Two hundred miles-per-hour is probably faster than you’ll ever travel in a car, but for NASCAR teams, 200 mph is a fact of life for hours on end. At such speeds, the wind resistance alone is enough to damage your typical family sedan. So when fenders start rubbing, and things get dicey, the job of keeping these highly specialized machines in the race falls to the pit crew.
Unlike the small armies mobilized in Formula One racing, NASCAR limits the members of a pit crew to six. Armed with a set of specialized tools and the know-how to keep a racecar on the blacktop by the skin of their teeth, the fixes these teams make in a matter of seconds are as remarkable as the cars they repair.
A Pit Stop Deconstructed
When a stock car wheels into the pits for fresh fuel, tires or repairs, the person behind the wheel is expecting their pit crew to finish the job in 12 seconds or less. While many routine stops involve the addition of fuel or swapping out a set of tires, even the slightest break in concentration can lead to the loss of valuable seconds.
The team of six trains like professional athletes to meet the demands of intense NASCAR pit duties, so when race day comes, everything is second nature. No amount of training, however, can prepare them for what might go wrong on the track. When a car arrives with race damage, they have five minutes to complete repairs or face disqualification.
With so little time to assess the damage to a car during the pit stop, teams need to form an idea of what is wrong before their driver brings the car in. This is done by observing the car’s behavior on the track.
A car that wants to track right or left, for example, could be suffering from bent suspension components. Damage to a car’s bodywork can lead to unpredictable cornering behavior, as the vehicle’s aerodynamics can’t work properly when bent out of shape. Smoke from beneath the hood could indicate a head gasket failure.
The driver will relay information about how the car is handling to the pit crew using a radio. This will allow them to have the necessary parts and tools for repairs on hand when the car arrives in the pits.
Pit crews will always attempt to restore the car as close as possible to its race-ready state. Sometimes, this can be as simple as laying down some duct tape or “200mph tape” as it is sometimes called.
Other instances require entire body panels to be repaired, engine components to be swapped out or adjustments to the car’s onboard computer system to be made.
The rule change comes as an appeal to higher safety for drivers. The repaired cars are frequently not up to safety standards designed for cars freshly prepared to race, and having these damaged vehicles on the track can be a risk to other drivers. Making hurried repairs in a garage also puts pit crews at risk, with sharp tools and slippery fluids moving quickly in a closed space. Since repaired cars are almost never competitive, the NASCAR Damaged Vehicle Policy has been updated to take them out of the competition for everyone’s benefit.
You might not have the chance to see that huge come-from-behind victory anymore, but when there are lives at stake, it makes sense to cut the maimed cars from the flock and leave the competition to those with intact vehicles.