dramatic increase” in incidents on pit road.
“It just goes in spurts,” he says.
“It’s so much safer. Knock on wood and not taking anything for granted, but it’s so much safer today. … There have been almost as many advances on pit road as there have been in anything else. Not quite, but quite a few.”