When called a Yankee – it’s usually by a dear Southern friend – a term of endearment. So when I headed up to Pennsylvania to observe the Pocono 200 I felt a little like a fish out of water. My ride came by the condo to pick me up, and begin the journey. Up drove Charlie Daniels in his limited edition Midnight Black 2009, Hemi-powered Dodge Challenger. This muscle car paid beautiful homage to those from the late 60′s. Not quite as powerful as my Prius, but, you get the idea.
Not every day you get chaffeured by a former Stock Car Champion. This was going to be a fun an interesting journey. Didn’t take long before we hit Shore Drive with the new (lowered) 35 mph. The Chevy was straining against the excessively low speeds. Up came the the satellite radio, and my immersion began. Classic Country and Outlaw Country filled the air. I heard more Elvis, Cash, Paycheck, Twitty, and even Minnie’s pearls of wisdom than in the last twenty years.
I learned the color of a John Deere tractor (a must – and, no, just green is wrong!), Spanish Moss, the difference between baby blue and Petty Blue, and many other necessary factoids for my survival. Know your math! Know 3 = Earnhardt, DALE. 14 = A. J Foyt. 43 = Richard Petty…. And, when talking about the Men in Black, down South we ain’t talking motion pictures, but Johnny Cash & Dale Earnhardt!
So when speeds were hit along the journey that might have helped us to a pole position, with the sunroof open, and Hank Williams, Jr. blaring, well, I guess I had arrived. Funny to become an honorary Southerner while heading back up North! Anyone from my NY childhood would have been hysterical if not incredulous.
Meeting the team was educational. Eddie D’Hondt, who heads his namesake team was spotting for his protoge driver Alli Owens; Jerry Pitts – crew chief. These guys had their gameface on all weekend. Easy to know why. Any small error with the car can cost the race or a life. Every inch of a vehicle going onto the track is calculated for speed and efficiency.
Then you learn what a team sport racing is. The spotter calls the plays from the top of the track’s grandstand. This person is the eyes for the team. The crew chief is calling shots; calculating wear on tires and fuel efficiency. The pit crew is responsible for getting a car in and out, gassed, tires changed – all in seconds. Then, there is the driver! There must be smooth communication over the headsets between driver, spotter, and crew chief. It’s now you realize what a thinking man’s game racing at this level is!
So when I was invited into the team meeting, it was quite an honor. Somewhere near the end of the meeting the responsibilities were being called out. Gas Runner, Right Front Tire Setter – Ethan Marten. Silence. Heads turning. Jerry made eye contact; “You all right with that?” I didn’t hesitate, quickly realizing the joke and the hazing. I didn’t do standup for ten years only to be heckled, and have slow reflexes. I shot back; “nobody runs gas faster or more efficiently, and as for tire setting, this ain’t my first time to the rodeo….” Jerry seemed pleased, “Good.”
The benediction ensued, and I started to realize from the startled and pale looks on my hosts faces that this was not a joke. When they came charging up to me after the meeting barking instructions I knew they were not this good a bunch of actors! The race, so to speak, was on.
I ended up on line with an oversized red rider wagon with more oversized gas tanks. Though I had two escorts to make sure I didn’t screw this job up, at the crucial moments, I was alone and performed the job admirably (that’s what I was told, anyway!). “Car 19, two empties and a partial!” As I dropped off my charges for fill up at the Sunoco up drove beside me both Mark Martin and then Kurt Busch in his Blue Deuce (if the sponsor cares to lay some money on the Daniels – I’ll be happy to plug here Even I was impressed. The NASCAR practice for the following day’s race was taking place before the ARCA event.
Once filled, I hurried off to Pit 39. Once there I dropped off the tanks, and moved to where the rubber meets the track. Multiple sets of tires were laid out on the ground on one side of “the wall.” The Wall is a two foot barrier between the crew and where the crew jumps to work on the car. I would be remaining on the safer side of the wall! People with flame retardant suits would be jumping it later. Each tire was being carefully marked so it would end up in the correct position – RF and RB were on one side of the crew chief’s stand, and the left tires were on the other side. In a sport where each tenth of a second during a pit stop could cost the team position or even the race – no one wants to make any mistakes.
People are measuring the tires to the smallest degree for wear, and air pressure. The balancing act is non-stop. When people use the expression “burn rubber,” man, this is where it comes from. The smell of burning rubber, and gas was the incense of the track. The constant pounding, undulating vibrations of motors propelling cars at 200 mph were the OMS chanted by cars whirring past.
Burning Rubber? Tire setter? A thought crossed my mind – GLOVES! Oh yeh, the tires replaced come back steaming hot at 200 degrees. Always a good idea, and since they can weigh 75 pounds, it’s also a good idea to make sure you cover your arms when lugging a tire back over the wall.
The careful direction coming over the headsets comes from Eddie, he instructs Alli, reminds her of what was learned in practice, and coaches concentration. He will turn the direction over to Jerry before the first pit stop. They make their first calculations, and we should be prepared at any moment in case of emergency, but the first expected pit stop is calculated for a certain lap. The adrenalin is kicking in. Everyone is hyper alert as the cars start circling the track behind the pace car. Here comes a flag – one lap to go. some cars are still zig zagging to get their tires hot enough to stick to the track. The pace car pulls into the pits, and the flag comes flying down, and the cars come flying by!
I have my first tire in position, as instructed. Depending upon where Alley stops – I’ll reposition for the right angle so the tire man can grab it and have it on less than 3 seconds! Everyone immitates the sound of the lug nuts being put on “Vrr-Vrr, Vrr-Vrr-Vrr!” Here’s a little trick, the lug nuts are glued on already so they can just be quickly tightened. However, they can pop of the tire easily. I don’t want to be the one to have to hand over a tire, AND, a lug nut. That would create this sound, “Vrr-Vrr, Vrr-Vrr…..Vrr!” Oh no. That lost half-second will not come at my hands. This tire becomes “my tire.” No one comes near it. One of the crew begins to sit on my tire – a hazing of sorts. Uh-uh! Not having any of it. Beat it! My tire. Begrudging respect, and a smile.
No sound enters my head except the sound of the voice coming from the headset. “Here comes the lap,” the smooth voice over the headset cautions. The crew is to be ready and in position. For me, that’s do not have your feet anywhere near one of the hoses that will be dragged over the wall – unless I want to be dragged over with it. Someone on the wall that shouldn’t be is a penalty. Penalties cost laps. Laps cost races. Not only have people been dragged over having been tangled in hoses, (an embarrassment in and of itself) they have been killed on the other side of the wall. It is not a safe place even for professionals. This is serious business. An identifying flag drapes over Pit 39 so Ally know where to land, and she appears. People are jumping and body parts are moving at such a speed that time almost stands still. The car is jacked, and without thinking the tire almost turns itself to the correct position, is grabbed, “Vrr-Vrr, Vrr-Vrr-Vrr!” Within 20 seconds the car vanishes – is back on the track. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes….I am now aware beyond the pit. The crowd’s cheers, the motors, and clangs from all around return.
Alli hits the pits several more times, and 200 miles goes by faster than one could imagine. Though running as high as eighth position, a penalty for leaving the pit too fast costs a crucial lap. Still, she ends up in 23rd, ahead of 20 other drivers, and brings the car back in one piece. This has been a thrilling ride for all of us.
I receive a “good job.” Praise from Caesar!