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Pit Wars

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All along the wall, gunfire sounds. The men standing on the wall in their helmets are ready to charge when given the signal. The tension mounts as they look down the road leading to their posts.

They see their target exit the corner and enter the road. In a flash, they jump to action.

This isn’t a battle in some far away war; this is the life of a NASCAR pit crew.

As the cars peel out of their stalls, laying down a heavy coat of tire rubber, smoke clings in the air, the fog of their war. The heavy burnt smell wafts toward the crowd.

“I love that smell! WOOO!” shrieks one female fan standing behind Kyle Busch’s M&M’s pit as she jumps up and down.

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To stand behind the pits at a Sprint Cup NASCAR race is to enter another world. Some fans spend the entire race just watching their teams’ crews work and service the car, the oval seen only in spots past the stands decorated with sponsor logos and the men at work.

But it isn’t easy to get access. You have to be sponsored to even get close, and then there are several checkpoints you have to pass to enter.

The men in these pits are athletes, and put your local garage to shame. In one pit stop, they can change four tires, fill an entire tank of gas, and clear the windshield in about 16 seconds. Any slower, and they could cost their team valuable places on the track and prize money.

From the outside, it looks like a team of misfits. Crew members have all manner of helmets on, including some that look like they would be more at home in a roller derby. During the stop, when the number of men over the wall is restricted, other members quickly pass forward replacement items. A short member of the team hangs over the wall, passing forward near-side tires. He is held from behind by another crew member to make sure he doesn’t fall into the pit box. It is almost a mechanized circus act, one complete with a cast of real characters.

Take Doug Ingold, the gas man for Jamie McMurray’s #26 Crown Royal Ford Fusion. He looks like he would fit better behind a grill than toting gas cans. Full beard, a black bandanna splashed with purple accents, and a black Simpson apron, he is the quintessential barbecue man.

However, without Ingold, a 12-year veteran of the pits, the car doesn’t go. He dons a heavy protective helmet and carries the can weighing about 80 pounds to the car each pit stop.

After the flurry of activity, he continues to work, this time without the helmet and with his polarized Oakley sunglasses perched on top of the bandanna. He carefully pours the contents of the catch can, inserted to catch overflow from the fueling, back into the gas can. He measures how full the can is and weighs it. All of this is dutifully recorded and passed up to crew chief Larry Carter on top of the stand.

And he is not alone. The tire men have their own jobs, scraping the debris off the spent tires and measuring the wear based on holes they have drilled in the tires before the race. All of that is also recorded and passed upstairs. Meanwhile, the tires are carted out of the pits to the garage area.

After the statistics are taken, there is still more to do. The full crew stands in front of a flat screen and watches a tape of their stop, filmed from high above. They critique themselves and figure out how to improve on their already impossibly fast times.

McMurray’s crew watched their first stop, a scorcher that seemed under 15 seconds, at least three times, and some members went back again just in case.

Every second is crucial, considering the lead cars circle the mile and a half oval at the Chicagoland Speedway in just over 30 seconds.

“15 laps to pit, anything you want us to work on?” asks Carter over the radio to McMurray. His race isn’t going well. A cut tire earlier in the race caused him to lose crucial spots.

McMurray is happy with the setup of the car, although doesn’t care for the radio, a recurring problem he has had over the past few weeks.

Carter promises to fix it and encourages his driver.

“You’re running well. You’d be in fourth if it weren’t for that [expletive] cut tire,” he says.

The next pit stop didn’t go so well. Extra time meant that McMurray was beaten out of pit row by a car he was ahead of, though only barely.

Carter was quick to apologize for the crew.

“We had kind of a bad stop,” he radios. “We got faith in you. You’ll make it up for us.”

After the work is done in the pits, spare tires become seats and back rests as the men wait to next be called to duty. Each has his own ritual. Some seem to be keeping at least a cursory eye on the race. Other stare off, lost in their own thoughts. Some take the time to catch a quick smoke, safely (maybe) away from the gas cans.

At Chicagoland, most crews were taking about 50 laps between stops. That gives their men plenty of time to contemplate their next attack on the vehicle.

However, the call to arms can come at any time, sometimes catching men back in the garage, resulting in a fast sprint back to the pits to take their place on the wall.

And just like that, a car slows along the apron and the call goes out. Men down pit row put back on their helmets, taken off only about 13 laps earlier. The sprinters race down the narrow walk behind the pits.

Places on the wall are taken.

The guns fire.

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