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How many people does it take to change a tire?
Well… It depends on who you ask.
Ask John Dodson, retired NASCAR pit crew member, and he’ll say 6, though he’d be okay with 5 (since the rules have changed as of 2018).
Ask Steve Nielsen, sporting manager for Williams Martini Racing, an F1 team, and he’ll likely say 20 plus the driver.
Ask AAA and they’ll tell you 1–though that single person won’t be able to compete for time.
While a pit stop might not regularly be compared to surgery or dancing, it’s both. It’s precise and intricate and practiced. It’s carefully choreographed.
Here’s a primer:
Formula One pit stops take between two and three seconds. The fastest one was 1.923 seconds at the 2013 Grand Prix. During a pit stop the crew changes all four tires but does not refuel. Each tire has only one wheel nut and there is no “regulation” airgun, meaning teams are always keeping up with technology to have the best one they can.
Typically, pit crews are made up of 21 people, if you include the driver. Four tire changers use the airguns to loosen and tighten the wheel nuts. Also at each tire are two tire carriers–one to take the old tire off and one to put the new tire on. Two stabilizers, one on each side of the car, hold the car steady. And two jackmen are at each end of the car–you guessed it–jacking up the car.
Two front wingmen hang out up front to adjust the car on either side. Then you have the person with the fire extinguisher, the emergency starter (just in case the car needs a restart), and the Lollipop man or ice cream man which has absolutely nothing to do with ice cream, unfortunately. He’s the one who flips the light from red to green to tell the driver he’s clear to pull out back onto the track.
It’s a big team and everyone has one specific job to do in a very limited amount of time.
NASCAR pit stops take significantly longer. By “significantly,” we’re talking about 12 to 16 seconds in total. This extended time is for a number of reasons: the first is that NASCAR requires tires to be fastened with five lugnuts and also requires the use of specific airguns, so as not to give any team an advantage. While Formula One cannot refuel during pit stops, NASCAR can.
NASCAR pit crews are made up of 5 people. It was 6, but in 2018 the rules changed to allow only 5 people over the wall.
There’s a jackman, two tire changers and a tire carrier. Because there is now one less person, each team will decide who does what job. There is also a person who refuels, though he cannot do anything else during the pitstop.
A sixth man is available to service the driver–which entails giving him water and ripping off a windshield screen layer.
Loyalists of each persuasion love to argue their pit stop is better executed. While one sport showcases technology, the other showcases human ability, and comparing them to each other isn’t a fair assessment. Though, many will even argue with that.
Nielsen told CNN: “Whenever we do a pit stop, we measure everything.” He mentions the time the gunman is on the trigger and the amount of time it takes to release the jack. These stops require attention to hundreds of details.
John laughs as he tells stories of his days in the NASCAR pit. In fact, his most embarrassing moment happened in front of 75,000 people at the Southern 500 in Darlington.
It was a simple mistake. His brother, the crew chief, had told them they would be changing the left-side tires only. The car came through and Dodson went around to the right side of the car. “I caught up pretty close but I got a lot of ribbing from my teammates,” he says, now able to laugh about it. He’s nostalgic about his days on the pit crew for driver Rusty Wallace.
He’s seen a lot happen in his years: He’s seen someone get picked up with the spoiler of a car, travel 10 feet and then get dropped off. He’s witnessed fights. He’s been the reason for fights. He’s lost some races and he’s won big.
“When you’re on a pit crew, it’s no different than being on pro basketball team. We’re flying through the air, landing on our knees. You have to be in shape. John says that, at points in his career, he had both a dietician and a personal trainer to help make the pit stops more efficient.
Nielsen says his team often runs the track after practice because they understand that physical fitness is a key to keeping their pit stop times down.
Whichever sport you side with–sub-2-second pit stop, or 12 seconds with a refuel–fans can agree to the careful precision and physical demand of the stop, and teams continue to try to improve on that efficiency. Have you ever wondered about how to become a race team mechanic? If so, fast pit stops are are an art and a science.
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