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Time Bandits

Pit Crews Such as Rainbow Warriors Can Be Difference Between Success, Failure

April 29, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The car has slowed from 188 mph to 55 in an instant, and then from 55 to whoa in a heartbeat, coming to rest in a parking space along a short wall.

Make that a box within the parking space.

Jeff Gordon has done his job.

Overhead, a camera has come on, chronicling every step of the pit stop, and somewhere, a stopwatch clicks.

Before the car has stopped, Barry Muse is running in front of it, jack in hand. A body-shop worker five days a week, his avocation puts him in the spotlight, before thousands of people at the track and a national television audience.

It also puts him in harm's way because other drivers have the same idea at the same time. Jack men have been killed in the pits when cars didn't stop in time.

Jeff Knight drives a truck for a grocery chain Monday through Friday, but now he's running behind Muse, hauling a 75-pound tire, and Shane Parsnow, an engineer, is lugging an impact wrench.

As soon as the car has stopped, Darren Jolly, a delivery driver all week, hauls out his own 75-pound tire, and Mike Trower, who works for the power company in Charlotte, N.C., has the wrench.

Muse slides the jack under the car and pumps twice. Parsnow and Trower hit their knees in front of the right tires, and by the time they have gotten there, Mike Belden, who drives the car's hauler cross-country and is the only full-time employee in the crew, has stepped over the wall, carrying an 80-pound, 11-gallon can of gas, which he has plugged into a fixture on the car that lets it drain into the tank.

Chris Anderson, a middle-school teacher, is standing behind the car with a can plugged into an overflow tube that vents the tank.

About two seconds have passed.

The wrench whirs, one, two, three, four, five times and a wheel falls off the car, replaced by another on which lug nuts are glued. Whir, whir, whir, whir, whir, five nuts back on the studs of the hub and the car slams back down when Muse twists the handle.

The five men run to the other side of the car, two more tires are handed over the wall and the process is repeated, with a second can of gas emptied into the tank.

Gordon is gone in a screeching burn of peeled rubber, back to 55 mph on pit lane as quickly as possible, back to 188 mph as soon as he can on the racetrack.

About 17 seconds have passed.

Seven men have left Charlotte early Sunday morning and come straight to the track. They will be back home in time to work their real jobs on Monday, and the time spent between their arrival and departure has been directed toward a goal of changing four tires, filling a 22-gallon tank and doing whatever chassis adjustment is necessary as quickly as possible.

Gassing the car takes 11-12 seconds. The tire change has occasionally been done in less than 16, and while all of this has been accomplished, a pole with a wire brush on it has scraped debris from the grill, Gordon has gotten a drink and Muse has also cleaned the windshield in his spare time.

These are specially qualified men, hired for strength, speed, flexibility and dexterity.

"You look for a guy who's committed, who wants to do it," says Ray Evernham, crew chief for Gordon's car. "And you want certain characteristics. You want your jack man, for example, to be fast enough to get around the car quickly. You want your tire changers to be smaller, littler guys with lower center of gravity to get on their knees."

They are in a race within the race, and the reward can be instantaneous.

"Sometimes a good pit stop is an easier way to pass cars than for me to spend 30 or 40 laps on a racetrack trying to pass a guy," Gordon says.

"A split second on a pit stop is usually a whole lot more than a split second on the racetrack because you can make up two or three spots with a second in the pits, but one second on the race track, you might be faster than a guy, but that doesn't mean you can pass him."

The consequences of a bad stop can drag out lap after lap, with Gordon struggling to make up spots on the track that were lost in the pits, while the crew goes over the instant replay of the stop on a television, looking for the flaw.

Or, the consequences can be just as instantaneous as the rewards.

"If we have a bad pit stop because it's our fault and we drop back a couple of positions and there's a wreck, our day is over," says Andy Papathanassiou, the pit crew's coach. "Any time you're running behind people, you're more likely to get into a wreck than if you're leading the race, running up front."

Papathanassiou's story is a mixture of stereotype and myth explosion. He came to racing like so many Southern kids, by hanging around the track and talking himself onto a crew. In this case, it was Derrike Cope's crew at Sears Point in Sonoma, Calif., while Papathanassiou was working with a computer company in San Francisco.

He came to racing as a New Jerseyite, with a bachelor's degree in economics and master's in organizational behavior, earned by playing guard for the Stanford football team in the mid- and late 1980s.

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