Wanted: Multi-million dollar corporation seeks talented team player with a refuse-to-lose attitude. Must handle extreme pressure well and make every second count. Mistakes will not be tolerated and may lead to immediate dismissal. Extensive travel required.
That doesn't sound like a wonderful job description, but it's one position many race fans would like to apply for. Next to driving in stock car racing's big leagues, the thought of working on a pit crew fills the daydreams of many people.
As you can imagine, making those dreams a reality is tough-but not impossible. With the proper training, the right attitude and, yes, a little luck, you can take your place along pit road. You may not wind up on a Winston Cup team, but you could land on a team in a smaller touring series and at least get your foot in the proverbial racing door.
Breon Klopp, who helps operate the 5 Off 5 On Race Team Performance pit crew school, compares the challenge of reaching the major leagues of racing to the challenge of playing in the National Football League. "Everybody gets to play high school football. Some get to play college football. But few get to play professionally," Klopp says.
First of all, don't show up on the doorstep of a major race team and offer to sweep the floor to get started. Experience is the key.
"You need to go to your local short track and become friends with somebody and start helping them out. You can't show up and not have any experience and expect to get a job," says Shawn Ward, front tire carrier for the No. 15 Chevrolet driven by Michael Waltrip in the Winston Cup Series.
Klopp says each position on a pit crew may call for different physical traits. For example, front tire changers should have the obvious hand/eye coordination, but it helps if they're small as well. That's because they take up less space, and it leaves more room for the jack man to pass. Klopp compares this position to a shortstop or lightweight wrestler.
An ideal jack man may be more like a linebacker. He needs good upper-body strength to get the proper leverage, and he needs to be quick on his feet. Taller people often are ideal for the job of a gasman because they can more easily position the gas nozzle.
Strength comes in handy considering that a full gas can and a racing tire can each weigh 70 to 80 pounds. Physical skills are so important that at 5 Off 5 On, students are expected to use an on-site weight room. They also undergo plenty of conditioning and agility exercises before even attempting a pit stop.
"We're looking for someone with strength, speed, and coordination," Klopp says. "People who desire to beat somebody; they have that competitive spirit about them."
Then there are the mental skills. The best crewmembers are those who can block out the dangers of their job, the beehive of activity that surrounds them, and concentrate specifically on their role.
"Before a pit stop when the car is coming down pit road, I always visualize the stop," Ward says. "You pick out a time when you were on and did your job perfectly and you try to do that. You think about what it takes to do a good stop."
"You have to be able to shut everything else out," Klopp says. "If you're a tire changer, you need to get your five lug nuts off and your five lug nuts on. That's all you have to worry about."
And, in another of Klopp's football analogies, you have to be like a place-kicker and be willing to shake off any mistakes you make.
Winston Cup crews make their work look so easy, but there's nothing simple about changing
While the glamorous world of Winston Cup may beckon, the reality is that the most many people can hope for is a job with a crew on a smaller touring series such as Hooters ProCup, ARCA, ASA, the NASCAR Busch Series, or NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. However, the other series provide the experience you'll need to ever have a shot at Winston Cup.
Chuck Bown, a former regular driver in NASCAR, operates Crewschool.com, a school that teaches a variety of skills-including pit work-aimed at landing students a job on a race team. Bown says some Winston Cup teams still hold tryouts for openings on the pit crew, but only the exceptionally talented have any shot at making it.
"That's the unfair part of the business," Bown says. "You can have a great resume and some great experience, but these teams just get so many resumes."
You shouldn't think that a smaller touring series means that joining a pit crew will be a cakewalk. Klopp says, "People need to be ready to commit." In fact, 5 Off 5 On has a daylong "look before you leap" program that is essentially designed to weed out those who may have underestimated the work involved or don't have the dedication required.
Klopp says some of his students master pit skills to improve their resume and be considered for other full-time opportunities. For example, a fabricator may move his name closer to the top of the list of job applicants if he can also pit the car. "We don't make promises, but we say this is a good way to get your foot in the door," Klopp says.
He says the really top pit crewmembers are often offered full-time jobs, even if it's just doing minor tasks at the race shop, so the team can keep them.
The best crewmembers are those who can block out their surroundings and concentrate solely
The increased emphasis on pit crews and the interest in working on them has inspired the development of both 5 Off 5 On and Crewschool.com.
Students pay $1,700 for the six-week program offered by 5 Off 5 On. Once they complete the course, the school helps them find weekend work on a touring series.
At Crewschool.com, students pay $7,500 for a 10-week program that covers a variety of skills including race car building, maintenance, and pit stops. The program is full-time, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Also, students get hands-on experience by working on a Hooters team featuring Bown as the driver. "It's intense," Bown says. "We try to cover everything bumper to bumper. They build or rebuild a car during that time."
Before a race, tryouts are held among Crewschool.com students to see who will work on the pit crew. Whoever's consistently the fastest gets the job. "We let the stopwatch determine who gets what," Bown says.
Practice is the key to the students who stand out in the field. Bown says it's amazing how much time students can shave off a pit stop with just minimal instruction. "It's pretty interesting," he says. "They'll improve immensely immediately. They can get to a respectable time really quickly. But the few seconds below that, that's the toughest."
Indeed, getting those times to continually fall takes frequent practice and conditioning. Ward, for example, works out each Monday and Thursday, and practices pit stops each Tuesday and Wednesday.
"It's a commitment. It's a lot of hard work. It's not easy," Klopp says.
Still no job offers for our makeshift pit crew, and there's a good reason why.
Here's a sampling of what pit crewmembers often make for each race
|Series ||Pay Per Race |
|Hooters ||$100 |
|ARCA ||$200 |
|Busch Series ||$250 |
|Winston Cup ||$300 to $900* |
|*Plus bonuses and other incentives |
If you ever get an opportunity to try your hands on a pit stop, you need to first check your pride at the door. Like many things in racing, this can be a humbling experience.
Such was the case when we pulled together a crew of seven guys (ranging from an accountant to a doctor, and a couple of Stock Car Racing staffers) and drove up to 5 Off 5 On, a pit crew school in Mooresville, North Carolina. The school offers a three-hour "experience" for those who want to see what it's like to work on a pit crew.
Instructor Breon Klopp first let us attempt a pit stop with little direction. About 90 bumbling seconds later, we were finished. Maybe on a road course we would have kept our driver on the lead lap. What an eye opener.
For me, working as the rear tire carrier, I found out immediately that a new Goodyear is tough to lug around. You're supposed to slip your fingers through the wheel and pop the sucker right on the studs in one smooth motion. To make it more difficult, you're going about your work from the side and have to make an awkward lift.
Our jack man (Stock Car Racing Associate Editor, Larry Cothren) found out that while modern jacks can hoist a car in just one pump, that one pump relies on just the right leverage and technique. And the guys with the air wrenches realized their shortcomings in hand/eye coordination.
We tucked our tails and retreated to a classroom, where Klopp detailed the choreography of a pit stop, and the individual jobs of each crewman. In about an hour, we were back at work. To motivate us, Klopp mentioned that a crew of women at the school had beaten 60 seconds. Now, the pressure was on.
By the end of the day our best was 38 seconds. We wanted to break the 30-second mark, but someone always made a mistake. Also, it would have helped if we had been in better physical shape. Each stop, although only seconds long, left us drained.
No, pit crew work isn't for everyone. In fact, 5 Off 5 On has a day-long program that makes people think long and hard about whether they want to enroll in the school's primary six-week program.
As for us, we'll leave the pit stops to the pros.