Backstory: The mechanic as sports hero

Across the South, NASCAR pit crews compete to find who has fastest lug wrench.

As the men in nylon suits dash, tug, and push until their necks bulge on the hockey rink below, sports fan Brad Baker chews on some popcorn and whoops for his favorite team. Instead of sneering Russians on skates or long-limbed power forwards reaching for the basket, the athleticism below is all about jacking up cars, replacing tires, and filling gas tanks - quickly.

Call it the Olympics for the wrench set. Since drivers about a decade ago started tuning pit crews as finely as their stock cars, pit row has become a central focus on the NASCAR circuit. Teams know that what happens in the few fiber-optic seconds a car pulls in can influence the outcome of a race nearly as much as the driver can.

Now pit crew performance is going one step farther, becoming a competitive event itself. In arenas across the South, thousands of fans turn out to watch jack men, tire changers, and gas-can jockeys do their ballet with air guns and mechanical lifts. It's a chance for the pit crews to get out of the shadow of cocky drivers and show off their unusual, but crucial, skills.

It comes at a time when farmboys and ex- college jocks are flocking to new pit crew schools across the South. To aficionados, it all marks - appropriately - the elevation of the garage mechanic to sports hero. "There is nothing better than watching a bunch of guys change tires," says Mr. Baker with a satisfied grin.

The trend, too, coincides with NASCAR's broader search for new sponsors as other sports cash in on nongame-related events. The homerun derby Major League Baseball holds leading into the All-Star game, for instance, has almost eclipsed the game itself in popularity.

NASCAR's answer is to highlight the strange skills of the characters of pit row. The competitions include the regular-season NASCAR challenge, worth $200,000 to the fastest crew, and last week's Second Annual Pit Crew Challenge on a covered ice rink here at Bobcats Arena. "The top level of NASCAR and its sponsors get a lot of press, but at the minor-league level, the grassroots of the sport is driven by a tremendous participatory culture" embodied by pit crew competitions, says Larry DeGaris, a sports marketing professor at the University of Virginia.

But are these guys - and they are, for the most part, guys - really athletes? That may be beside the point. They are skilled, and the clashes with lug wrenches and gas cans that look like cruise missiles with elephant trunks are, in fact, entertaining to a substantial audience.

Physically, the pit crew members vary widely. Some are Fred Flintstone types, while others, often those who change and carry the tires, are as sinewy as Tom Cruise. The best tire changers in NASCAR can make close to $90,000 a year, while greenhorns bring in around $30,000.

For all their growing notoriety, however, the best pit crew members know that their ultimate goal is not one of individual canonization but the success of the team in getting their car to the checkered flag. "Some are not in it to be Hollywood, but some are prima donnas and eventually they're the ones who fall on their face," says John Dodson, who won a Winston Cup championship as Rusty Wallace's tire changer in 1989. "There's only so much room at the top."

And the rivalries, at least on the tarmac, are only intensified by the perquisites and potential bragging rights. For starters, winning pit crews are feted in first class on the plane ride home from each race.

Their tools are pragmatic works of art, pneumatic torque wrenches that are pulled apart and put together with the precision of a pilot going down a preflight checklist, and aluminum jack lifts that can hoist a car with a single downward thrust of a bar. "They say races can be won on pit row, and that's true," says D.J. Copp, who changes tires for NASCAR driver Carl Edwards. "But you're more likely to lose a race on pit row."

Mr. Copp is an 11-year "fly-in" man. He supplements his regular job by heading to the track every Sunday. For him, the Pit Crew Challenge is fun and a chance to make some extra cash. He'll take the accolades, too. "Having a bunch of people you don't know chanting your name in a sports arena, that's kind of cool," he says.

For the uninitiated, pit crew competition can be tough to follow. Two teams compete against each other at a time. Each crew - with an average of seven members - has four cars to work on. When a bell goes off, crew members at each station have to complete their tasks: empty two cans of gas in one car, change the front tires on another, change the back tires on the third, and jack up both sides of the fourth. Once completed, the crew members push a car 120 feet down a track, simulating what happens at an NASCAR race. The whole ritual takes about 25 seconds.

As lug nuts fly, Martin Truex Jr.'s relatively rookie crew surprisingly beats last year's champs, the crew of Kasey Kahne, by a full second - an eon in race-car time. "I don't know what happened; I think we were just fatigued," says Nick O'Dell, Mr. Kahne's tire changer.

Skeptics might say watching pit crews compete is akin to watching a face-off between Wimbledon ball boys or Stanley Cup Zamboni drivers. Others dismiss it as family picnic showmanship, and, to an extent, they're right: It's hard to find someone at the event who's not involved somehow with the drivers, from moms and dads to girlfriends and cousins.

But devotees see something more in these workaday "athletes" - a socket-set dexterity they can relate to - and they empathize with the emotion on the field. "Without their helmets on, the fans can see the anguish on their face when they miss a lug nut," says Tony Liljestrand, a TV production-crew member for Speed Network.

Like any sport, this one has its young acolytes. Three teenagers - Dayne Pickett, Patrick Baker, and Bryan Hoffman - hang around after the torque wrenches quiet down to collect souvenir lug nuts smeared with Loc-Tite. Bryan says he wants to be a jack man when he grows up, while Patrick and Dayne like the tire-changers. Exiting the stadium, Kathy Palmer, another enthusiast, confirms that being a NASCAR fan goes beyond the oval track on race day. "The truth is, if it's got tires, we'll watch it," she says.

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