LOUDON, N.H. — They are the unknown faces of NASCAR. The unsung heroes. The worker bees.
Dressed in their team uniforms, they provide a variety of services that can make the difference between the driver of their Sprint Cup team going to Victory Lane or making a slow, disappointing walk back to the hauler following the race.
They comprise the support staff and they range from the over-the-wall pit crew members to the behind-the-scenes members responsible for the upkeep of a portion of the car.
It’s a long season. There are 36 races.
Many of the pit crew members work in the team’s shop during the week but some don‘t.
They enjoy what they do but they also know how important it is for them to perform their specialty to the very best of their ability.
“We take about 22-23 members of our team to the race track each weekend and we can’t do without any of them,” said Darian Grubb, crew chief for points leader Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing team.
The pit crew and support staff members have taken on a more important role since the advent of the Car of Tomorrow, according to Augusta’s Scott Maxim, the director of track- engine support for Hendrick Motorsports.
The across-the-board limitations placed on the CoT, designed to create more parity in the sport, has made things like pit stops more critical.
“With this car, details become very important because the differences that are available to you to change become a lot smaller. So what becomes really important is the attention to detail to try to stack every little advantage you can get, or every little performance or durability issue that is there to hit every one of them It’s important to hit them all,” explained Maxim. “In years past maybe you didn’t have to be quite so [precise]. Track position is extremely important now.”
Glen Waldron, a mechanic who does the car setups for Greg Biffle’s Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing and monitors tire wear during the race, said he knows how crucial every pit stop can be.
“The cars are so close [speed-wise] on the racetrack. The over-the-wall guys can make the difference. It could come down to a split-second,” said Waldron.
Len Bishop, the catch-can man for Kevin Harvick, said all of the pit crew members pull the same weight.
“One job isn’t more important than another. If somebody doesn’t do their job, it’s not going to end up the way you want it to end up,” said Bishop.
The catch-can man holds a can that gathers any overflow of gas as it is being added to the driver’s tank on a pit stop and he signals when all of the gas has been added. The other members of the over-the-wall crew are the tire carriers, tire changers, gas man and jack man.
Bishop knows how vital his job is.
“I’ve got to make sure the tank is full because a lot of these races come down to fuel mileage,” he said.
Bishop also helps make adjustments to the car, several of which are made through the back window of the car.
“It’s pretty important to get it done the way the crew chief wants it done,” said Bishop.
Joe Smith installs the wiring and the seat in Biffle’s car and, on race day, he puts all the tires in sets and makes sure the right sets go on the car during pit stops.
“I’ve got to make sure the air pressures are right. Air pressures can change a car completely,” said Smith.
He knows he is under the gun to perform his task flawlessly.
“Everyone has their own individual pressure,” said Smith.
“You get what you put into it,” said Heath Silver, the catch-can man for Juan Pablo Montoya’s crew.
Steve Williams is the catch-can man and a mechanic for Kurt Busch’s Miller Lite Dodge after serving a similar duty for Newburgh native Ricky Craven and the No. 32 PPI car.
He said their pit crew practices pit stops on Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays and they also do strength and conditioning work those days.
“We hired the [former] strength and conditioning coach [Sean Powell] for the [NFL’s] Carolina Panthers and he works with everybody and sets up an individual program for everybody,” said Williams.
Powell had spent the previous eight years with the Panthers.
Bishop said Richard Childress Racing has a full-time personal trainer and he “comes up with some pretty interesting stuff to do.”
They practice and work out most days depending upon “our work load in the shop and our travel schedule.”
“It’s a team-sport type of thing. You have to be in shape,” said Silver.
Grubb said their crew members practice live pit stops and have hour and a half workouts every day. He said proper nutrition is also part of the regimen.
“They’re all athletes,” said Grubb.
The crew members who go on the road leave on Thursday for the racetrack for that weekend’s race.
Several pit crew or support staff members start out as racers before becoming crew members.
“I quit driving when I was 21 probably for the same reason most guys do: financial issues,” Bishop said. “It takes a lot of money at any level. Most guys will do it if they’re competitive but if they’re not competitive, they want to do something they can be competitive at. For me, it was working on a race car. I knew I could do it at a top level.”
“I’m not very good behind the wheel,” admitted Smith.
“I always wanted to race but I never did. Raising a family was my priority,” said Williams whose has two sons including one, Chris, who is also on the crew with him as the gas man.
They make decent money but spend a lot of time on the road and at the shop.
“If you broke it down, we don’t make that much money per hour because we’re gone so much. But they try to take care of you and make it worth your while to do it,” said Bishop.
“You have to enjoy it or there’s no way you’d do it. It’s too many hours and too much of a sacrifice,” said Silver.