Then suddenly, Jeff Barkshire's car dropped back along the inside. A hole emerged just as the cars were exiting the third turn.

"Clear, clear," Shannon yelled into the radio.

Jefferson dropped to the inside, into a hole about six inches too short for his car. His rear quarter-panel glanced off the nose of Barkshire's racer. And around he went.

After a caution for his spin, Jefferson rejoined the race back in 19th. He picked up five spots in the final 10 laps to finish 14th.

Warn's night didn't go much better. He got tied up in someone else's wreck, got spun and soldiered on to 12th spot.

"Jeff figures I made a mistake," Shannon said as the team loaded the battered car into the hauler. "If that's the case, I'll have to shoulder the blame."

Shannon and Jefferson circled the car, keeping the battered chassis between them. The wreck was simply a case of a driver asking for something that didn't exist and a spotter desperately trying to give it to him.

"Right now, he's pretty upset," Shannon said. "I'm not sure I've still got a job."

Working, Watching, Learning
There are two men under Jeff Jefferson's car, double-checking the rod ends on the sway bars.

Two more are at the rear of the Chevrolet, gutting the fuel cell so it can be checked and measured by a NASCAR inspector.

Other team members in red shirts are shagging tires and wheels, checking radio batteries, adjusting the throttle stop.

Gary Mears puts a pair of box-end wrenches back in the tool box and surveys the activity, comparing his mental notes with the checklist taped to the rear of the MJ2 Racing war wagon.

It is an hour before qualifying for an impound race at Thunder Hill Raceway and there is much work to be done. Mears is a detail man. Nothing is left to chance. He knows that the difference between taking the checkers or coming off the track on a hook often is the result of pre-race preparation.

He is in his sophomore year as crew chief for Jefferson. It is a title that makes him uncomfortable.

"Maybe someday," he says, "but not yet. In spite of the title, I know my place in the organization."

And Mears figures it is a good place to be right now.

"If a guy wants to learn what this sport is all about, what better situation to be in with Jeff in the driver seat and Chuck Carruthers calling the shots?" he says. "Both these guys know so much and are so good, that I usually look much smarter than I really am."

Carruthers, with more than three decades building, preparing, and crewing up and down NASCAR's series, oversees the two-car team and works directly with Jim Warn, a rookie in the NASCAR Camping World West Series.

"Don't let Gary Mears fool you," says Carruthers. "He knows a lot more about this than what he lets on."

The series often is viewed as a development program for drivers on their way up to careers as professionals. But it also is a training ground for the men and women who work behind the scenes. In that sense, Mears has a similar dream of every driver who ever hoped to move up to racing's top level.

Mears grew up a racing junkie. He spent a couple years driving his own stock car, but backed away from competition to meet the demands of running his specialized trucking company. But Mears wasn't ready to simply turn his back on racing.

"We were at a restaurant one night and I saw Jeff there, having dinner. I went up and introduced myself and said I wanted to help sponsor him," he says.

Mears eventually bought a trailer to haul Jefferson's Northwest Tour car and became the team truck driver and tire specialist.

"He learned incredibly fast," says Carruthers. "He's the kind of guy who doesn't talk much, asks really good questions and never makes the same mistake twice."

Mears spends every spare moment thinking about racing. He'd like the opportunity to work at it full time for a team in one of NASCAR's top series-Craftsman Truck, Nationwide, or Cup-but recognizes the opportunities for that type of job are rare.