Image copyright: usatoday
Pit road, where the work that often leads to NASCAR race victories is accomplished, could be an even more important strip of pavement this season.
Among a raft of off-season changes announced by NASCAR, over-the-wall crews will be cut from six to five this year, a decision that has made for a busy winter for Cup Series teams.
The loss of an over-the-wall team member, plus additional modifications, is expected to significantly change the look of pit stops and, more importantly, the length. And one veteran crewman says the change could lead to more injuries among the men who go over the wall.
Top pit crews typically change four tires and refuel their cars in about 11 seconds. The change is expected to increase that time to around 13 seconds, particularly in the early weeks of the season as teams adjust to the new landscape.
“We’ve been working with the people, positions and choreography,” said Hendrick Motorsports Director of Human Performance and pit-crew coach Andy Papathanassiou. “And that will continue through the start of the season. We want to see how it all plays out and what other teams have thought of that we haven’t that might be a better idea.
“It all might look good on paper and in practice but not so good in real competition.”
Drivers pit several times during races, and speed during those stops can mean the difference in several positions when they return to the track. Pit stops are particularly important late in races because fast stops put drivers higher in the lineup for critical late-race restarts.
Michael Lingerfelt, 41, has changed tires for leading NASCAR teams, including Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing, for 23 seasons. He said the added physical stress on some pit crew members and the increased traffic as team members move longer distances around the car are likely to increase the likelihood of injuries.
“Some of the smaller changers aren’t used to the act of carrying the tires (about 60 pounds) in a hurry and moving them around,” Lingerfelt said. “That might not be a problem at Daytona where there aren’t as many stops, but at a track like Atlanta, where there might be eight or 10 stops, it’s going to wear on them.
“Some of the guys don’t have the body framework to carry themselves and their tire and then get into position in a hurry.”
Lingerfelt knows about dealing with injuries. In the 2000 Daytona 500, while changing tires for driver Tony Stewart, Lingerfelt was hit by Stewart as the driver left his pit, breaking Lingerfelt’s leg. Late last year, Lingerfelt suffered a shoulder injury during pit practice, and he is still recovering from surgery.
There are key changes beyond the loss of one team member. In the past, the fueler has been allowed to make chassis adjustments in addition to refueling the car; now that option is gone. And tire changers will use power guns supplied by NASCAR instead of guns owned and modified by each team.
The changes haven’t been greeted with universal praise in garage areas.
“They keep trying to make everything closer and closer together, and sometimes I feel like they do that, and other times I feel like they make it worse,” said driver Kyle Busch. “You’re only going to have so many guys that are going to be good at what they do. There are only so many tight ends in the NFL that are good at what they do. There’s five, maybe. And there are 32 teams.
“We’ve got 40 teams, and there’s probably going to be only five or six guys that can do their roles at our level. With the rest, it’s going to get pretty bad pretty quick with guys not being able to do it, or there’s going to be injuries, too. We’ll see how all that goes.”
At least in the season’s early weeks, teams are likely to address the change in different ways. Some might blend the former roles of tire changer and tire carrier; others might decide to have one crew member carry two tires across the wall instead of one, as in the past.
The possibilities are numerous, and it’s certain that teams have tried many variations on the theme during off-season practice.
Although the change from team-supplied pit guns to NASCAR-supplied guns might seem minor, it could mean a significant difference to some tire changers, adding often critical fractions of a second to their work.
KYLE BUSCH: NASCAR overlooking veteran drivers
YOUNG DRIVERS: Strike back at Kyle Busch
“The guns are very similar, but the parts and pieces are different when everyone had their own custom guns,” Papathanassiou said. “We have been customizing guns to the individual. They might prefer this or that. Now it’s the complete opposite. Now we have a gun that no one can touch until they get it an hour before the race.”
Lingerfelt said the new guns are heavier and slower. “You’ve already slowed the pit stop down by taking a person away, and now you can’t run the guns as fast as you’re used to,” he said.
NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller said the pit crew and pit gun changes should put a new emphasis on the athleticism of team members.
“I think the athletes are certainly part of the show and part of the story, and the more emphasis that we can put on their performance as opposed to a fast jack or a fast pit gun, the better the level playing field and the better stories we have to tell,” he said.
Teams are penalized when loose tires roll outside their pit box during stops, and Papathanassiou said some teams probably will spend additional time in the pits making sure tires are controlled with one less person on the task.
“Any time there’s a change, there’s an adjustment period to the change,” he said. “People are going to compensate by spending extra time and being extra safe.