When fractions of a second count, Winston Cup drivers have to depend on the performance of their pit crews--the seven men who go over the wall to service the car throughout the race, and keep them constantly in contention to win on Sundays. A team can have a strong car and a skillful driver, but without consistent pit stops, multiple positions can be sacrificed on the track. If you study the margins of victory in some Winston Cup races this season--0.128 seconds at Daytona, 0.137 seconds at Talladega--it proves the old adage that races are won and lost in the pits. Long before the heralded Rainbow Warriors would have their praises sung in 45 Victory Lane celebrations, there was the Penske South Miller "Brew Crew", who not only won the 1993 Pit Crew Championship, but "busted off" the first 14 second, four-tire pit stop to ever be executed on pit row.
Although choreographing pit stops has become an exact science, Penske set the standard early for what the other teams would aspire to achieve in the pits. Earl Barban, at that time the team's gasman and now the only remaining member of the Penske No. 2 pit crew from that rookie year, justifies the 14-second stop by acknowledging, "Of course, that's when we had three tire changers--two on the right and one taking the nuts off on the left."
Nevertheless, Barban--for once--is being modest. Sure, guys from other teams worked out, but from the inception of the Penske South organization in 1990, physical fitness was of paramount importance. "We had a gym when we first started working at Penske Racing at the end of 1990," says Barban, who is currently the jackman on the team. "It was a small one, but Rusty Wallace bought our weights, Dick Paysor brought his treadmill in, I brought a radio and a punching bag, and that's what we started working out with.
"In '92 we really started getting serious. We got a trainer, Bob Pressley, and started focusing on pit stops, and then working out became mandatory. Rusty and the management insisted that we work out at least three times a week. Everybody got really strong and really fast and we won the Pit Crew Championship in '93 and pit times got down in the 14-second range. That's what we've done ever since. We've had different tire changers on the rear and different jackmen, but everyone conforms to the program."
For brothers Walt and Gary Smith, bodybuilding isn't just a lifelong tool they use for race day, it's a business. In addition to training the teams at Dale Earnhardt Inc., and working in the pits as jackman and front tire carrier on the No. 1 Pennzoil car, the Smiths and their family run two Nautilus Fitness Centers in the metro Charlotte, North Carolina, area. They have been in that line of business for the last 20 years. "Conditioning has really come into play over the course of the past several years where pit crews are becoming more and more important," says Walt. "The cars are so close to each other that the way to gain spots on the race track is on pit road."
"We spent '87 to '97 with Hendrick Motorsports on the No. 5 car and won the championship with Terry Labonte in '96. Between the two of us, we've done every job on a pit crew, so we understand the problem spots. When Dale decided he wanted to start his own team, he built a gym at the facility in Mooresville and hired us to oversee the program." With full-time crew members putting in at least 50 hours a week, and sometimes close to 70 hours before the season starts, stamina is the name of the game. The Smith brothers realized this immediately and began their own workout program in the early 1980s. But Gary says it didn't become an industry standard until the 1990s.
"When we first got involved in racing back in 1983, Walt and I were really the only two guys that worked out," Gary says. "Over the years, it has become more important, and now most of your teams are doing it and they need some help. They need pit coordinators and weight trainers to teach the guys the correct way to lift based on what we do, which is pitting a race car.
"We're not trying to make anybody a muscleman or anything like that. Our goal is to keep them injury free. That's number one. Since it's so hard to find good pit personnel the last thing you want to do is to have someone get injured and not able to perform their job. Strength is important, but we do a lot of flexibility work and cardio work as well. But we tend to keep it light and emphasize the areas that get used the most--the arms, the shoulders, the backs, the legs--and take it from there. We try to keep it brief so they don't get bored with it."
Walt believes physical training really came into fruition when NASCAR removed the third tire changer from the over-the-wall equation. "If you remember a few years back, we had one guy whose only job was to bust lug nuts off the left side of the car," says Walt. "We were doing 15, 16-second pit stops. You might have seen a 14 back then, but five or six years ago, they made it mandatory that you could have only two guys and two guns. When that happened, it killed a lot of teams and the times shot up from the 16s into the 20-second range. "At the No. 5 car, right out of the box, we were already in the 18s. But over the course of the past few years, the numbers have started coming down again into the 16s and there have even been a couple of 15s this year. We did a 15.8 in Charlotte and that's with one less guy. So that just goes to show how much quicker leg strength, hand speed, foot speed--indexing all these qualities have combined to improve pit road performance."
Whether you're a Jeff Gordon fan or not, you have to admire Ray Evernham's ability to create a modern day dynasty--backed by three championships--at Hendrick Motorsports. Evernham was first exposed to crew enhancing procedures when he worked for Alan Kulwicki. Once he established his own program with the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, he took the training concept one step further. "When we came to Winston Cup racing, we wanted to approach it differently and we structured our pit crew as a separate entity, as something different from a race team," says Evernham. "Like its own professional little sports team. We hired some outside people to come in and they've trained very hard. The team's had some great pit stops--some million dollar pit stops, between 16 and 17 seconds is a great pit stop within the tight range we have to work with. Jeff Gordon is an exceptional talent, but our guys dig all day long. They're true professionals. When it comes time to step it up, they step it up."
At the core of the Rainbow Warriors is their coach Andy "Papa" Papathanassiou. Evernham was introduced to the former Stanford offensive guard at Alan Kulwicki's shop in 1992, and hired him that same year to develop a Winston Cup pit crew. For the last seven years Papathanassiou has been instrumental in training the over-the-wall guys for the No. 24 squad and instilling that "refuse to lose" attitude which has become their trademark. On the Monday following a race, Andy reviews tapes from the pit camera to determine where the team fell short or perhaps lost a tenth-of-a-second and what they need to work on at practice Tuesday and Thursday. It is not unusual to see him, stopwatch in hand, critiquing his fellow teammates and offering suggestions for improvement. "We all understand how important pit crews are to the ultimate outcome of a race," Papathanassiou says. "There are times when we haven't had the perfect day or the perfect car and even our pit stops aren't perfect, but we work through all of those issues and come away with victories.
"It only makes sense, that if we come in and do five pit stops during a three-hour race, if we hold a position, gain a position, gain a position, hold a position, by the end of the day, chances are we'll be vying for the lead." Former Washington Redskins head coach and Super Bowl winner Joe Gibbs not only wants to "hold his position," he has worked to improve his race team's track positions dramatically. When the NFL's Carolina Panthers hired a new coaching staff and purchased new weight training equipment, Gibbs got a deal on some "gently-used" machines and hired Paul Alepa, one of the Panthers' trainers, to work with the No. 18 Interstate Batteries and No. 20 Home Depot pit crews and develop personal training programs for Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte.
"I've always been amazed that everything that happened to me in football, everything you use in football, you use over here," Gibbs says. "We have a personal trainer that comes three times a week. We built a new facility with a weight room that has all the latest and greatest in weight equipment." Alepa, 26, a friend of Gibbs' son, Coy, who works with the Panthers, oversees the team's physical conditioning. "I started at the end of February and now I'd say the team works out an hour to an hour-and-a-half twice a week," Alepa says. "At 5:15, they're ready to go. We start with some quick foot stuff to make them faster around the car. We stretch and do weight lifting while trying to have fun and improve their speed and getting the technique down correctly. They do all the work, I just point them in the right direction. "Joe realized that the one variable he could control during the race were the pit stops. Yesterday we discussed what our goal should be. The guys on the 18 team had a 16.8-second pit stop on Sunday (at Dover, when they won the MBNA 400). I think we can get it down around a 16-flat. That may be pushing it, but this sport is all about striving for goals."
The final, and most integral, part of Gibbs' pit stop game plan is Jeff Chandler, who coordinates the overall pit crew effort at Joe Gibbs Racing. "We've got somebody who is the coach of the pit stops and that's Jeff Chandler," says Gibbs. "It's his job to organize the pit stops, to film the pit stops, to study the pit stops, to make the corrections and hire the replacements. It's completely his responsibility."
Not only does Chandler oversee the crew and the training involved to mold these individuals, but he follows a regular weekly routine to ensure that nothing goes amiss on race day. "It all starts Monday morning when we get the film from Sunday's race and break it down like a football team or a basketball team would break down film," Chandler says. "Each individual person gets critiqued and then we look and see if there is any area where we could maybe pick up a tenth or two to make him a little better. Then I get the reports together and by Monday afternoon I'm ready to tell the guys what they can do to pick up time before the personal trainer comes that night.
"When we get to the race track, things actually get easier because all the preparation to the equipment has already been done. It's one person's responsibility to take care of the guns, the jacks, and the pit box and make sure all that's ready. So our teamwork is done Monday through Thursday and we put it all together on Sundays. "Felix Sabates may have been the first NASCAR owner to spend a lot of money to get a personal trainer and a gym set up, but he has never understood that this is a people sport. He always thought you could replace people and that would fix it. Joe Gibbs puts a lot of stock in his people. Race cars come and go, but people win races. If you invest a lot of effort into a person, you'll get a lot in return, and that's where Joe is a much better car owner than a lot of guys."
Gibbs' management style eases the everyday stress on his teams, but nothing can totally relieve the amount of pressure the crew puts on themselves. "There's a whole lot of pressure, but we put all the pressure on ourselves," says Peter Gellen, who drives the transporter for the No. 18 and functions as the gasman on Sunday. "When Bobby's out there driving his guts out for us, and he's relying on us to help him, if we screw up in the pits, he's going to go further back in the pack and have to work harder to get back where he was. If we can get him out where he was or better, it helps build his confidence on the track and increases his probability of winning."
Despite all the technical advances that have been discovered and implemented into today's NASCAR pit stop, Penske's Barban believes the formula for success is still pretty simple. "Physical training is a good thing and it's not just for the crew, either," says Barban. "Everyone at our facility is able to work out for an hour during the day. We can work out from 11 to 1, that's when the trainer is there, and after the shop closes at 4, he comes back from 4 to 6. Our trainer comes twice a week. It's good for everybody--it makes them feel better, it gets them trimmed up, and really boosts the morale and helps them feel better so they work harder.
"Maybe we're not as technical as some of these guys, but we're right on track from where we started. We still use the pit camera and watch our pit stops and review the films when we feel like we're getting slack or someone needs a little help. Then we all get back out there and practice our pit stops. But it doesn't matter how much you practice or how much you train, when you go over that wall--all that goes out the window. There are so many other factors that come into play--hoses getting turned, lug nuts popping off, other cars coming into your pit area--you just have to be ready to react. There is not any preparation for that.
"When I know the car's coming down pit row, my adrenaline starts pumping and I feel like Superman standing on that pit wall. You jump over there, you get the car up, you pull the rear tire off, you lay it down, you run to the other side, you jack the car up, and it's really routine now. I don't prepare for it. I hope that's not wrong. I do what I've done for a long time and everything that could go wrong--that may go wrong--has gone wrong. And I think I'm ready for that."
Frank and Gary Smith were working out long before the idea became the rage. The Smiths have gone to work at Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and help crew members with Steve Park's efforts.