“When I started in 2002, a fast pit stop was 17 seconds. Without any equipment changing, we’re now at 11 seconds for a pit stop. The only thing that’s changed is the athleticism of the individuals going over the wall.”
In the world of NASCAR, fractions of a second make a difference. That’s what makes the job of the pit crew so important. The pit crew are the individuals who make adjustments and changes to the race car during pit stops. These include refueling, changing tires and tweaking the suspension. The faster these tasks can be performed, the quicker the driver can get back in the action on the track.
Although the athleticism of pit crew members has always been important to their success, only in recent years have racing teams have begun actively recruiting elite athletes to join their pit crews. As it turns out, many of today’s pit crew members are talented athletes who played a sport in college and are no stranger to intense physical training. As a part of Gatorade’s Beat the Heat program, STACK caught up with the pit crew behind Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car to get an inside look at this new breed of athlete.
The Journey to Pit Road
One thing that nearly all members of Johnson’s pit crew have in common? No one grew up picturing themselves doing this. “No one grows up playing pit crew,” said Ryan Patton, one the crew’s rear tire carriers. For the most part, they grew up playing sports like football or baseball. Many of them were talented enough to continue playing in college.
Andrew Childers, whose role as the crew’s “jackman” entails lugging around a 30-pound jack, played football at Samford University. Same goes for R. J. Barnette, a former defensive back who’s now a rear tire carrier. Calvin Teague was a pitcher at Appalachian State University before becoming a rear tire changer, and Patton was a graduate assistant strength coach at The Ohio State University before assuming his front tire carrier role.
Their athletic background is no coincidence—Hendricks Motorsports, Johnson’s racing team, hand-picked them for that reason. The team’s scouts saw potential in them, and they were invited to take part in a sort of pit crew combine.
“They made it like an NFL Combine tryout. We did the L-Drill and the 5-10-5. We bench pressed and jumped rope. They did a lot of things to get a baseline of our athleticism. They didn’t even put us on the car. They wanted to get guys that had the ability to do it and then train them,” Teague said.
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Childers, Barnette, Teague and Patton all did well enough at the combine to earn a callback. At the second combine, they performed some basic pit stop movements and procedures. Final cuts were made, and those who remained were offered jobs as NASCAR pit crew members. The gig was appealing. “It was a chance to stay competitive and be part of a team where everyone is working toward one goal,” Teague said.
Training for the Pit
Like other serious athletes, Johnson’s pit crew spends a ton of time training. Their typical weekday schedule starts at 7:00 a.m., when they wake up and head to their Charlotte, North Carolina facility for practice and workouts. According to the crew, the workouts are similar to what they did as college athletes.
The amenities at Hendricks Motorsports training facility include a 3,000-square-foot weight room, 60 yards of field turf, a rubberized track, a sand pit and cars on which to practice stops.
“Our training is a lot similar to college football training. Hang Cleans, Squats and explosive lifts. It’s also about working on quick feet so you can get around the car fast,” Childers said.
“It’s really the same as football. We do ladder drills, hurdle drills, mini-hurdles, cones. We run sprints,” Barnette added.
In addition to the weight room work, the team practices full-speed pit stops four days a week. “The key to getting better is reps. While a basketball player might go out and shoot a bunch of free throws, we go out to our practice car and practice putting tires on,” Patton said.
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The crew also performs rehab and pre-hab exercises to make sure they’re in peak physical health for race day. “You get little aches and pains doing this, so you end up doing a lot of little rehab things,” Childers said.
The similarities to training for football or basketball don’t stop there. The crew also watches film together after every race to review how they performed. As it happens, a pit stop is a 12-second blur of adrenaline and movement. With the film, pit crew members can watch their movements in slow motion and see exactly where they can improve.
“In our film study, we go back and look at how we did. We see what went right, what went wrong and what you could’ve done differently,” Patton said.
Just like sports teams, different members of the crew have different roles.
The jackman carries a 30-pound jack around the car, jacks it up and carries it back around. Tire carriers lug the all-important tires—which weighs between 55 and 75 pounds—and work in concert with the tire changers. The tire changers sprint from one wheel to the next, using an air gun hose to take off and put on the tires. As soon as the car comes to a stop, the gasman hoists an 80-pound can of fuel above his head and places it in the tank opening.
Just as linemen are bigger than wide receivers in football, pit crew members come in different sizes to perform different jobs. The specialize. Bigger, stronger guys are typically the jackmen and gasmen, while smaller, quicker guys with superior hand-eye coordination are the tire changers. Tire carriers typically fall somewhere in between.
All of the team’s training focuses on preparing to perform these tasks as quickly and as efficiently as possible. If football is a game of inches, pit stops are a game of milliseconds. “Every 10th of a second spent on pit road can be a difference of two or three spots in the race,” Teague said.
Race Day is Game Day
All of this preparation culminates on Sunday, which is race day in the NASCAR world.
The average race lasts between three and four hours, and the pit crew has to be locked in that entire time. Due to the unpredictable nature of NASCAR, the crew must be ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. “A football game has a definitive stop and definitive breaks throughout it. In racing, you know that it starts with the green flag, but from there anything can happen. You try to calm down a bit between stops so you don’t wear yourself out, but you’ve got to be ready at any time,” Patton said.
Shortly before Johnson comes in for a pit stop, the crew gets a play call from the crew chief. He tells them exactly what needs to be done to the car during the impending stop. Everyone gets on the same page, and when Johnson rolls in, the crew goes to work. It might look like synchronized chaos, but every team member is laser focused on doing his job.
“You just do your job as best as you can. There’s six of us going over the wall to do our job as best and as fast as we can. If one guy screws up, it doesn’t matter how fast the rest are—you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” Barnette said.
The recipe for success seems to be to avoid overthinking and let your training take over. “When the moment comes, you’ve trained for it and you know what to do,” Teague said.
In addition to the pressure of the situation, heat is almost always a factor. Pit crew equipment includes two full layers of fire-retardant clothing and a helmet. The clothes alone make for hot conditions—but if the race is in a hot climate during the summer months (as many NASCAR races are), the temperature can be downright blazing.
“People don’t realize the fire suit weighs about 10 pounds, and then you’re also standing on blacktop for hours on end. If it’s really hot out, guys can lose about seven pounds from sweat,” Patton says. Thus, hydration is critical. The pit crew members down plenty of Gatorade on race day. The electrolytes in Gatorade helps prevent dehydration and the carbs help the crew stay energized and focused. “We really try to suck down water and Gatorade both on race day and two to three days before. If you don’t have it, you’re going to start cramping up and you can’t do your job,” Childers said.
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The competition is intense. In every race, 44 different pit crews are trying to help their drivers finish on top. “It’s a different kind of sport, but once you know what you’re doing, it’s fun and intense. The competition is so intense,” Barnette says.
Since they’ve done thousands of stops, the crew can instantly tell when they nail one. “I can tell an 11.9 seconds from a 12.1 seconds just because I’ve done it so many times. You know when it’s fast,” Barnette said.
But even when the team feels good about a perfect stop, they can’t celebrate too much. “You’re excited, but you know you got more stops coming. You can’t miss that next one. But if you know it’s the last stop of the day, then you can get rowdy,” Teague said.
When a mistake does occur, a short-term memory is important. “If someone makes a mistake, everyone just regroups and we forget about it. You’ve just got to re-focus for the next time,” Teague said.
That ability to forget mistakes and move on has a lot to do with the crew’s success. Childers said, “We’re a really tight-knit group. We’ve got good chemistry.”
In its 11th year, the Gatorade Beat the Heat program is an educational program that teaches youth athletes the importance of heat safety and staying hydrated during the hot summer months. Aside from the outside temperatures the heat suits worn by drivers and crew members can result in them losing up to six pounds from sweat in a day. In order to maximize race-day performance, hydration is a key factor in the sport of NASCAR.