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Working out faster stops

Nutritionists, weight training, specialization, video review, practice. A football team? No, a NASCAR pit crew.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


A set of four new tires from an auto center.

"Should be done in about 90 minutes."

A windshield cleaning.

"Just a moment." A fill-up of unleaded gasoline.

"You're ready on pump four."

Now try doing it all in 17 seconds or less.

It happens dozens of times in each Winston Cup race.

A good pit crew is not just seven people with wrenches hopping over a concrete wall. In today's NASCAR, it's seven athletes who work out with personal trainers, practice pit stops two to four times a week, critique videotape of their performances and claim incentives for jobs well done.

"There's becoming a priority in the human element," said Mark Mauldin, head trainer for Petty Enterprises. "Before, the cars were competitive, but a great car could overcome a bad stop. Now, a bad pit stop is almost impossible to overcome."

A pit stop is about speed. Speed wins races; the lack of it can lose them.

"Everything has got to be perfect," said Jerry Nadeau, who drives the No. 25 Chevrolet. "There's a lot more time and effort for the guys that are doing pit stops now because it's a key thing. In a race, pit stops have got to be good. If they're not good, you can lose five or six spots easily."

The trend toward more athletic pit crews can be traced to the Wood Brothers. It has been perpetuated by Hendrick Motorsports and Ray Evernham, who for seven seasons was crew chief for Jeff Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors.

Evernham hired crew members whose only job with the team was to service the car in a race and practice during the week. The result: Gordon won 49 races and three championships from 1993-99.

But not every team has the resources to hire a race day-only crew full of former college or professional athletes.

That's why trainers are taking an increased role, whipping machinists and other shop employees into shape.

Andy Ward is among the growing group hired by a team to make pit crews stronger, faster, more agile and more efficient.

The 27-year-old works at Penske-Kranefuss Racing as pit coordinator for Jeremy Mayfield's seven-member crew. He has the team averaging 15.1-second pit stops, down from 17 seconds a couple of years ago.

Maybe 1.9 seconds doesn't sound like much, but in racing, it represents about 200 yards on a main straightaway, possibly the distance between first, second and maybe fifth place.

"What we've tried to do is mirror other professional sports teams," Ward said. "I train these guys like they're athletes."

Most pit crews use essentially the same training techniques.

At Penske-Kranefuss, Ward's crew lifts weights, runs and stretches from 7-8:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

"You can feel it in your muscles," said 33-year-old DeWayne Trammell, Mayfield's rear tire carrier on race day and a machinist in the shop the rest of the time. "Yeah, there's a lot of complaints that maybe we work out too much, but I don't know if you can do it too much."

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the team practices pit stops for 45 minutes.

A shop employee drives one of Mayfield's race cars into a pit area behind the shop, and the crew jumps over construction-zone barriers like those used on highways and performs its routine.

That's also the time to experiment to see if a stop can be done faster -- rotating a tire differently, working on footwork and so on.

"We videotape all the practice stops, and then Andy analyzes that," Trammell said. "He prepares certain times for each individual job. Then we'll compare the pit stop times at practice to times at the race track to get an idea where somebody may be quicker at the shop and slower at the track and put that together and find the best footwork to get around the car -- better techniques -- because when you're dealing with seconds, just picking it up a little bit can put you over the top."

Petty Enterprises' Mauldin uses specially built stationary bicycles Schwinn developed for use in the NFL, plus position-specific weightlifting, running and videotape analysis.

"It keeps the guys fresher at the end of the race if their cardiovascular (conditioning) is in good shape," he said.

Mauldin builds and trains his crews based on what function each person performs on race day.

"It's pretty individualized," said Mauldin, a former assistant college football coach. "If you look at it, our changers are smaller, quicker guys like wide receivers, the tire carriers are more like a linebacker type, the jack man is like a defensive lineman because he has to raise a 3,400-pound car and he has to be big and strong."

Lugging around 65-pound tires, 39-pound jacks and 85-pound gas cans can wear on a body, especially if a person has to do it four or more times in one race, 34 weekends each year.

"Andy tries to focus on the individual needs," Trammell said. "Being a tire carrier, carrying that weight around and slinging it around while you're bent over is not a good position to be in. So we work on back strengthening and a lot of upper-body work and stretching.

"As the summer gets here, the weather beats you down, and we've been working on cardio, running, bicycle and agility-type work."

Diet and physical well-being also are important.

Mauldin said Petty Enterprises spends $100,000 each season on nutritional supplements such as rehydration drinks and meal substitutes. Ward enlists the help of a nutritionist and an athletic trainer and stresses the need to eat well and drink enough fluids in the days leading up to a race.

"We try to educate the guys and let them make their own decisions about what they eat," Ward said. "Some of them don't know they're not supposed to eat Twinkies and drink sodas at break time."

None of this is important if a pit crew doesn't perform flawlessly on race days. For that, Mayfield's crew and many others have incentive to do better.

Mayfield's crew gets paid extra for pit stops under 17 seconds. When a stop goes over 17 seconds, the crew pays Penske-Kranefuss.

"We actually haven't paid them back that much," Trammell said.

Still, the rigors of training and the prospect of bonuses aren't what Trammell is thinking about when he and six other crew members are standing on the pit wall waiting for a 3,400-pound stock car to skid to a stop in front of them.

"We go out there not to just make money," he said. "When you're on the wall and you're getting over it to make a pit stop, you're not thinking about that. You're thinking how you're going to be the first out of the pits, period."

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