(This is the first in a series of four stories about how the pit stop has evolved in stock car racing over the past 60 years. Presented by TUMS, the number one antacid in America, award-winning motorsports writer Ben White chronicles the changes that have made a pit stop an art form and the people responsible for that transformation. The NASCAR Hall of Fame will host the “Evolution of the Pit Stop” press conference on Tuesday, August 24 at 2 p.m.).
On the Sunday afternoon of June 19, 1949, NASCAR’s first ever Strictly Stock race was held on a small, dirt track just off Wilkerson Boulevard in Charlotte, N.C. Since that fateful day, pit crews have serviced cars during races on a variety of track configurations throughout the nation. In more than six decades of racing, it has become a science and an art form.
Pit stops have become an important part of the sport, just as baseball games feature home runs and football has its 100-yard fields. Initially, however, pit stops weren't that important when stock car racing first came to prominence in America following World War II. At that time, moonshiners in the North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee mountains raced cars more for bragging rights than for money in hastily organized events on vacant cow pastures and open farmland.
Rules, if there were any, varied greatly from region to region and often were open for interpretation with many gray areas. Mechanics and those who owned the cars struggled to define them, often causing confusion and anger after races had been completed.
Race promoters would, at times, organize events and announced a purse to be paid, only to scurry off the premises with gate proceeds before the race was completed.
After seeing his fair share of dirty dealings and unfair actions on and off the track, race promoter and eventual NASCAR president Bill France, Sr., called a meeting of drivers, owners, promoters and mechanics in December 1947 and asked for their ideas to build stock car racing into a respected and legitimate professional sport. Once the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing – NASCAR – was incorporated the following February in Daytona Beach, Fla., a structured point system emerged, a uniform set of rules were established and drivers could depend on the purse being paid.
In NASCAR’s fledgling years, many races were 100 miles or less in length on dirt tracks carved by the Hudsons, Desotos, Fords and Mercurys that were driven on them. The so-called race cars of the 1950s came straight out of home garages, put into service after stops at local corner gas stations for fuel, water, tape over headlights, and a leather belt to keep the doors from flying open. The last touch was door and roof-top numbers applied via the use of white shoe polish.
Putting cars designed for highway use to the test through higher speeds and sharper turns meant service had to be ready at a moment’s notice. That resulted in friends and family often being called upon to help turn wrenches when engines broke, when tires went flat and radiators steamed hot.
Dubbed “pit crews” for the deep work pits used in old-fashioned garages, they quickly became an important part of the race-day dynamic. They discovered in NASCAR's early days that positions lost on the track could be gained back with fast stops on pit road.
“In the beginning, pit stops were rather chaotic,” says Buz McKim, historian for the newly opened NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. “It was pretty much done by neighbors of the driver or team owner looking for a way to get into the race for free. Pit stops weren't choreographed with any degree of real organization until the 1960s. Over time, crew members became quite a bit more specialized as far as their duties on race day, such as changing tires, carrying tires, filling cars with fuel and cleaning windshields. But in the beginning, there was very little polish during a pit stop in NASCAR.”
Crew chiefs or chief mechanics, as they were initially known, answered the mechanical needs on race day the best way they knew how by using merger tools that were very primitive by today’s pit crew standards.
Leonard Wood, chief mechanic for the famous Fords fielded by the Wood Brothers, was a huge part of the team’s 96-career victories dating back to 1953 when the organization was formed.
Over time, drivers and crews discovered quick work in the pits was vital for making up positions lost in the race. Along with his ability for building strong race-winning engines, Wood is considered someone who first recognized and developed fast stops on pit road. His ideas pioneered the astounding 12-second stop often seen today.
“Back in those days, we had a four-lug wrench for taking off lug nuts,” Wood says. “There was a lot of emphasis on making sure it was balanced so the lugs would spin on and off nicely. We continued working where you could do it with one hand. It would spin on real fast and off real fast. But if that wrench was wobbling or not balanced, it wouldn’t spin off very fast and you’d lose time. There was a lot of emphasis put into it, but without that, you just couldn’t get the job done. You could sense this was something the crew could gain time with, so we just kept working with it until we got the process as fast.
“From the four-prong lug nut wrenches, we went to power guns. Once we had changing tires worked out to where we thought we had it as fast as you could get it, then we’d ask ourselves, ‘What’s holding us up?’ Then we’d look at the jack and what could be done to speed the jack up in getting the car in the air. Then we’d have the jack worked out to our liking, so you’d say, ‘OK, what else is holding us up?’ Then it might be how fast the fuel goes in. So we streamline the fuel system. We would just work at what we thought was the weakest link and concentrate on that and improve that. But throughout that process, you want pit crew members who really had quick reflexes.
By the early 1960s the Wood Brothers were already enjoying stardom, having won many races including the 1963 Daytona 500 with Tiny Lund at the controls of the No. 21 Ford. They were already known as one of the fastest pit crews in NASCAR when Ford Motor Co. asked them to step out of their element and serve as Jimmy Clark's pit crew in the 1965 Indianapolis 500.
Both Clark and rear-engine Lotus designer Colin Chapman were delighted to have men from the Virginia mountains giving them lightning-fast pit stops that year. Thanks to their flawless pit work and common sense ingenuity, Clark started from the second position and breezed to victory, just under two minutes ahead of second-place Parnelli Jones.
“From say 1961 to 1963, we already had the pit stops worked out pretty well,” Wood says. “Pitting Jimmy Clark in the Indianapolis 500 was a much different situation for us, but we still took the same techniques. We got there and found we had an all British crew that we were working with. Being a foreign crew, we weren’t sure how that was going to work out because we weren’t sure they were going to accept us. But we walked in and they welcomed us with open arms. So that made all the difference. It wouldn’t have worked if they hadn’t wanted us to be there.”
The first pit stop of the day set the stage for Clark’s runaway victory.
“We just started working with the car and preparing for the stop. I remember we were going through inspection and this was the first year they had a gravity-feed fuel flow; it previously was under pressure. Ours (fuel tank) was different, but completely legal.
“The official said, ‘I’ll bet you $1,000 you can’t pour 20 gallons a minute out of that thing.' Of course, we didn’t bet with him. We did a dry run and put in 58 gallons in 15 seconds. So we knew each stop was going to be under 20 seconds. That kind of caught everybody off guard. It just got everyone to thinking. You go along doing the same thing over and over, but then you reach a point where you think of how time can be gained here or there.”
One of the greatest chief mechanics in NASCAR history is Dale Inman, the man who built and turned wrenches on the Plymouths, Dodges and Fords driven by seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty. Even though very modest about his accomplishments, Inman orchestrated 198 of Petty’s 200-career victories.
Like Wood, Inman was on the scene when tools used on pit road consisted of not much more than a lug wrench, a pit board, a few tires and a small box of tools.
“Lord have mercy, we might have had a floor jack, but may have even had a regular bumper jack that came with the car some of the time. I’m serious,” Inman says. “There would be times back then with some of the shorter races that we might only change one tire at a time and did it with a four-way lug wrench. I don’t remember the exact time we started using air wrenches on pit road, but that may have been in the late 1950s. It’s hard to describe what this sport has come from to what it is now.”
Today’s specialist-filled NASCAR garage features crewmen dressed in vibrant sponsor-colored uniforms. In the early days, there was very little specialization among crew members. Volunteers were a major part of Sprint Cup, then Grand National, pit crews during the first two decades of NASCAR’s existence.
“We had what we called pick-up pit crews way on up into the mid 1970s,” Inman says. “We used to share pit crews with (veteran crew chief) Harry Hyde’s team at some 100-mile races. We would pit together. If he had three or four people and we had three or four people, we would pit whichever car was out front of the other at the time first.
“It’s all come a long way, but the equipment is what has made the biggest difference. We started modifying our sockets, such as putting springs in them. It was the same thing with jacks. We never had one that worked with one pump, but we did try to make them lighter. At one time, we were changing four tires using two jacks. One would go up on the right side and someone whom didn’t go over the wall would start jacking the left side jack when the right one fell and the tire guys were coming around the car. Over time, NASCAR outlawed that and made us use only one jack.”
Through thousands of NASCAR events dating back to the sanctioning body's inaugural one, safety on pit road has evolved just as it has with all aspects of stock car racing. Many innovations have come throughout NASCAR’s storied history.
“Fireball Roberts got burned badly at Charlotte in 1964 and we still had gas tanks then,” Inman says. “That brought on the rubber bladders [fuel cells] inside the gas tank. For years, we used a regular gas can and a regular snout to put it into the car. They now use a dry break system (which lets the gas can spout fit snug into the car to prevent fires). Eventually, the man who catches access fuel out the vent opening will be eliminated. That’s a guy standing with his back to oncoming cars coming down pit road and the guy who is pitting right behind him.” I was there the day Don Miller [retired president of Penske Racing South] got hurt on pit road in 1974. And I don’t remember the exact year, but some people got hurt on pit road the same way at Raleigh [N.C.] Speedway when we were still fueling the cars from the center of the rear bumper. That was a long time ago.”
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