Without an amazing pit crew, it would be impossible to win a single race as a NASCAR driver. When they need fuel or new tires, every millisecond matters. Because of this, pit crew members are some of the most critically-trained workers in the world. Much more than simple engineers, they need to be able to work at high octane speeds while being kept in the shadows. The less you hear about pit crews, the better. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a laundry list of rules and regulations to follow. Here’s what it’s really like being part of a NASCAR pit crew.
Every Action Is Criticized
You need to understand one thing as a pit crew member; whatever team you work for wouldn’t have hired you if they didn’t trust you. You just need to have very thick skin, because everything you do, no matter how good it is, is going to be criticized.
Pit crews need to do anything they can to shave as much time as possible off of pit stops. That means reviewing tape after each race and analyzing what could be done faster and by who.
A Work Week Is 90 Hours Long
Perhaps the most grueling part about being a member of a full-time NASCAR pit crew are the hours. A typical week can take up 90 hours of a crew member’s life. You didn’t think they just worked on race day, did you?
One of the most amazing stories about a pit crew member persevering is that of Terry Spalding. In 1990, Spalding was desperate to get on a pit crew. His determination went so far he even offered to quit his job and intern for free full-time. The huge gamble paid off but could have led him into financial ruin.
You Need To Be An Athlete
You would think the top requirement for becoming a pit crew member would be mechanical knowledge. Well, prepare to have your mind blown. With the speed and precision it requires to do everything so fast, racing teams prefer hiring athletes instead.
The logic is simple. It’s easier to teach someone who is in top physical shape how to do the technical parts of the job. Teaching a person in average shape how to be a top-notch athlete is much more difficult. At least in the eyes of NASCAR teams.
You Don’t Want To Be The Worst Crew Member
Pit crews only consist of a few members, and it’s inevitable one of them will be labeled as the worst. This is not a designation you would want to keep for long. Each member has high expectations, and the slightest slip-up could cost them their job.
Imagine changing a tire, but not being able to consistently do it at the same speed every time. That’s an easy way to earn the ‘worst’ label on the crew. Luckily, with some discipline and practice, any member can improve their performance!
12 Seconds To Victory
A good pit stop shouldn’t last more than 12 seconds. Efficiency in the pit lane has become a true art form and a dangerous hobby. Are you brave enough to start taking the tires off a car as it pulls into pit lane?
If you’re a tire changer then you better have nerves of steel. The quicker you can start loosening lug nuts, the faster you’ll get your driver back onto the track. One second too long and Jimmie Johnson will drop from first to fifteenth!
Pit Times Are Getting Faster
In the 1940s, pit stops during NASCAR races were rare. If a car needed to be refueled or maintained, it could take upwards of 55 seconds. Since then, pit times have been cut down by 88 percent.
If any pit crew were to take 55 seconds to get a car in and out today, the entire crew would probably be fired for negligence. After all, the driver wouldn’t just be losing a few spots, they would likely be losing the entire race.
Pit Crews Have Their Own Playbooks
Like any sport, NASCAR teams have playbooks. Each playbook is different and is designed to get the most out of its members. The truth is, not every pit stop is designed the same way. If the playbook says it takes 6.5 seconds to empty a fuel can and another second for the gas man to get to the car, then changing four tires in 12 seconds is impossible.
The best “play” in that scenario would be a Hail Mary. Change two tires and fill half of the fuel tank. Depending on the scenario, this just might be enough to finish the race!
The Rules Change Constantly
As if pit stops weren’t stressful enough for crews, NASCAR changes the rules every year! That means that teams need to rewrite their playbooks every year, often times unsure what will work and what won’t work.
One of the biggest rule changes by NASCAR in recent years was to decrease the maximum number of crew members allowed “over the wall.” The idea behind this was to make smaller-budgeted teams be able to be more competitive against the big market brands.
No One Is Bigger Than The Crew Chief
The most important job is that of the crew chief. He essentially acts as the coach of the team, assigning duties and tracking tire wear and fuel consumption. During a race, he is constantly in contact with the driver to make sure everything is okay.
Next to the driver, no one should know their car better than the crew chief. Every noise the car makes he should recognize. If the car is pulling oddly around turns, he should know in an instant what needs to be tweaked to fix the problem.
Safety Does Not Come First
As NASCAR strives to add rules to pit stops to create more parity, one thing that has not been improved is pit crew safety. With fewer members allowed in the pit lane and an ever-present urgency for quick service, crews are in more danger today than ever.
Michael Lingerfelt felt the effects of the rule changes first hand during a pit stop with Tony Stewart. The 41-year-old crew member was racing to finish his job when Stewart blazed out of his stop a fraction of a second too early. The car collided with Lingerfelt and broke his leg.
Helmets Are Required
In 2002, NASCAR did take one major step towards ensuring the safety of all pit crew members: It created a rule requiring anyone who works “over the wall” to wear helmets, gloves, and full fire suits.
The rule change came one year after Dale Earnhardt died during a race from a crash. The incident exposed the dangerous lack of a rule, forcing NASCAR to make a change. Luckily, that change extended all the way to pit crew members as well.
An Extra Day Of Work Might Be Needed
This is one of those things just about anyone who has a job can relate to. Every now and then, NASCAR pit crews are forced to participate in tire testing by Goodyear. While this isn’t a job requirement, if you don’t go, you’ll probably get fired anyways.
Through NASCAR’s deal with Goodyear, the tire company can commission teams of their choice to take part in these tests. The point of these tests is for Goodyear to gain new information and insight into their tires.
It’s A Long Road To The Top
To become a member of a top-level pit crew you need to be willing to dedicate your life to the craft. The most common way to break in is to work for a local series. If you prove yourself worthy, then you might get into a low-level NASCAR series.
If you prove yourself for a second time, you might be invited to a tryout for a top tier crew. The younger and faster you are, the better chances you have of being brought on board. We won’t tell you the average career length for the crew member who does a tire change. Just know it’s not very long.
College Football Stars Are Highly Sought After
William Harrell made a name for himself as a standout middle linebacker for the Alabama Crimson Tide. When his college career ended, however, his NFL dreams fell apart. One day his strength coach took him aside and asked him if he would ever consider a career in NASCAR.
The coach had a working relationship with a member of Hendrick Motorsports and was able to get Harrell a foot in the door. Like we said earlier, the best crew members are usually trained athletes, not engineers.
Harrell Wasn’t Alone
When Harrell showed up for his tryout for Hendrick Motorsports, he said, “Look. I couldn’t change anything on the car if you asked me to.” One crew member then responded, “That’s what I want. Come in with a blank slate, and we’ll mold you.”
Harrell then entered a room and noticed about 40 other athletes there, all for the same reason. For him, it felt like his days walking on at Alabama. He just needed to prove he wanted it more than everyone else.
They Have Their Own Conditioning Staff
Once you’re brought on to a NASCAR pit crew, it’s imperative that you stay in shape. To make sure you’re always at your physical peak, the best teams hire conditioning staff and have fully stocked weight training facilities.
Carson Newman, another former college football star, explained it this way, “We do strength training, we do speed training, we do practice the pit stops and have a film review from our practice stops and our race film to see where we can get better and make improvements.”
The Length Of The Season Is Brutal
The NASCAR season lasts from February through November. With such a short offseason, the sport can burn anyone out pretty quickly. To counter the wear and tear of the 10-month season, pit crews train for injury prevention and endurance.
Mike Metcalf works as a pit crew trainer for Chip Ganassi Racing. In college, he was a running back for Appalachian State. One of the biggest struggles he sees with new members is their balance and rotational strength. He also likes to keep things fun, teaching golfing and cycling to mix up the routine and keep it fresh.
Pit Injuries Are Similar To Baseball Injuries
Gene Monahan worked with the New York Yankees as an athletic trainer for 49 years before taking a similar job with Hendrick Motorsports. The transition turned out to be surprisingly easy.
Most injuries were the same kinds of things he saw in Major League Baseball, “We get a lot of lower backs, we get beat up elbows and wrists from guys with (air) guns and tires, and we get guys who are hit with lug nuts and stuff. But we get a lot of back and cervical spine stuff, neck stuff, because of the rotational work and the lifting.”
Salaries Reach Six Figures
NASCAR pit crew members are considered professional athletes, and are paid accordingly. Salaries for the best in the profession reach upwards of $100,000. And unlike the NFL, there is plenty of room for career advancement.
A career can last as long as your body is willing to take the abuse. Some crew members are done after five years. Others stay on for decades. A few fall in love with the lifestyle so much that they transition into the garage and help build and maintain cars in their retirement.
Position Battles Are A Real Thing
Just like in the NFL, position battles exist between pit crew members. When William Harrell was given his first shot to get in on the action, nothing was handed to him. He was put in a fight against a 10-year crew veteran for the rear tire carrier position.
Harrell stuck true to himself and was named the rear tire carrier for the 2015 season. When it happened, he was stunned, “I had a lot of mental and emotional things going on… But I just knew if I could go out there and not slack up at all, I’d get my chance eventually.”