The Frontstretch: The Thunder Gun: NASCAR's Glue That Binds A Family Together by Mike Neff -- Wednesday August 1, 2012

Go to site navigation Go to article

The Thunder Gun: NASCAR's Glue That Binds A Family Together

NASCAR Weekly Q & A · Mike Neff · Wednesday August 1, 2012

 

James Hurd puts his hands on almost every impact gun used on pit road during NASCAR National Touring races. Whether it’s Cup, Nationwide or Truck, almost every tire changer on pit lane uses an Ingersoll-Rand Thunder Gun. The familiar high-pitched whine that fans hear during pit stops, while the lug nuts are flying off and being driven on the five studs on each corner of the car comes from the yellow and black impact gun that has been produced by IR since the ’60s. Hurd travels the circuit and tunes up the Thunder Guns for everyone, assuring their effectiveness on race day. While it varies from every week to three or four times a season, each and every time that a tire changer wants to have his gun looked over or rebuilt Hurd brings it to the IR hauler and he disassembles, inspects and tunes up each gun.

In the dog-eat-dog world of NASCAR pit crews, all it takes is one lugnut falling off or not being placed correctly to get a tire changer fired. With that type of perfection expected, the air guns need to live up to that quality – something James Hurd has been specializing in for nearly 30 years.

The story of this air gun started many years ago, when Hurd’s grandfather came to watch the races on the beach in his VW Micro Bus that he drove to gravel pits in Georgia to sell tools to laborers in the quarries. It just so happened that drivers didn’t have tools with them to fix their cars when they broke down, so Hurd’s business enjoyed an unintentional expansion at the track. Having the supply while the drivers had a demand, Hurd’s grandfather was allowed the chance to make some money while he was on vacation. In the end, Hurd’s father developed the precursor to the modern tool truck that visits race shops, body shops and tracks throughout the country. How successful was it? Bill France invited Hurd to Daytona when it opened in 1959 and had him attend the race for years to provide his competitors with the convenience Hurd provided. Eventually, he became one of the first distributors ever for IR.

The current Hurd was glad to tell Frontstretch about his family’s history in NASCAR and tool distribution while also regaling us with his vast knowledge of the Thunder Gun. While the family history was the last thing he shared with us, we’ll post it first because it ties everything together nicely.

In Jim Hurd’s own words: The history of how we got into this thing. I’ll tell you really quick. My grandfather, back in the 50s, sold a lot of construction equipment. He sold a lot of tools like jackhammers and whatever to rock quarries in Atlanta. He did pretty good at it. He’d drive in the rock quarry every week and he had a little micro bus with tools in it and stuff. He said you stay in business like that, working with rock quarries because they always blow stuff up and bury stuff. It was unbelievable. Anyway, he had a micro bus, a little Volkswagen bus. They always went to the races at Daytona, on the beach, back in the ’50s. My grandfather, my grandmother, my dad, my uncle, my aunt and whoever. The only vehicle they had was the Volkswagen, my grandmother couldn’t drive, didn’t know how to drive or whatever. They’d load the kids up and go watch ‘em race on the beach. In the mid-50s they were down there and, back in the day when they raced cars, they’d load up the wife and kids up, wherever they were from, go down there, throw out the kids and the wife, unload the luggage, tape up the doors and the headlights, and go race on the beach. They tore up stuff and they didn’t have any tools to work on the cars with. Just so happens, my grandfather was there with a van slap full of tools. He said the one year he went down there and sold everything he had. He paid for the trip down there by selling everything. So after that, every year he’d load up and go back down there and sell out. He started getting notes from the drivers and then, Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR, came up to him in 1956 or ’57 and needed something. In 1958, he came up to my grandfather again and this time told him ‘Mr. Hurd, I’ve got this track being built in 1959, Daytona International Speedway. You’re providing a great service for us. We need you. These drivers… they didn’t have teams back then, he said, ‘these drivers need you. Is there any way you can come to the track and we’ll set you up in the garage?’ So in 1959, he parked his van down there and we’ve been there ever since.

Hurd took Frontstretch into the lounge in the IR hauler and lets us check out the walls that are covered with pictures of his grandfather and the roots of IR in racing. On the wall in the stairwell to the lounge is a picture of his father standing next to his van in 1966. Under the fan, mounted to the frame, was a large nitrogen bottle. There is no question OSHA was not nearly as picky in the mid-‘60s as they are now, as he drove the van from Atlanta to Daytona with that tank under the vehicle. Hurd continued his story: Can you imagine he drove down the highway with that under the van? Oh my God. Anyway, here is him. Proto on the side from back when IR owned them. Official Ingersoll-Rand logo. He was not an IR employee, he was what they would call a distributor in today’s hierarchy. You can see in the back that it is full of tools. What he ended up doing, I don’t know for sure, but he was one of the first distributors of Ingersoll-Rand tools in the Southeast. I know he was the only one in Georgia when he first started out. The micro bus was the first version of the MAC Tools or Snap-On tools truck you see now only 30 years before they were even thought of.

So, when he was in Daytona or a couple of races afterwards, they started asking him to come to more of the races. In 1961, people were buying impacts from him and the Wood Brothers came to him and asked if he had anything a little bit faster. So he sold them a new Thunder Gun, although at the time it wasn’t called a Thunder Gun, it was a 405, which was the precursor to today’s gun. He wrote a letter back to my grandfather to tell him how much they liked it and they wanted like four more. The Woods were kicking everyone’s butt on pit road back then. They may not have had the fastest cars on the track, but they were winning races and the other teams were trying to figure out how the Woods were beating them. It was the impacts. So the other teams came to him and said: ‘Mr. Hurd, do you have any more of those impacts?’ He said sure and sold them the impacts. As the other teams started catching up, the Woods came and asked him if he had anything faster. My grandfather took one apart and checked it all out. Started machining some parts and trying out some different combinations and doing stuff until he ended up coming out with the Thunder Gun. The gun they use today is the same tool that he designed in the late ’60s. It is the same tool. I have an invoice to Petty Motorsports, from 1962, where my grandfather sold to the Pettys two 405 Thunder Guns. That is the oldest thing I can find where my father sold anything for racing. I wish I had the guns, but I’ve got an invoice with that on there. That is 50 years ago they bought a gun that is the same thing they’re using today. That is pretty cool.

So, as I was growing up I’d always go to the race, when I was out of school. Michigan, Pocono, always Daytona, always Atlanta. We were based out of Atlanta for a long time. I grew up in it and I liked it. My dad and uncle were in the car business, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with all of this traveling mess. I grew up in it and I kind of took it over from my grandfather. This is my 28th year full-time doing this racing thing. It is kind of one of those unsung, hidden hero kind of things sitting back here.

That is the story behind Hurd’s involvement in the sport. He also gave us some insight into the Thunder Guns themselves.

Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: How long has the Thunder Gun been around?

Jim Hurd: Thunder Gun has been around since the early ’60s.

Neff: Why do they call it the Thunder Gun? That just seems like a dumb name to me. You’d think it would be the screaming gun or the whining gun. I don’t think of it as Thunder.

Hurd: That is a good question. I’ll have to think about it. I’m trying to think of it but I don’t know.

Neff: How much does one of the Thunder Guns cost?

Hurd: Out of the box, they start out about $1,500 and go up from there.

Neff: I know it is a sporting thing, so everyone has their own preferences but how much faster can you really make the guns by tweaking them with all of the bells and whistles you can put on?

Hurd: These guns, the way they are now, IR manufactures them to our specs so they’re pretty much full-blown, straight from the factory now. There are some accessories that we add on to them. They don’t really make it faster, but they will lighten it up some more. The nose cone that comes on the gun is steel. We will put a carbon fiber nose cone or a titanium nose cone on the gun to lighten them up. It is just a preference for the guys. Some like the lightweight nature of the carbon fiber, because it gives them faster hand speed, while other guys like the steel which gives them momentum when hitting the lug nuts. Probably 90% of all of the Thunder Guns I sell, well I sell them all but, about 90% of them will have carbon fiber nose cones. That is like a $500 add-on to the gun.

Neff: How frequently do you rebuild them?

Hurd: It depends on the team. I tell them that a good maintenance schedule is 4-6 races, but some teams I do them every race. It is a preventative maintenance deal. I also do pit practice. They have separate tools they use for pit practice. Pretty much every team out here has their race day guns, for race day only, with practice guns that they pit practice with. So, during the year, these guys practice 2 or 3 days a week, so I’m constantly fixing those things during the week, back at the shop. The rest of these guns stay on the transporter so, when I get to the track, they’ll be trickling in for three or four hours before the race. Some of them are last-minute deals. They’ll hook up the gun, then remember, and they’ll come running down. I’m providing a service, that is all there is to it. Believe it or not, knock on wood, our stuff doesn’t break. It is probably unheard of but this is the same impact that we’ve basically been building for 50 years. We’ve got it down pretty good. There is stuff and tweaks that we can still do but right out of the box, these things are ready to go. It is really unfortunate because you really want stuff to wear out.

Neff: That was going to be my next question. How long will one of these guns last if you’re doing the proper preventative maintenance on them?

Hurd: I’ve got guns out there that are 10, 12, 14 years old. These teams aren’t going to buy all new guns every year. They want new stuff. I’ve got some teams that’ll buy two new guns every six months. They’ll take two of their race guns and put them in practice while the practice guns will move over and become their backup guns. After backup duty, they’ll be handed down to developmental guys that are coming up with the team. Just for them to start practicing with the teams. These guns don’t really wear out, it is where the human touches come into play. A guy changes a tire and sits the gun down on the ground and the casing gets scratched and even potentially cracked. And that is just from the guy putting it on the ground. There are other guys who don’t even lay the tool down. They’ll yank the tire out of the way with one arm while holding it with the other. (Hurd showed the Frontstretch a gun that is nearly a year old and the case is hardly marked.)

Neff: How long does it take you to rebuild a gun?

Hurd: It depends. It all depends on what is wrong with it. It can take 10 minutes to 45 minutes. It depends on what I have to do. Some guys will tell me to check it out and put some grip tape on it. I know that gun will be fine. There are three or four key points I examine whenever I take one apart and I can see if there is certain wear which tells me I need to go farther inside of it. Some of the guys will tell me that they were running the gun and it fluctuated on them at some point. If the gun is running and it fluctuates, that is not a good thing. They might have let off the trigger too soon. I know what to look at and I can tell if something is going to occur or not. Usually, the gun will give you a sense that something is going to happen before it has an issue. Some guys guns will slow down from them dropping it or slamming it real hard. They can tell, just from the sound of the gun even though they’re going so fast. It will still do the job but they have to slow down just a little. These guys are hitting lugs in eight-tenths of a second. I can’t even blink that fast. Some of these guys will have an issue where they say it was there gun even though it wasn’t. They’ll come over and say ‘hey, find something wrong with my gun’. The crew chief will come over and want to know if it is him or the gun.

Things can happen, like o-rings, the forward/reverse switch. Sometimes they’ll drop lug nuts and have to pick them up. The grit that is on the ground can get in around that switch which will flat spot the o-ring. If a guy has it in forward, and he’s hitting the lugs, the jackman is looking for the lug nuts to be hit. When the jackman sees the first lug being hit, he’s already dropping the jack, so the changer will hit the rest of the lugs, then pick up the one that dropped. Meanwhile the driver is trying to take off while the lug is being picked up, and the end result is that the driver has to come back in because the lug was missed. The little o-ring on the forward and back switch is only .19 and it can cost the team a bunch of money. I have to stay on top of those things because the guys rely on me.

Neff: How many moving parts are in one of these guns?

Hurd: A LOT!!

Neff: Really?

Hurd: I shouldn’t say a lot considering the size of it. I think there are probably 20 moving parts. If you count the casing, the cover over it and a few other pieces, everything else is moving. There are 5 pieces that don’t move. These guns spin somewhere around 12 -14 thousand RPM and have over 1,000 ft/lbs of torque. Now I’m not saying you get that immediately but these guys can hit five lugnuts in .8 or less per second and each nut will have anywhere from 90 to 140 ft/lbs of torque on them. That tells you just how fast that gun dispenses the torque. You hit a lug nut in .2 of a second and it is going to have 90 ft/lbs of torque on it. They don’t let off of the trigger either.

Some guy says that I work on the guns all of the time. I don’t really work on them. They just really want me to look at them and catch problems before they occur. I’m here as a service. They might not need anything but these guys jobs depend on these guns. If you screw up twice, you’re fired. These guys make a lot of money so, more than likely, the equipment is going to fail them before the person himself.

The business today you cannot afford any problems on pit road. The 50 years that we have in the business is testimony to it. The reputation we have with 50 years of doing this, we have a very good reputation and IR knows it, as you can see from this hauler. They’re getting more and more involved in motorsports, partly because every business they own is represented here. Club Car golf cars are everywhere. Thermal King is on all of these haulers. Schlage Locks are all over these haulers. Trane Air Conditioners are on the garages and the buildings. Everything they own is here, so it is good they’re utilizing motorsports to promote their brand.


Editor’s Note: To see more about Ingersoll-Rand and their involvement in racing, check out their racing page.

Connect with Mike!

Contact Mike Neff

NASCAR NEWS, RIGHT TO YOUR INBOXAND IT’S FREE.
The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

Today on the Frontstretch:
Swan Racing Announces Restructuring, No. 26 & No. 30 ‘Sold’ Off
Tech Talk with Tony Gibson: Taking Stock Of Danica Patrick In Year Two
Vexing Vito: Three Drivers In Need of a Role Reversal
Going By the Numbers: Top-10 NASCAR Variety Hard To Come By In…
Truckin’ Thursdays: Lessons Learned Just Two Races In
Fantasy Insider: Team Revelations For NASCAR’s Short Tracks

FREE NEWSLETTER! CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP

 

©2000 - 2008 Mike Neff and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Frank
08/01/2012 08:43 AM
permalink

Very interesting read. I’ve been a fan of stock car racing for over 40 years and cannot remember another story on the history of these guns. Nice.

irvan fan
08/01/2012 06:34 PM
permalink

Well done Mike, great read

Tyre Changer Machine
08/05/2012 09:50 AM
permalink

i will wait for yours new update.really enjoy to read this sites. and got lots of information.

 

Contact Mike Neff

Recent articles from Mike Neff:

Thinkin' Out Loud – The Off Week Season Review
Special Winter Sprint Car Series set for January debut at Cocopah Speedway
Beyond the Cockpit with Ben Rhodes
Kroger 250 postponed until Sunday afternoon
Denny Hamlin out of the car for the race at Auto Club Speedway

Want to find out more about Mike Neff? Maybe see all the articles he's written here at the Frontstetch? Check out his article archive and bio page then!