RACING

NASCAR Pit Stop Training Will Break You

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I stand more than 2 feet off the ground on a narrow white wall, wearing a black full-face helmet and knee pads thicker than pillows. To my right is Derrell Edwards, a former college basketball player who is six inches taller than me. To my left is Jake Holmes, who played college football and must be a lot more muscular.

Edwards has two hands on a big silver jack, while Holmes has a 48-pound wheel hooked under each arm. Former college baseball player Blake Houston and I are holding wheel guns that, when fired, will spin fast enough to hurt my hands. We’re all hinged at the hips, gazing over our right shoulder at a gurgling race car in the distance.

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Edwards waves to the driver. As the car accelerates towards us, he counts down: three, two, one…

We all jump.

For Edwards, Holmes, Houston and teammate Mike Hicks, it’s a normal workday. They pit Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 car against Joe Gibbs Racing in the top-level NASCAR Cup Series, changing four tires in about 10 seconds while tanker Justin White adds gas. Their performance can win or lose a race, and they train all week to perfect it.

Derrell Edwards, Mike Hicks, Jake Holmes and Blake Houston

Unlike IndyCar or Formula 1, where crews line up their boxes and wait for the car to stop, NASCAR crews start at the pit wall and dive into traffic. It’s a sport of agility, precision, speed and danger, and it’s not just about having the nerve to jump, it’s about knowing that if a car hits you, there’s good chance you’ll fall off the hood and keep going.

I fell in love with NASCAR pit stops in May 2012, when a friend from Joe Gibbs Racing let me watch Hamlin’s crew practice. At the time, I was a 16-year-old megafan, not a motorsports journalist, and Gibbs’ crews didn’t have a fancy practice pit with enough playback TVs to fill a sports bar. They just jumped off a wall into a private alley behind the store.

My eyes freaked out to follow the stops, from Hicks – who was a Gibbs tire changer for 15 years, and on the Hamlin crew for the most part – loosening five lug nuts in less than a second to his beating teammates a new set of wheels on the auto.

It mesmerized me: the speed, the choreography, the high-pitched whirring of mine guns as they hit each leg. Since then, I dream of doing it.

In May, I finally did.

The four Gibbs Cup crews have been training since 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays as well as two from 23XI Racing, a Gibbs-aligned team owned by Hamlin and Michael Jordan. Every day they cycle through warm-up, pit training, strength and conditioning, physical rehab, and movie review.

I had planned to spend two days observing the daily routine of Hicks, the person I had seen changing tires 10 years earlier. This meant that I became a temporary member of Hamlin’s team, trained with them and replaced Hicks in training.

The crew is elite. Hicks, now 36, is lean, fast as a machine and pure muscle. He does Crossfit in his garage after leaving pit training for the day, and he makes walking on his hands easier than walking on foot. Jake Holmes, who sprints around the car with a tire in each arm, is so strong that lifting weights can be hard on his joints. So he uses inflatable cuffs that restrict blood flow, allowing him to lift lighter weights but get the results of heavier weights. (They turned my arms purple, and I swapped 20-pound dumbbells for 5-pound dumbbells during bicep curls.)

Edwards, meanwhile, could probably flex my biceps.

Hicks’ job – and that of his teammates – was transformed with the introduction of the new 2022 “Next Gen” Cup car with wheels secured by a single lug nut instead of five smaller ones. Tire levers could loosen or tighten five lugs in about a second on the old car. Now it’s half.

With bigger pods comes a beefier pit gun. The old one weighed 7 pounds, spun at 10,000 rpm, and torqued each lug nut to about 60 lb-ft, while the new one weighed 11, spun at 15,000, and torqued to about 600 lb-ft. The new socket could swallow your fist, and it grips the heavy reusable lug between loosening an old wheel and tightening a new one.

NASCAR tire levers rely on feel to squeeze the lugs, making it easy to get it wrong. While five legs required more complex hand movements, they also provided leeway: if one wasn’t tight, there were four others to fall back on. With one pod, there’s only one chance to get it right.

Loose wheels have rolled countless cars in motion this year, while others remained stuck. Once, Erik Jones’ team had to cut a wheel with a saw.

We warmed up on a strip of green grass cutting into the store’s weight room. Then we performed drills and pit stops on the team’s practice car, watched replays from every corner of the pit and overhead, and analyzed race data.

One day, the Hamlin crew spent at least 30 minutes debating the pros and cons of an adjustment that could save four tenths of a second. To win, they must constantly evolve.

My training began with a lesson on choreography. The jackhandler and changers start on the pit wall, while the tire rack and the tanker start next to it. When their car is within a pit, they jump.

Edwards lifts the car, while Hicks and fellow changer Blake Houston loosen the wheels. Holmes drops one of the new wheels by the jack and runs the other backwards, then he and Edwards slam them together once the old ones are off. The changers tighten the new wheels, Edwards drops the jack and they start over on the other side.

The movements were complicated but precise, mesmerizing our photographer.

“Their feet, their hands, everything,” he said, clicking the photos. “They are exactly the same place every time. Each pit stop is identical.

I started the drills with a fixed wheel hub and a disconnected pit gun, sitting flat on my knees and ankles as Gibbs director of player advancement Chris Hall walked me through the changes. of tires.

First, I made sure the silver gun lever was in the “off” position to take stopped the paw. Then I punched him and pulled the 48-pound wheel out with my right hand while holding the 11-pound gun in my left, driving my hips deeper between my feet to get out of his way. As a new wheel came on, I slammed the gun “on” to tighten it.

“Want to try an actual pit gun?” Hall asked. “You are going to scream.”

“No, I won’t,” I replied.

I did it.

Pulling the trigger at 15,000 rpm feels like grabbing a miniature jet engine. Once I caught my breath, Hall made me do it again – this time, on a wheel. The gun then became a portable jackhammer, bruises darkening around my thumb and index finger as the week went on.

Many things can ruin a pitstop, including misaligning the tiny teeth of the gun with the lug or instinctively pulling on it while loosening the wheel. I’ve done this often.

“The gun will recoil when it’s done,” Hall said. “Whether you pull, you risk knocking down a bar that is spinning too fast to catch.

I made four live pit stops that week. As I stood on the wall for each, nightmarish scenarios filled my mind. I saw myself tripping over Holmes’ tire or my own ankle, knocking my teeth out first, or dropping my expensive gun and damaging it.

But once Edwards waved the driver over, I had to jump and run. If I didn’t, I would be affected.

Pit stops came naturally from there, probably because I had spent months studying. To run. Fall to your knees. Loosen the lug. Remove the wheel. Click the gun to “on”. To squeeze. Do it again on the other side.

My stops lasted about 20 seconds, which is twice as long as the pros.

Training with Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t just show me the complexity of pit road, left me with bruises on my arms and legs, or made it difficult for me to walk for the next three days. It taught me how accessible pit stops are.

I didn’t think I could pull off a save like Hicks, even in slow motion. It either. He told me to put down my gun and take the steering wheel off with both hands if necessary, because it’s better to waste time on purpose than by accident. But once the adrenaline kicked in, I used one hand easily.

The week also brought back something I hadn’t felt since high school: the camaraderie that only sports teams have, whether it’s strategizing about minor improvements or quietly laughing when, because we were talking, neither of us heard what exercise to do next. It taught me that the thing I had dreamed of doing for 10 years was as special as I thought.

I would say I wish I could go back and tell my 16 year old daughter that I finally learned to pit stop, but I don’t think she needs to hear it. She always knew she would.

Like any tire iron, all she needed was the courage to jump.

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