LONG POND, Pa. _ As NASCAR has progressed over the years, so too has the technology available to crews both on and off the track. Perhaps no one thing has changed more in recent years that the information at the hands crew chiefs and engineers on race day.
Pit boxes have evolved from simple carts that carried tools to the pit lane into high-tech command centers. Today’s crew chiefs have more information at their fingertips than ever before, but in the end it still comes down to common knowledge, quick decisions and ultimately the right calls throughout the race.
“I think the main thing that those pit boxes are used for are sponsors. It allows the guests to sit up on the pit box and be a part of the action up close and personal,” Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick said. “From an owner’s perspective, they’re expensive as hell. There is a lot of information, but in the end it’s still the same stuff sitting up on the pit box, they just don’t have to get off of the pit box to go look at their tire wear and stuff, they just hit a button and look at it on the screen. There’s a lot of information that’s used that they don’t have to get up and go look at.”
A few weeks back at the Pocono Raceway, Shell/Pennzoil and Richard Childress Racing granted All Left Turns access to this high-tech view during a race.
As someone who has watched races from the television, the grandstands, the pits, the media center and the press box, the actual pit box was a new adventure to me and something I looked forward to. After receiving my team radio and a few instructions, such as do not ask the crew chief to take your picture during the race – Really?! – I headed out to pit road for the race.
Walking around the pit box I took in all that was on this so-called "war wagon." Everything the team needed was there; tools for quick repairs, air hoses and compression tanks, video screens to review pit stops and even a wheel hub so tire changers could practice hitting all five lug nuts.
Talking with various No. 29 team crew members, this mobile command center takes roughly 45 minutes to set up prior to the race and only about 20 minutes to disassemble once the race is complete – it took the No. 29 guys a bit longer after this day’s race, but more on that later.
Walking up and down pit road on any given weekend in NASCAR, the majority of pit boxes are similar to the one used by the No. 29 RCR team. However, looking at those used by the start-and-park or smaller funded teams, the difference is drastic. These teams do not have the sponsor dollars that allow them the luxury of utilizing this high-tech tool.
Once I climbed the ladder to my seat, I couldn’t believe the amount of information at the hands of the crew chief and engineers that called the shots for Kevin Harvick. There were two flat-screen televisions broadcasting TNT’s coverage of the race, a third was tuned to the DirecTV channel exclusively covering Harvick all day and two showing live timing and scoring.
Crew chief Gil Martin was joined atop the box by two engineers, as well as Kevin’s wife DeLana (firesuit and all). One engineer was working on tire strategy and the other on fuel strategy and both were studying the radar screen that showed a major storm headed our way. Not just a supporter, DeLana was hard at work throughout the race, logging lap times and writing comments from team communication, as well as sending out updates on Twitter.
Before the field could take the green flag to start the race, the weather the engineers was following hit the track and hit it hard. Deciding to stay atop the pit box, we scrambled to unroll and zip up the sides of the pit box that would attempt to keep us dry. With torrential rain and heavy winds hitting us, the box was barely moved by the wind and hardly any rain found its way inside.
Once the race was underway, the view from the pit box was amazing. Pocono has one of the longest straightaways in all of NASCAR (3,740 feet) and to see the cars roar past was breathtaking.
From the pace laps on, team communication on the radio was a top priority. Due to the size of Pocono (2.5 miles), Martin and the engineers relied heavily on the information constantly being streamed on the screens above them. Each lap the timing and scoring would show the field’s lap times and distance to the leader. DeLana would log each of Kevin’s lap and that of the lead, while Gil Martin would occasionally relay the information along to his driver.
As the run went on, the communication between driver and crew chief and crew chief and engineers determined the type of adjustments the crew would make once Harvick made his way onto pit road. Keeping up with the changing track and weather conditions were key to making the right calls to get Harvick to the front.
Throughout the race, Harvick worked his way from the 22nd starting spot to eventually take the lead. Not the strongest car in the field – that honor belonged to Denny Hamlin on this day – Harvick still battled for a top-five spot.
With a strong car, Harvick continued his trek to the front, tagging the wall ever so slightly with the right rear of the car. Over the radio Harvick said, “I’m wearing that tail out today.” With a smile Martin told his driver, “You’re doing a great job, five to go.”
As the crew began breaking down the pit box during the closing laps, their driver was on a mission and closing on the back bumper of Joey Logano.
Coming to get the white flag, Harvick got to the inside of Logano as they headed into the third turn. The two made contact and Logano was sent spinning, bringing out the caution and setting up a green-white-checkered finish.
“I just got loose getting in. I went to let him get back in [line] and just got loose,” Harvick said.
Martin hit the radio telling Harvick the overhead replay showed he held his line, while Logano appeared to come down.
“I hate that happened, but he’s got to start giving people room when he’s racing,” Harvick said in response.
Through his experience Martin knew what was about to come and – off the radio – leaned over the edge of the pit box telling his crew to get by the car immediately after the race in case Logano was going to try something.
The race ended and Harvick finished fourth, but the excitement was far from over. As he parked his car on pit road, Logano drove to the side of the No. 29 and close to the crewmen that were helping their driver out. The 20-year-old emerged hot as hell; words were exchanged and shoving ensued.
Once the post-race drama was over, the team continued to break down the pit box and loaded the car into the hauler for the trip back to Welcome, N.C.
While upset with Logano’s actions following the race, Gil Martin was satisfied with the team’s efforts that weekend in Pocono. The changing weather conditions forced him – and his engineers – to keep up with the right adjustments all race long, and in the end it paid off with a top-5 finish.
While the technology at his hands helped greatly with many of those calls, in the end it all came down to the know-how and ingenuity that made him a crew chief in the first place.
“It just gives you more information, but everybody’s got the same information,” Martin said of the advanced technology on today’s pit boxes. “It’s a chess game every week. These guys are doing all they can do on the track and there is so much can be gained and lost on pit road that it’s just amazing because you’re dealing with such small amounts of time. You’re dealing with half-seconds, tenths of a second, that mean three or four positions on pit road that equate to football fields on the race track. There’s a lot that goes on in a short amount of time.”
Pit boxes have changed drastically since the early days of NASCAR, but one thing that has remained the same is the human factor that can win or lose a race. While they were not able to top Denny Hamlin that day, the right calls and hard driving by the guy behind the wheel kept them atop the point standings and in a good spot heading to next weekend’s race.
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