Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Pit Crews Making the Difference

By: Matt Becherer

As in any sport, NASCAR races are won based on a number of factors. Air temperature and the condition of a racecar can be important determinants in the outcome in a race. However, the strategy is one of the most important dominating factors in the road to Victory Lane.

Whereas most sports entities have playbooks to determine their strategy on how to win a game, NASCAR drivers have to utilize their pit crews, spotters and crew chiefs in their quest for a checkered flag. We see it every weekend, and usually the length of the track is the number one factor when laying out a pit strategy. Strategy worked in favor of Aric Almirola, who was in the right place at the right time when he was leading the field as the red flag came out for rain at the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona in July.

We saw it again at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July, yet in a different form. Similar to football teams using large cards with pictures on it to alert players of the play, Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe used a cryptic language over the radio to determine their pit strategy. The result: a third win and a guaranteed spot in the Chase for Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion.

Before delving into the mechanics of a pit stop, it is first important to know who is allowed over the wall and what job they may have when a car comes down pit road.

A full-blown pit stop usually consists of changing four tires, adding a full tank of fuel, wiping the grill clean and making minor adjustments to the car. However, not everyone on the pit crew can go over the wall. NASCAR only allows six crew members to work on the car, and they can usually complete this in 12 seconds.

So who are the crew members that determine how a car will run? There are 12 altogether, but strategy is implemented to determine the six who will make the adjustments to deliver a winning racecar to the driver.

To start, there are two tire carriers and two tire changers, each designated to either the front or rear tires. The tire carriers will bring the new tires over the wall to the tire changers, and the tire changer will use an air-powered impact wrench to remove and replace the five lugnuts. Next, there is a jackman, who operates a 20-pound hydraulic jack that raises the car on both sides, one at a time, for tire changes. Lastly, there is a gas man, who usually is the strongest of the team. While the tire carriers, tire changers, and jackman are replacing the tires, the gas man empties two 12-gallon dump cans of fuel - each weighing in at 81 pounds - into the car.

Although the primary six pit crew members over the wall are those mentioned above, there is also a support crew member, an extra man, and a NASCAR official to provide support to the drivers and their teams. The support crew member assists the tire changers and carriers by rolling them the tires, handing the gas man the fuel and retrieving air hoses and wrenches. Should a driver be involved in an accident, or have problems with their car, it is at the discretion of NASCAR to allow an extra man over the wall to clean the windshield and assist a driver if necessary. NASCAR also has an official to ensure that pit-lane is safe and also watch for rules violations.

In addition to the six members going over the wall, the remaining three crew members behind the wall act as the coaching staff of the team. There is a car chief, a crew chief and an engineer. The car chief and crew chief work closely together to figure out setups and execution of adjustments to the car based on feedback from the driver. The crew chief assumes responsibility for race strategy, as well as actions of the driver, car owner and team member. An engineer calculates the exact setup of a car, including precisely how each shock should be built, which springs should be used and what tire pressures will be best.

Lastly, there’s one member to add to the team who acts as the eyes in the sky. Known as the spotter, this individual uses a two-way radio to talk with the pit crew, as well as the team’s owner, and stands atop a building to look over the track and communicate to the driver what cars are around them, as well as other essential race information.

So, the next time you see a driver in Victory Lane, take note of the 12 men standing behind him. The contributions of a pit crew cannot be overlooked, and their performance is just as important as a driver’s performance on race day.