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07 Loose Nuts in Thunder Valley

There are 60 laps to go at NASCAR’s legendary Bristol Motor Speedway, and I’m perched along the pit wall with the crew of Red Bull’s No. 83 car. My ears hum, and my internal organs pulsate with the reverberations of racecars. In the track’s steep bowl of seating, 140,000 fans might possibly be cheering. I can’t tell. Trackside there is no noise but engine noise. The No. 83 car’s rear tire changer (nickname: Woody; real name: Dave Woodhead) ambles over and shouts something at me. Even with my noise-dampening headset off and Woody yelling directly into my ear, I have absolutely no idea what he’s saying. I think it’s something like, “Here’s a souvenir.” Then he hands me part of the racecar. Specifically, the back part. It’s a one-square-foot piece of the right rear tire well that, if the team had its druthers, would still be circling the racetrack attached to their car. This is not how things were supposed to go.

Pit crews endure what is perhaps the highest-pressure job in the world of sports. A team has approximately 13.5 seconds to gas their car and change four tires. Make just a little mistake—like losing your footing or failing to hit a lug nut with your air wrench—and you can cost your team a second. Which can cost your car two or three places in a race. Which can cost your team prize money and much-needed points in the season’s overall standings. Meanwhile, make a bigger mistake—like failing to fully tighten the lug nuts—and your driver can hit the wall at 200 mph. “The pressure on these guys is equivalent to the last play of an NFL game, only seven to 10 times each race,” says Red Bull’s pit crew coach, Lance Munksgard.

Rewind to five days before the Bristol race, and I’ve arrived at the pit crew’s practice facility, a converted industrial space a few blocks from the team’s main race shop outside Charlotte, North Carolina. Red Bull fields two cars in NASCAR’s top level Sprint Cup series: the No. 83, driven by Brian Vickers (who has, since the race, been side­lined due to blood clots in his lungs); and the No. 82, piloted by the awesomely named Scott Speed. Pit crews for both cars arrive every morning at 7 a.m. for group stretches. They joke and contort while nearby speakers blare Judas Priest or Iron Maiden or Mötley Crüe. Fittingly, the team trains to metal.

“These guys are kind of like the Bad News Bears,” Randy Pemberton says of the Red Bull staff. Pemberton is both an analyst on Showtime’s Inside NASCAR and brother to the No. 83 car’s crew chief, Ryan Pemberton. “They don’t want to work for the big teams,” he continues. “They want to say to the big teams, ‘We went out there and beat your ass.’¿”

No one would immediately guess this unassuming group of twenty-and thirtysomethings is the team that won honors as NASCAR’s top pit crew in 2008. Some of them look like they should still be in college, and many—because this is March and they are honoring “Mustache March”—sport laughably atrocious facial hair. These are perhaps the only mustaches in NASCAR grown ironically.

I’ve arrived on assignment to “join” No. 83’s pit crew. In reality that means I’ll hang out with the team for a few days and every now and again they’ll let me touch something I can’t ruin. Or that can’t ruin me.

“A few years ago during practice, our jack man happened to have his thumb in the wrong spot when he released the jack,” Red Buller Danny Kincaid enjoys telling me early on. “That’s 3,400 pounds of racecar coming down on his thumb, and it sheared off the tip. The guy ran around and did the other side before he realized his thumb wasn’t there anymore.” Over the following few days, three other team members make sure I’ve heard this story.

Theoretically, every crew member has both a first and a last name, but most are known simply by nickname: Pedro, Bitter, Porky, Woody, Mongo. “I don’t think half the people in the garage even know what my real name is,” says Pedro (unused name: Josh Houghton). Once the team finishes stretching, they roll a car into the parking lot to execute practice stops along a mock pit wall. For the next hour they rehearse the dance of a perfectly executed stop, which goes like this: The jack man, the front tire changer, and the front tire carrier dash around to the far side of the car before it even finishes skidding to a halt. A rear tire changer and carrier simultaneously loop in from behind. The changers drop to their knees and assault the lug nuts while the jack man hefts the car into the air. It takes each tire changer roughly 1.5 seconds to remove all five lug nuts affixing the wheel—that’s about .3 seconds per stab of their air wrenches. The carriers then thrust on a new tire before everyone sprints to the other side of the car to repeat the process. Meanwhile, the gas man hefts an 80-pound, gravity-drained gas can into the tank while the catch can man collects any overflow.

Simple. Or at least simple enough until the pressures of race day come into play. “I wore a heart monitor to see where my heart rate is at in practice and during a race,” Woodhead says. “At practice I was like 80 or 85. It got up to about 110 during the race.” For kicks the team hands me an air wrench and lets me try removing a tire. Half the times I stab at a lug nut, I miss my mark. Things go no better with the jack. Even when I jump in the air and land on its handle with my full weight, I can’t get the car to budge. Giggles are stifled. Though the motions associated with pitting a racecar are fairly simple, executing them quickly and consistently requires considerable dexterity. Which I evidently do not have.

As recently as five years ago, most pit crew members came to their positions via a job in the garage, and they practiced together only haphazardly. But a newer NASCAR trend has found teams actively recruiting athletes from other sports and then methodically rechanneling their natural physical abilities toward turbo-changing tires. For example, No. 83’s jack man, Shaun Peet, played minor league hockey in North Carolina until the day he set up a VIP tour of a NASCAR race shop as a treat for his visiting parents. “We went to a pit practice, which was going terribly, and the crew chief just goes, ‘Get that hockey player in here,’¿” Peet recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m just showing my parents around.’ But the crew chief was insistent. So they showed me how to jack, and I busted off a time comparable to what they were doing.” Next thing you know, Peet was offered a job on the team.

It’s a pretty sweet gig. At Red Bull about half the crew started as mechanics, while half are recruited athletes. Regardless of their background, everyone has a part-time job somewhere else within the organization but devotes 20 hours per week to team workouts. Meanwhile, the leaguewide competition for blazing pit stops has driven their salaries into the six figures. But despite the recent increased emphasis on pit crews, there are still amusing reminders of the group’s overall place in the NASCAR hierarchy. Like when they head out every day to lift weights. At the local YMCA. Yes, in a sport where teams will spend $30,000 each weekend on tires alone, the Red Bull crew grunts out reps at the Y, trying not to interrupt the workouts of house­wives and the local geriatrics. “It’s crazy,” admits Peet, who also oversees the team’s strength-and-conditioning training. “We’ve had moms try to set our guys up with their daughters while they’re working out.”

The job also comes with its share of occupational hazards. Like the time last year when rear tire carrier Dwayne Moore got plowed into by Tony Stewart. “I hit the bumper, then destroyed his hood,” Moore recalls. “Then I got back up and finished the stop.” Moore ended up in intensive care. But don’t worry, Tony Stewart was fine. “That’s the craziest thing about this sport,” Peet says. “Drivers get a one-lap penalty if they run over an air hose. But there’s no penalty for hitting a crew guy.”

Bristol, Tennessee sits 160 miles northwest of Charlotte, separated by two hours of Carolina freeway and an hour of fierce Appalachian Mountain switchbacks. The pit crews don’t arrive until race morning, and since Bristol isn’t far enough away to warrant chartering a plane, the team wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to carpool to the track in a van. “We like to say we take turns at the wheel, but usually someone gets screwed into driving,” reports Houghton. “Usually it’s whoever shows up at the van last.” By 7 a.m. the crew is at the track, setting up their pit stall.

Someone tosses me a fire suit, even though I’ll be allowed nowhere near any chores that could conceivably result in my catching on fire. Still, in the days since my first practice with the team, I’ve shaved seven days of stubble into a suitably unflattering mustache and even earned a nickname. It is simply New Guy. Before the race I meet up with No. 83’s driver, Vickers, who explains that today’s pit stops will be especially crucial because passing is particularly difficult at Bristol. “I can battle all day long for five spots on the track, but we can lose or gain them in two seconds in the pits,” he says. One of the shortest tracks in NASCAR, Bristol’s steeply banked oval runs only .533 miles, which compresses the 43 thrumming racecars into an incredibly tight space. At peak scream cars can tear through a lap in only 15 seconds. So once the race begins there is essentially no lull in the engine din, as the lead cars quickly catch the tail of the pack and transform the entire track into one unending roll of thunder. All communication is instantly reduced to lip reading and exaggerated pantomime. Like the rest of the team, I wear a noise-deadening headset tuned to the radio chatter between Vickers and the crew chief, Pemberton.

When Pemberton calls for the day’s first pit stop, his instructions come via the radio. The team hurries to take the wall. From his perch, Peet holds up his jack and jokingly mouths at me, “You want to do this?” Before I can even mime back an appropriate look of terror, he has already turned to concentrate on the track. Over the radio, Pemberton counts down the moments before the car squeals into the stall: “Five…four…three…two…” The crew is out before he even finishes counting. “When you first start doing pit stops, it’s the most exciting event in your life times 10,” Peet had told me earlier. “You’ve got the noise, you’ve got 43 cars coming down pit road, you’ve got sun shining off everything as you try to pick out your car. It’s an adrenaline rush you wouldn’t believe. I take a deep breath, close my eyes to run through the pit stop, then go.” The crew tears through the first stop in 13.1 seconds. “Good start,” the coach, Munksgard, mouths with a nod.

Now comes the tedium. Thirteen seconds of work are followed by 45 minutes of waiting. With no idea of when the next stop will come, guys can do little but sit and marinate in the lingering stench of exhaust and smoldering rubber. Then, on lap 341 of 500, driver Mark Martin gets pushed into the wall before slipping down the banking, collecting 13 cars into collisions. Vickers—who has spent much of the day in the top 10—doesn’t suffer a race-ending wreck, but can’t avoid the tangle. “We just got fucking drilled in the back—dammit!” he yells as the crew jerks to attention. “We’ve got a lot of damage. The bumper’s dragging.”

In an instant the team is no longer battling for a win—they’re fighting to salvage any finish that won’t pull them backward in the season’s overall standings. Soon the crew has lined the wall. Except instead of holding air wrenches, they clench orange sledgehammers. One of the tire changers is replaced by the team’s car chief, who clutches an electric saw. This is when it pays to have half your team with a background in garage work.

As Vickers sputters in, the team collapses on the car, some hammering out points of impact while others shear off the dragging bumper and the damaged section of the rear tire well (the one I’ll eventually be handed as a souvenir). “We spend weeks and weeks building these cars in the hopes of running up front,” says Houghton, who started out as a mechanic and still works in the shop. “So when you see a car come down pit road all torn up, you get upset. I took a hammer to the left side and just beat the shit out of it to get the anger out.” The car is back on the track in 28 seconds. Still, the crash has dropped the team back to 23rd place. Vickers attempts to pick his way back through the pack over the course of the next 150 laps. Eventually, he will cross the line in 15th place—a disappointment considering the team had been running in the top 10, but a victory considering they’d fought their way back from a wreck.

For their part, the crew barely even notices the finish. With 40 laps to go, they begin intently coiling hoses and packing up equipment. “We race harder to get out of there than we do during the race,” Munksgard admits. “That’s the way everybody in NASCAR does it.” The gear that took the crew all morning to unload is completely packed within 20 minutes of the checkered flag. I’m still gathering my stuff and taking a last look at the track as team members shout goodbyes. Then they sprint past me for the parking lot. Last guy to the van has to drive home.