CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It takes more than powerful engines, big-bucks sponsors, and fearlessness to win on the NASCAR circuit. The stealth ingredient: a finely tuned seven-man team capable of changing four 70-lb. tires, dumping two 80-lb. gas containers into a stock car, and making the odd chassis tweak within, oh, 13 seconds. The drivers aren't the only athletes on the track these days.
Like so many other aspects of stock-car racing, the pit crew of the 21st century has jettisoned its good-ol'-boy image in favor of rigorous, high-tech specialization and training. What once was the province of guys in overalls tossing tires and gasoline while a cigarette dangled from their mouths has become a well-oiled operation dominated by physical-fitness regimens, nutritionists, and detailed analysis.
As Sunday's Daytona 500 launches a new NASCAR season, the value of those working on pit road has never been greater. How valuable? Enough to earn as much as $100,000 or more annually and to have been awarded with a new nationally televised pit-crew competition - staged before thousands of fans in a North Carolina basketball arena - last year.
"It's gone from 22 seconds [per stop] down to almost 12 doing the same job," says Mark Martin, a NASCAR star entering his 25th season on the circuit. "It's changed a lot. A lot more emphasis has gone into it - there was no practice before, no physical routine, no studying videotape to analyze it, and no pit-crew coaches."
Many of the biggest changes occurred during the past 15 years, ushered in by Ray Evernham who revolutionized pit stops as crew chief for the then-up-and-coming young driver Jeff Gordon in 1992. Mr. Gordon, who still drives for Hendrick Motorsports, and Mr. Evernham, who now owns separate race teams, became obsessive in their pursuit of incremental speed gains. Beyond engines, aerodynamics, and driver tactics, Evernham eyed the humdrum pit stop as a potential bonanza for climbing an extra spot or two in the standings.
He enlisted a former Stanford University football player, Andy Papathanassiou, to head Gordon's pit crew. Mr. Papathanassiou, who still leads the Hendrick crews, brought training techniques from other sports into NASCAR.
In lieu of training equipment, Papathanassiou devised a novel homemade gym. Bereft of a training budget, he had his crew members use 20-lb. tire-jack stands for curls and 70-lb. tires for squats. He increased their endurance by having them lug one another on their backs through the fields behind the garage. "I remember people laughing at us," Evernham recalls. "It was kind of an uphill fight to get people [in the industry] to buy in and buy equipment and be part of the program."
Those laughs have long since subsided. Gordon racked up three season championships working with Evernham during the 1990s, aided in part by a crack pit crew dubbed the "Rainbow Warriors." Today nearly every top team has nutritionists, sports psychologists, massage therapists, and weight trainers on-call - not just for the drivers, but for the pit crews as well. Salaries have skyrocketed at the same time.
As Martin and others have noted, pit crews leave nothing to chance. Frequent film sessions help crews determine where precious tenths-of-a- second are lost - and how to reclaim them.
"It's like running an athletic department," Papathanassiou says. "You have to look at everything. It's not like football, where you can still win a game if this guy or that guy has a bad day. In racing, you play every team every week, and if you have a bad day in the pits, you're not going to be winning anything."
That mentality goes a long way toward explaining why competition for pit-crew members has morphed into fierce recruiting. With most NASCAR teams housed in a small cluster of counties near Charlotte, it isn't unusual for race-team members to literally walk across the street to a new gig, enticed by higher wages. Several pit-crew training schools have been launched in recent years, including one backed by current TV broadcaster Jeff Hammond, who won four championships as a tire jackman and later became a crew chief.
Beyond the new crop of schools, NASCAR teams have begun scouring the ranks of former college football and basketball players in hopes of converting them into pit-crew specialists.
"That's the direction everything is heading in," says Humpy Wheeler, president at Speedway Motorsports, which operates six race tracks across the country. "[Former] defensive backs make good tire carriers, a tight end would make a good jackman. You're going to see a lot more teams thinking like that."
Indeed, Evernham's entries include two former college football players in their pit crews, while rival Chip Ganassi Racing boasts one former footballer and a converted college baseball player in crews for its lower-level race teams.
In the past, pit-crew workers sorted parts and handled other mundane tasks on race days - a rare occurrence now. "They're treated like prima donnas," says Darrell Waltrip, a former driver who won three season titles. "But a lot of that is because pit stops are even more important now than they used to be. The cars are all so equal, pit stops are one of the few places you can gain an advantage."
Daytona 500 NBC
Sunday, Feb. 19
1:30 p.m. EST