NASCAR pit crew members come in all shapes and sizes, but they must be consistent in two crucial ways:
Long on persistence and short on memory.
It’s an odd part-time job: Train throughout the week for a series of 12-second procedures that would rival emergency rooms for urgency. Jack up the car, change tires, fine-tune the handling and fill that gas tank. If even one of these six crewmen misses his mark – if a single second is wasted – it can cost a race leader three to five spots.
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The rewards are quiet, while the consequences of failure echo.
“The only time they’re really recognized is when they make a mistake,” said Mike Lepp, Joe Gibbs Racing’s senior athletic advisor. “You’ve got to be mentally resilient.”
There’s nobody who feels more badly than the guy who makes that mistake.
Trent Cherry, pit crew coach for Penske Racing
To illustrate the point, Kyle Larson had a great chance to win last week’s All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway before a late pit stop cost him so much track position that he couldn’t chase down eventual winner Kyle Busch, after Larson had won the first two stages of the event.
“Restarting in fifth (place), I knew I was in trouble,” Larson said post-race. “My pit crew has been awesome all year. We came down pit road the leader and three people passed us. That was pretty much the difference.
“With 10 laps (left), track position is huge and we just didn’t have it at the end. We had the best car out there for sure.”
The crewman on Larson’s team who slowed that pit stop was unavailable for an interview during Thursday’s practice and qualifying for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. But those who have trained pit crews extensively know exactly how he must feel.
“With Kyle, when you lose three spots (that late in a race), you’re probably not going to get back up-front,’’ said Trent Cherry, pit crew coach for Penske Racing.
“There’s nobody who feels more badly than the guy who makes that mistake,” said Cherry, who has specialized in pit-crew training since 2000. “He knows there are hundreds back in the shop and thousands of fans (disappointed by the lost lead).
“At Penske, we have drivers who understand the ups-and-downs pit crews go through. There’s a ton of pressure not to let the driver and the rest of the team down. You can have a top-five car” and destroy their work with a sub-standard pit stop.
More sophisticated aerodynamics make it harder to pass under the green flag. So restarts and pit-stops have become bigger with each season.
The typical NASCAR event might have 10 or more pit stops (Sunday’s race may have considerably more because of the circuit-high 600-mile duration). As the sport’s engineering brings more sophisticated aerodynamics, it’s ever harder to pass under green-flag conditions. So restarts and pit-stops have become bigger with each season.
“Pit stops have become critical the past five years,” said Lepp. “And once (the contending car with a great pit stop) gets into clean air, it erases the advantage of a better car.”
Lepp says working for former NFL coach Gibbs helped emphasize the value of a pit crew full of natural athletes and resilient competitors. The days of someone working in a race shop all week, then changing tires on race day, are long over.
Cherry says there is no one ideal athletic build to be a crewman; athleticism is a prerequisite, but mentality might be even more important.
“It’s not like he has to have a certain 40 time, or lift 225 pounds a certain number of times or have a certain hand size, like in basketball,” Cherry said. “But you’ve got to be mentally tough to get through a 10-month season of stress.”
Chris Gayle, crew chief for the Five-Hour Energy Toyota, said there is considerable specialization within each pit crew. For instance, a team’s better of two tire-changers is assigned the back of the car, because he must cover more ground in the same amount of time.
Gayle recalls pit-crew members who were so affected by bad performance that they never really recovered mentally. This is a job similar to being an NFL cornerback, in that if you can’t forget about past failure and move on, you won’t last.
“That last pit stop (in each race), we call it the ‘money stop’’ Lepp said, “because you have to forget everything that happened before in that race and just perform.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell