Just across from pit road, in the stands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they’re virtually unknown… the Pit Crews. For about 10 seconds, we watch them on the jumbo screens around the track or on our mobile devices; and then, they are gone. Our focus now, back to the car and it’s driver, who we have been rooting for throughout the race. In this case, it is Matt Kenseth driving the Tide car #20. It is one of the most recognizable stock cars, due to its iconic paint scheme in NASCAR’s Cup Series, and just one of four in the Joe Gibbs Racing stables.
During this year’s Brickyard 400, I watched my first NASCAR race live from the pit box, as a guest of Tide Pods. Sitting behind crew chief Jason Ratcliff, and engineers Mikey and Levi, as well as the multiple video screens and monitors; I watched and listened to them give constant updates regarding the other race cars standings, current performance and weather conditions to their Kenseth, as well as other members of the team. Below us, on either side of the pit box, was the Pit Crew working like army ants in a small space filled with organized chaos.
Earlier that morning, before the start of the race, Senior Athletic Director for Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Lepp, and the team’s physical trainer Jenna gave me an insight into how the Pit Crew trains and why they started using athletes on the their team in the first place. About 12 or 13 years ago, the team started recruiting these young collegiate athletes, as well as former pro-athletes, into the Pit Crew. Before that, they were made up of mostly mechanics. As the stock cars became more aerodynamic, pit road was a place you could pass other cars; therefore, the pit stops needed to be faster. Back then, a stop would be 13-14 seconds long, now it’s in the upper 10’s.
“The difference between gaining a spot and losing a spot on a pit stop is a 10th of a second, 2/10 of a second,” Lepp told us during an intimate presentation. “A lot of the things NASCAR changes in the car changes the way it pits.”
These guys need to change with it. Adapting and staying competitive with the other teams is one of the reasons why athletes work so well in this sport. During the weeks between races, back at Joe Gibbs Racing Training Center, the team goes over what needs to be done to improve before the next Sunday’s race. Jenna, their physical trainer, has them working out three days a week, with two days of yoga, to stay in shape both in mind and body. She says she does as much pro active as reactive training to help keep them from getting hurt. For example, the gas man is holding an 85-pound can above him, using unnatural movement. So, she trains him on how not to get hurt doing his job. A tire changer can change all five lug nuts in less then a second. Missing just one can add 3/10ths of a second to the pit stop, which doesn’t seem like much to the average spectator, but it will slow down a car from getting back on the track and possibly losing a position. It’s a skill that takes a lot of repetition to master.
One of the team’s tire changers the previous week worked on his lug nut pattern by doing 200 hundred patterns, leaving that extremity pretty sore. In the old days, Lepp explains that you were told to just rub some dirt on it, but now, they look into the latest research for that recovery. Jenna specifically sets up recovery programs based on their positions. When a tire changer grabs a heavy tire, he often grabs the valve stem, which sometimes results in a pulley/ tendon injury. So, she has them pull actual rims with resistance for rehab. Being a member on a Pit Crew can be dangerous at times. Jenna informs me that “your guys can all be healthy and great and prepared, and then, they get hit by a car coming in.” That Saturday, during the Xfinity series race of NASCAR, Pit Crew member Jack Man (from another team) was hit by his own driver, sending him over the hood and landing close to the other cars coming in to pit. He ended up being okay, and that night, came to our dinner table and showed us his stitches and scrapes.
“You can lose a championship by losing one of these Pit Crew guys, they make that big a difference,” Lepp explains.
Around midday, I had a chance to speak with race team owner Joe Gibbs, as well as other team members of Tide car #20, who explained what it takes to get the race car onto the track. In Gibbs’ RV, he discussed the similarities in recruitment with his NASCAR racing team and that of his NFL days as coach of the Washington Redskins, who he lead to three Super Bowl Championships. There are contracts with bonuses for the team like any other professional athletic sport. He also talked about the sponsorship of his teams and how very unique and very different it is than other pro sport. He spoke on how companies are making huge investments into the sport with their sponsorship. Not just their money, but also with their reputations. It’s the sponsor we see speeding around that track for the entirety of the race. The sponsor is in the game, and in this one, Tide Pods was the identity for his number 20 car.
“The key big difference is over here, you have to have a great sponsor, they are part of the team,” says Gibbs.
As the start of the race approached, NASCAR official, Elton Sawyer, walked me through all the steps of the race inspection. He showed me what each station in the process was looking for and even explaining a little physics of the race car. Apparently, there is a great deal of science in race cars.
Minutes before the race starts, we are out on the track as each driver is announced and driven in the bed of a truck around the track, waving at the fans. The National Anthem is played and four Air Force jets fly by, as I stand there taking in on how big Indianapolis Motor Speedway is.
The Brickyard 400 was only underway for 12 laps, before it stopped due to an approaching storm. Cars began pulling in and being covered and the Pit Crews are stowing away all of their tools. We were being told to go inside a chalet that Tide Pods has for the 200 hundred employees it brought out to the race to watch and cheer for Matt Kenseth as he drives #20, the Tide Ride.
After a few hours, the storm passes, the track is dried, and the race gets back to business. For most of the race’s beginning, there is one leader, another car from Joe Gibbs Racing, and very little action on the track. But in the #20 pit, it’s busy. There are about 12 to 14 team members innomex suits, all with the same Tide Pods color scheme moving around, preparing for the next pit. Earlier, guys have glued lug nuts to the rims and moved the tires they will need closer to the wall. When it comes time, six men will be jumping over that wall in front of a race car coming in at around 50 mph. While they scurry with precision around the car: jacking it up, changing tires, refueling, or making minor repairs, there are more cars speeding behind them to their pits. I asked a few of the Pit Crew if they get nervous and was told “not really, that we’re more aware of their surroundings now.”
For the first few pit stops, I watched from atop of the pit box; but, then wanted to see it up close. I climbed down and as best as I could, stayed out of their way and continued to watch in awe at the speed at which they work. After a pit stop, the Pit Crew huddles around a couple of monitors to watch what they had just done to see if they need to improve anything. When they take the tires off, they melt and scrape them down; checking on how much of the tire is being used. The results are forwarded to the crew chief and Matt Kenseth.
While the races are going on, Chris Miko (one of the two drivers of the #20 big hauler) brings food that he cooked for the Pit Crew to eat. That morning, I witnessed him making breakfast for the team. It runs like a small military unit.The last 50 or so laps of the race turn out to be very eventful. I start to notice when a pit is coming, because the crew starts moving around more. One of them starts doing jumping jacks, others putting on their head socks and helmets, and the tire changers are taking out their air wrenches from the protective pouches. Before the race, they let me try my hand at changing lug nuts with the air wrench, I did it in about 3-4 seconds, leaving them laughing. The crew member having done it right before me in 0.2 seconds.
The first major accident left Matt Kenseth leading the race for 21 laps and you could feel the excitement in the pit. The crew was preparing for the next stop, knowing he was in the lead. They stood on the wall, giving hand signals to say how many tires they would be changing. Everything in the pit stop went great; however, out on the track, a multitude of crashes dropped Matt Kenseth back some positions. During one of the last pit stops, another car on pit road slowed him down getting back out on the track. In the end, Matt Kenseth made his way up to fifth before the race ended.
It was a good first NASCAR race for me and I was amazed at what goes on off the track, with these unknown athletes of NASCAR. “The only time you get to know a pit crew guy is when he messes up,” Lepp tells me. It didn’t seem to me that any of Pit Crew messed up in this race and I’m extremely grateful to them for showing me what it is they do.
“I asked one of our guys one time why did it take you three years to get good at this? You played in the NFL. He says ‘Well I didn’t worry about dying in the NFL’, ” Lepp said.
A big thank you to Tide Pods for bringing me out to meet the team and experience this fun sport. Matt Kenseth sure likes them. When meeting him earlier, he stated while smiling, “It’s been neat that Tide Pods has been with us the last couple of years, my clothes are always clean and I smell good!”