College basketball tournaments are in full swing. The same arena can hold several games in a day. A busy schedule and a final game commencing at 9 that evening follow an early tip-off around noon. That is one long day if someone played there the entire time. Fortunately, nobody does.
There is no reason for a hoop star to be anywhere near the hardwood floor at an early game when he has a late start time. They show up closer to their own tip-off and leave soon after the final buzzer. However the same time frame does not apply to over-the-wall NASCAR stars.
Unlike a basketball player, the pit crew members are awake very early, at the speedway long before a race starts and are there after the checkered flag. The work they do on pit road is even more impressive when their sleep schedule is compared to the far more rested stick-and-ball players.
A typical schedule for race-day-only crews starts with an alarm clock going off at 2 or 3 am Sunday morning. A drive to the airport is next for the chartered race day express service that takes care of the national touring NASCAR circuits. This is what it sounds like, an entire plane full of pit crew members.
The plane will touch down at a local airport close to the speedway where shuttle vans take teams to the racetrack. An early morning arrival gets guys to work on time and beats fan traffic. Crews enter the garage often before sunlight does.
Pit stalls are set up, lug nuts glued to wheels, and race day hubs are painted to outline the wheel studs for quick tire changes. The initial fuel dump cans are filled and all tool and equipment operations are checked.
The mechanics take care of car prep and gridding. Everyone meets at the team hauler for a pre-race meal and meeting. Efficient teams that have their work completed in a timely manner use this to catch their breath and put on a "game face."
When the green flag waves, some pit crews have already been awake 12 hours and have been working for six to eight. Fast, flawless stops are expected and can decide a race’s outcome. Critical thousandths of a second are counted against teams with men that have every right to be tired.
The long, hot, and humid summer afternoons spent in fire suits and helmets are not used as excuses for those digging for inner strength stop after stop.
No matter how the day went, packing up all the tools and equipment and loading the hauler still lies ahead. That is followed by a ride in post-race traffic to the airport. The flight home is usually quiet while exhausted crews sit for the first time in what seems like forever.
Sleepy, sweaty, and dirty athletes depart the plane in the Sunday night darkness and then face the long drive back home. Some have been awake for 20 hours or more. And this is a normal routine. A weekly challenge they must be prepared for and willing to accept.
Racecar drivers are the subjects of the “Are they athletes?” debate by the stick-and-ball sports media on a regular basis. I would combine the pit crew members into that group as well. And let’s see how skillful a basketball player is when faced with the sleepless and tiring route that tire changers, carriers, fuelers, and jack men must navigate on race day.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who co-hosts the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com.)
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