For the majority of the season, which stretches from February all the way to November, it’s NASCAR drivers who get all the attention, applauded, garlanded and sprayed with champagne after every successful circuit. But for at least one night a year, the attention is on the unsung heroes of NASCAR, the six guys responsible for making sure those drivers don’t lose time — a half second here, three seconds there — at a pit stop and miss out on the winner’s circle. On that one night, the NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge takes place at the 20,000-plus-seat Time Warner Cable Arena in uptown Charlotte, N.C. This year, 24 teams competed for the title of “Best Pit Crew in NASCAR” and the grand prize of $80,675 that comes with it.
Welcome to modern-day auto racing. Popularity among fans is at an all-time high, sponsorship dollars are through the roof and, as a result, the pressure to win is immense. Ten years ago, the Pit Crew Challenge didn’t exist (it started in 2005) and, frankly, neither did the level of athleticism seen on display in Charlotte.
Each team consists of two tire carriers (front and rear), two tire changers (front and rear), a jack man and a gas man, and most of them have athletic backgrounds. “You have to be athletic to be on a pit crew these days,” says William Sturgill, a former college football player at Hanover College in Indiana and jack man for the MHP Power Pak Pudding No. 34 car driven by David Ragan of Front Row Motorsports.
In first-round action at the challenge, Sturgill’s team lost to the No. 99 Fastenal car by less than a second in a format specific to this competition that entails all six members performing their regular pit-stop duties, then pushing a car in neutral 40 yards to a finish line.
Less than one second. That’s not a lot of time — the equivalent of a missed lug nut or two by a tire changer — but in NASCAR, it can mean the difference between bowing out early and winning $80,000.
Time Is Money
To understand the importance of having an athletic, in-shape pit-crew team, you must first realize what these six men do practically every weekend starting in the spring, all the way through a hot, humid summer and into the fall. Most races entail 10 to 12 pit stops over the course of three to five hours. A typical pit stop lasts between 12 and 15 seconds, which can be considered either a blessing (because it’s over quickly) or a curse (because any seemingly small problem that occurs can be potentially disastrous to a driver’s placing).
Depending on conditions and the mechanical status of the car, some stops occur five laps after the previous one. But in some cases, there can be 30 to 50 laps between pit stops. It’s this unpredictability that brings the mental game into play. A crew member who becomes complacent during a 30-minute stretch of downtime could lose his edge for the next time he needs to jump over the wall and service a car. “These guys need to stay focused between stops,” says Gary Smith, head pit-crew coach for both of Front Row’s cars, Ragan’s No. 34 as well as David Gilliland’s No. 38, both manufactured by Ford and sponsored by MHP. “It’s 95, 100 degrees outside and you’re wearing a suit that makes it even hotter, so we need to make sure these guys are conditioned, both mentally and physically.”
The jack man, as the title implies, is responsible for jacking up both sides of the car (one at a time) so the front and rear tires can be changed. He must be strong in the chest and triceps to press down on the jack, but he also needs to be agile enough to change directions and stop on a dime as he runs around the car. “The jack man is basically our quarterback,” Smith says. “He’s got to be an athletic guy who can do everything.”
Tire changers are typically thinner athletes whose sole job is to undo and fasten lug nuts with lightning-quick speed. According to Smith, it should take a changer about one second flat to take off five lug nuts. This requires a high level of hand-eye coordination and the ability to remain calm during high-pressure circumstances; a shaking pair of hands can be costly. “If you miss a lug nut,” Smith says, “that costs you seconds. Losing seconds can cost you places on pit row, and crew chiefs don’t like losing places — it’s just too hard to make them up these days. We live and die by the stopwatch.”
Photo by Don Grassman/CIA Stock Photo
Tire carriers need to be strong in the lower back and legs, as well as athletic enough to run around the car with an awkwardly shaped load. “Carriers also need good hand-eye coordination to make sure the nuts on the tire line up with the studs,” says Jerry Freeze, general manager at Front Row. “If they don’t, a nut can pop off and cost you time in putting it back on. A good carrier will make the changer’s job easier.”
The gas man doesn’t have to cover as much ground as his teammates, so an older, more experienced member is often preferred. Good upper-body strength is still a requirement, though. “You see all different body types with the gas man,” says Ike Sneed, assistant pit-crew coach to Smith as well as the jack man for Gilliland’s No. 38 car.
Because of these physical requirements, pit-crew teams look much different than they used to. Two of Front Row’s “superstars,” as Freeze puts it, are front tire-carrier Anwar Parrish and changer Kenyatta Houston, both for Gilliland. Parrish was a high school football player who still looks the part at a lean 6 feet two and a half inches and 220 pounds. Houston (6 feet one inch and 215 pounds) was a strong safety at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., before playing semipro football in the area.
“Back when I worked for Petty [Enterprises], we used to look for young guys with good mechanical skills to work in the shop on the cars,” says Freeze, a NASCAR veteran. “Then, you’d walk around the shop and point out a guy who looks like he’s in good shape and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you try out for the pit crew?’ Now, the last thing you ask a [potential pit-crew member] is what his mechanical skills are. You ask about his athletic ability. We can teach him the technical stuff.”
Front Row Motorsports can’t compete in sheer size and budget with NASCAR’s big-name outfits like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. The modestly sized lobby of Front Row headquarters in Statesville, around 40 miles north of Charlotte, serves as a reception area (complete with three cars on display) and weight room, with limited, though high-quality, equipment: five Hammer Strength machines, two squat racks, two stationary bikes, two power racks with barbells, a set of adjustable dumbbells, an MHP X-Fit training station, a medicine ball … and that’s pretty much it. This is where both pit-crew teams train two to three days a week (when they’re not traveling for a race) during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
It’s by no means an extravagant training facility, but it does the job. Efficiency is paramount in Front Row’s strength-and-conditioning program, designed by Smith, a longtime trainer who owns Nautilus Fitness Center, a gym in nearby Cornelius. Because of their travel schedule and the fact that team members have other jobs outside of the pit crew (some within in Front Row, some outside the company), time is limited. Smith has about two hours with the team Tuesday through Thursday (unless Thursday is a travel day), and he must fit in pit-stop practice, lifting, and speed and agility work.
“We need to get bigger, stronger and faster, but we’re also training to prevent injury through the course of a long racing season,” Smith says. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you train more than two to three days a week?’ It’s a fine balance. We go pretty hard when we practice, so you have to be smart in how you train. If we were to train five days a week, we’d get burned out and have nothing left for weekends.”
Pit practice takes up the first 45 minutes of the day, in which fully simulated pit stops for both teams take place in the parking lot outside the shop. After that, the teams come inside to the weight room/lobby and train for 45 to 60 minutes. Workouts are typically done circuit-style, going from station to station with minimal rest between exercises. Tuesday is an upper-body circuit (see sidebar), Wednesday is lower body and Thursday is usually a lighter, full-body day. After lifting, it’s back outside for speed and agility work in the parking lot for 30 minutes.
“We do short, quick bursts of exercise to get the heart rate up and maximize intensity,” Smith says. “We don’t need to be able to run two, three, four miles; we train with short 20-yard and 40-yard sprints, sometimes with parachutes. We’re just trying to keep up with these other well-funded teams. Some of them have five times the weight room we do and 10 times the coaches, but we use our time effectively. A smaller team hanging in there with the big guys — that’s what we do.”
Photo by Andrew Coppley/CIA Stock Photo
Training in the Pit
Tuesday is upper-body day in the weight room for the pit-crew teams of Front Row Motorsports, owners of the No. 34 and No. 38 cars built by Ford and sponsored by MHP. The following circuit of eight exercises was performed one day this June. Each exercise was done for 30 seconds straight (doing as many reps as possible), resting about 15 seconds between exercises.
1. Hammer Strength Shoulder Press
2. Hammer Strength Iso Row
3. Barbell Bench Press
4. Barbell Hang Clean
7. Stationary Bike
8. Medicine-Ball Crunch
Workout Notes: The first four exercises are done with 70 percent of one-rep max weight. Complete the circuit three to four times through, resting two to three minutes between each circuit.
To promote muscle recovery from intense workouts and replenish carbohydrates and electrolytes lost during a race (which can result in losing 4 to 5 pounds from being in a full-body fire-resistant suit in sweltering heat four hours on end), Front Row Motorsports’ pit-crew teams depend on plenty of fluids and simple carbohydrate sources like Gatorade and fruit during races. After training sessions, MHP’s Dark Matter is their postworkout shake of choice, because it includes, among other ingredients, fast-absorbing whey isolate protein, branched-chain amino acids and waxy maize starch to feed the muscles to grow bigger and stronger. “The supplements MHP provides us have made a huge difference in recovery and enhancing performance for our team members,” says Gary Smith, head pit-crew coach at Front Row.