By Jason Stahl
I had no idea that members of NASCAR pit crews were so
"One exercise we do is the equivalent of climbing
straight up a 1,500-foot wall," says Mike Lingerfelt, the front tire
changer for the 3M "Pit Bulls" and the No. 16 driver Greg Biffle.
Lingerfelt also told me that their trainer is also the
trainer for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Jackman Rodney Fetters, at 6-foot-3
and 250 lbs., looks like an NFL lineman, but he insisted that even a puny,
pencil-pushing runt like myself could do his job.
"I could teach you no problem," Fetters said.
"It’s more about technique."
Pit Crew Challenge
First, I watched these guys run around like madmen during
the Pit Crew Challenge, a skills competition that showcases the talents of the
top 24 pit crews in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. At the end of each contest, the
teams have to push the cars down a straightaway, running full bore and
sometimes scattering onlookers when the cars overshoot their mark and barrel
into the crowd. That’s right, I said push the cars Flintstones-style. I
suppose that’s where the NFL training comes in.
At one point, I found myself sandwiched between Jimmie
Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who were discussing abdominal exercises called
"planks." Here we go talking physical fitness again. By the way,
Gordon looks no more than 5-foot-6, a buck forty-five in weight. Jimmie’s no
big deal either maybe 5-foot-9, 160. For some reason, I thought Dale
Earnhardt Jr. was tall, but he also looked no more than 5-foot-9. These guys
are as small as jockeys!
Carl Edwards, the eventual winner of the All-Star Race,
did a victory backflip on Saturday. I also heard he recently showed off his
"six-pack" on the cover of Men’s Health.
Again, I had no clue. Make no mistake: these guys are
big-time athletes. I make a mental note to hit the treadmill when I get home
and stop eating fast food.
On race day, I met "Bondo," a former collision
repair technician who is now a member of the Pit Bulls alongside Lingerfelt and
"Is making it to this level from working in a body
shop the equivalent of making it to the Major Leagues?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said after some thought. "Yes, I
think it is."
I hung out in the pit Saturday night and watched the crew
as they got stretched out before the race. Lingerfelt was kicking his legs
absurdly high, with his feet going over his head probably to stretch his
hamstrings. Fetters groaned as he lay on the ground while a teammate bent his
legs into positions that made me grimace. A few of them had stony looks on
their faces due to their intense focus on the task at hand. After all, a
million bucks was at stake for their driver. They had their "game
Just before Biffle would pit, you could cut the tension
in the air with a knife. Okay, maybe it was just me who was nervous. I had
thoughts of an air hose wrapping around my leg and hauling me over the wall and
onto the track to become Tony Stewart’s hood ornament. Or getting scalded by a
hot tire fresh off the car, which Bondo would roll behind the pit for
measuring. It’s safe to say, though, that the crew was simply
"ready," not nervous at all. Lingerfelt, who is short in stature,
would perch on the wall, waiting to spring when Biffle’s car squealed in. The
entire process of changing tires took about 12 to 14 seconds. After each pit,
Lingerfelt would be out of breath, looking like he just ran a 100-yard dash.
It’s that intense.
One more interesting note: a giant, new 200-foot-by-80-foot LCD screen at Charlotte Motor Speedway had been
certified by Guinness World Records as the largest in the world just days before. If there are
aliens, I’m pretty sure they can see it from Planet Zorb.
On Thursday, before the Pit Crew Challenge, All-Star
Qualifying Race and All-Star Race, I toured several racing garages in the area:
Roush Fenway Racing, Pastrana-Waltrip Racing and Ray Evernham Enterprises.
I learned that each car on the NASCAR circuit must
conform to a template, and the variance is much smaller than would be
acceptable on your average car out in the real world. I watched as
damaged panels were simply cut away and replaced. At one of the garages, an
English wheel is used to custom design panels.
At Pastrana-Waltrip, I talked with an employee who is in
charge of putting all the decals on the cars. One car was composed entirely of
a one-piece vinyl wrap. I marveled at the skill such a task would take
especially since I can hardly install a bumper sticker without getting an air
bubble or a wrinkle.
Evernham has a nice collection of cars, some of which he
bought and restored, others which were gifted to him for winning a race back
when he was the pit crew chief for Jeff Gordon. He even had a replica drive-in
movie theatre, 1955 diner and service station that was made to look like the one his father used to own that he used to work at.
That evening was the Jimmie Jam, a private fundraiser
that raises monies for The Jimmie Johnson Foundation. The featured act was
country music duo Montgomery Gentry, who even got a hard rock-loving urbanite
like me to tap my toes.
All in all, the trip really opened my eyes to what it
takes to work on a racing team: hard work, commitment and focus. The driver of
a car is the face of the team, the most visible and well-known person, but
behind him or her are hundreds of other people who really make things happen.
Everyone has to work together like a well-oiled machine to achieve the
ultimate goal: a win.
Those collision repair and automotive technicians who
aspire to one day work for a racing team should know that it is possible but
only the best get there. Like many professions, you have to start at the
bottom. And a lot of times, it comes down to who you know.
Now, I’m off to get a personal trainer. In a year’s time,
maybe I can be the jackman for the next NASCAR star…