The Frontstretch: Dialing It In: What Losing The Catch Can Man Will Mean For Teams, NASCAR by Jay Pennell -- Thursday October 28, 2010

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At the beginning of the 2010 season, teams in the Truck Series began using six men over the wall on pit stops instead of the typical seven used in both the Nationwide and Cup Series. That downsizing came at the expense of the catch can man, as NASCAR implemented a new “dump can” in an effort to increase safety and cut costs.

Earlier this month, the sanctioning body confirmed those adjustments would take effect on the Nationwide and Cup side of things beginning in Daytona 2011. Sources inside the garage indicated some teams were informed of the decision as early as Dover four weeks ago.

Losing the catch can man will ultimately change how teams conduct their pit stops moving forward. The reason pit stops have become so much faster – from 16 seconds to sub-13 seconds – is because throughout the years, crews have been able to coordinate the movement of seven guys over the wall into a sport in and of itself.

NASCAR’s latest attempt to help teams cut costs will ultimately change the way teams work on pit road.

However, teams will now have to re-coordinate those stops with a reduction to six men this offseason: the two tire changers, jack man, gas man, and two tire carriers. While this process may take some time, most crew chiefs in the garage are confident the over the wall guys will have their timing down by the beginning of the season in Daytona.

Already, some crews are getting a head start. The Red Bull Racing team has experimented with practicing six guys over the wall, but one crew member explained they had stopped because they were unsure if NASCAR would be able to provide the teams with enough new dump cans for everyone by the beginning of next season.

Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief Darian Grubb expressed similar concerns, saying they had not received any of the new parts from NASCAR, but added they had not started practicing six man stops simply because their focus was solely on finishing the Chase strong.

Others inside the garage, however, indicated not only are there new cans out there, the cans currently being used by teams can be easily adapted.

New items are in the works to reconfigure the current car’s fueling system to that planned for the use of the E15 ethanol fuel blend that will be introduced in 2011. These changes will alter the gas lines, making it more tightly sealed in an effort to reduce the probability of water contaminating the fuel – something Sunoco indicated as a risk in their announcement two weeks ago in Charlotte.

“The tricky part of ethanol, any alcohol versus a hydro carbon is a couple of things: It really likes water, and it acts as a solvent. So when we mix it with hydrocarbon, we have to be a lot more careful about humidity, rainy days, any type of moisture,” Senior Vice President of Sunoco Bob Owens explained in Charlotte. “The dump cans you will see will be altered as well to eliminate the possibility of any moisture getting in.”

The changes to the dump cans will make them look more like the ones currently used in the Truck Series. From the on-site fuel pump to pit road, changes will be coming to ensure water does not enter the fuel at any point along the way.

One current catch can man explained the newly designed cans not only fuel the cars at a slower rate – up to a second slower – they will require more skill and precision when connecting the can with the car.

Despite the alterations to the dump cans, though, most in the garage do not feel the change to E15 racing fuel is the reason NASCAR is doing away with the catch can man. Instead, most point to efforts to cut costs, reduce the risk of injury, and others are simply baffled at the move.

One crew member questioned the last time a catch can man was struck by a car, while others indicated anytime there are less people over the wall it is a good thing. But one crew chief on the other side of this debate asked, “If it’s not broke, why fix it?”

What this move will do is make the job of being a gas man in the Cup Series a much more specialized position. Losing that second set of hands behind the car, the gas man will now be forced to handle both cans of Sunoco on his own, taking extra time to hand one can over the wall before inserting the second – something the catch can man used to assist with.

This new, “dump can” for NASCAR’s Sunoco gasoline will make the usage of a catch can man obsolete in 2011. (Photo Credit: David Griffin).

These changes will also mean the gas man will need more assistance from crew members behind the wall when transferring dump cans. Thanks to the catch can man holding the first can as it finished fueling, the gas man was able to retrieve the second can and insert it as the catch can man threw the first can over the wall. With that second set of hands now gone, the gas man will have to do the work currently being done by two men on his own, something that is bound to slow the stop down.

The timing of the rear tire changer will also be slowed as a result of this change, according to multiple pit crew members. Already slower coming around the car than the front tire changer, the rear tire changer will now have to move around the gas man fueling the car – something he did not have to deal with when the catch can man was able to assist in transferring dump cans.

Also, for most teams up and down pit road, the catch can man was the one to set the adjustment wrenches in the rear window. With his position being eliminated, the job of making adjustments will likely fall back on the tire carrier, a job they used to be responsible for back in the early 1990s. Some indicated they were unsure if NASCAR would allow a seventh man over the wall as an “adjustment man;” however, after speaking with a NASCAR official that appears an unlikely move.

Another thing this change will do is add speed and precision to the lone remaining gas man position. One crew member indicated the job will become highly specialized and may cause some of the bigger, slower gas men to be replaced by quicker crew members, much like the position of jack man has progressed.

As we’ve discussed, through juggling the responsibility of inserting the catch can, helping the gas man transferring dump cans and making adjustments, the catch can man was a key figure on pit stops. But despite the hurdles teams will have to overcome thanks to this change, it seems there are a few positives emerging.

First, the safety aspect is always a positive, for fans and crewmen alike.

We don’t like it when fans need to go see the nurse; luckily, it is a nurse from one of those nurse practitioner programs

Anytime fewer men go over the wall, that is one less man in danger of being struck by a car – difficult to argue even for those who question NASCAR’s reasoning on this point.

A larger, additional safety-conscious issue seems to be less fuel spillage during stops. Too often this year we have seen massive amounts of gas poured all over pit road, posing the danger of fire and getting fuel in the eyes of crew members. But with the altered dump can and the seals both on the can and in the car, it appears this risk will be greatly reduced. The lone drawback is the seal has also led to more dump cans being left attached to trucks this year as they left the stall, and some expect this problem to continue moving forward.

As far as the cost-cutting measures, it’s a double-edged sword, especially in the Cup Series. Whenever measures are taken in an effort to cut costs, teams simply find a way to spend the saved money in other areas of the organization. While eliminating the catch can man may save a team roughly $60,000 a year, that money will be funneled into testing, upgraded equipment or, as one source explained, extra tires.

Many in the garage have indicated the new E15 will get worse mileage than the current blend and with the new dump can flowing up to a full second slower, the indication is most cars will opt to short pit under green flag conditions to combat lost time in the pits.

The cost-cutting aspect may not play a major role on the Cup side of things, but for Nationwide Series teams, any place they can do just that is going to be beneficial. Already strapped for cash trying to compete with programs with Sprint Cup ties or Cup drivers, requiring one less man over the wall should save teams money.

And as for the crews themselves? Can they adjust? Well, from the days of Wendell Scott changing his own tires, to the innovations of the Wood Brothers, to Junior Johnson slinging the jack around the car, to Dale Earnhardt’s “Junkyard Dogs,” Ray Evernham’s “Rainbow Warriors” and today’s “Pit Bulls,” teams have always found ways to adapt to the conditions and gain spots on pit road.

This newest alteration to the complexion of the pit crew may throw a wrench in the mechanics of today’s stops, but like they always have in the past, people will be poised to move forward and find a way to tackle the rules change again.

Contact Jay Pennell

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Jacob
10/28/2010 08:38 AM
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Saving a penny in “this” area, will make the team owners spend a dollar in “that” area. Nothing short of a complete spec series with prices fixed by the sanctioning body (such as IndyCar will do in 2012) will actually bring costs down. For the record, I DO NOT advocate that.
I imagine that the first 2-3 years will see more dump cans being dragged onto the track, with races (and championships) lost due to the resultant penalties. After that you will see that the engineers have worked out the bugs in the system. Remember back to the 80s? Remember all those impact guns jammed with lug-nuts? I can’t remember the last jammed impact wrench I’ve heard about. Broken yes, jammed no.
I definitely support having 43 less men over the wall under caution. Safety first, competition second, the fans third, na$car’s profit margin twenty-fifth. At least that’s how the series should be run.