Tech Talk is going to be a little different this week. Frontstretch is sitting down with D.J. Copp, former tire changer for several race teams, television personality for ESPN and pit crew coach. Copp has changed tires for some of the biggest names in the sport. He was once the fastest changer on pit road and ran a pit stop school, so he speaks from years of experience.
As four-tire changes have increasingly become the key to gaining or losing track position in the sport, Copp gives us a detailed look at each pit position, highlighting the attributes sought most when looking for someone to fill each role. He also gives a little insight into how the jobs are performed and what a crew chief and pit crew coach really want out of their stops. Shaving two more seconds off of a pit stop might seem like a tall order, these days but ten years ago the stops were in the 14-to-15 second range. As Copp explains, the ten-second stop very well could happen sometime soon…
Mike Neff: First of all, looking at pit stops in general, is it better for guys to be really fast or is it better for the crew to be a cohesive unit that moves smoothly together?
D.J. Copp: It takes a little bit of both. But if you’re going to put an emphasis in one area over another, it is definitely the cohesiveness. With that, everyone understands every other member’s tendencies and ultimately, that allows the crew chief to know what he’s going to get every time the crew goes over the wall. You can rip off an 11.70-second pit stop, then knock out a 15-second one the next time and that will be very frustrating for the crew chief. They’d rather have a 12.50 or 13 all day long because that allows them to make their strategy calls knowing what the crew will do.
Neff: Let’s look at each position on the crew and talk about what it takes to make each position work best. First, we’ll talk about tire carriers. When they index the tire, is that something that they just get used to over time? Hitting the lugs and knowing how the studs will go through the wheel… or does the cone on the hub assist with it?
Copp: Each tire carrier has his own little tendencies that work for him. But if you watch a race, you’ll see a piece of tape on each tire that runs from the center of the wheel to the outside edge of the tire. On every wheel, there is only one lug nut hole that will line up exactly with a spoke on the wheel. That is the reference point that they use for that tape. They’ll either put the tape on that spoke or one back from that point, depending on how comfortable they feel. They’ll put their fingers across that spoke and use that as his guide to put the tire on the studs. They put the tape on the tire so that, if they drop it or it gets knocked out of their hands they know where to grab the tire without having to search for that lug hole. When the tire changer is hitting the lug nuts, the carrier can see where the lugs have stopped on the wheel and he can figure out the location of the one he’s aiming for. He’ll aim his left hand, which is on the tape, at that lug. The carrier doesn’t really look at the holes in the tire. They just aim with their hand to the lug that they’re trying to hit and everything else falls into place.
Neff: To be a good tire carrier, do you need to be more agile or strong?
Copp: You need to be stronger, much more than agile. You have an 85-pound tire and that is a lot of weight on your back. You need to be able to sit in a chair and hold that straight out in front of you. You have to control that 85 pounds — it can’t control you. You have a lot of occasions where you have less than an inch of clearance as you’re swinging that tire in past the left shoulder of the tire changer. You also have to make sure you put it in there quickly while the tire changer is pulling the old tire out. If he starts to let that tire control him, all of the small movements become bumps and the slightest bump means seconds on a pit stop. The strength is the big part of it but agility also does come into play, especially for front tire carriers. Most front carriers have to be able to bring two tires back to the wall, so they have to be able to do that under control.
Neff: Tire changers have a skill that is obviously perfected over time, although you can certainly learn it. But the guys who are really good usually have a natural ability. It would seem that you would want to put the faster tire changer in the rear, since he has to run and catch the car rather than waiting on it to come to a stop. Is that how pit coaches usually approach it?
Copp: From a coach perspective, they’ll agree with what you said. That is how they do it, but I’ve always looked at it differently. If you’re a front changer, you do have an advantage waiting on the car but now you have to set your gun down after the lugs are loose, pull the tire out, pick your gun back up… there are just more movements during the stop for the front changer. For the rear, you chase the car down, loosen the lugs and then lean back. The jack man pulls the tire out for you, the new tire goes on and then you lean back in and tighten the lugs. I changed front tires for 12 years and rear tires for four years after that, so I know both sides of it. Rear was easier for me once I got over the anxiety of chasing down the car. You’re like, “Oh my God, there goes the car, I’ve got to get there” but once I was over that, I thought rears were easier.
Neff: When it comes to changing the lugs, what little tricks are there that make it easier for a guy to be faster?
Copp: Distance traveled is time. We’ll reference the right front. You’re waiting for the car to come to you; it is only natural that you want to hit the 3 o’clock pattern. For me, I’d hit a reverse counter-clockwise pattern because that was the first lug nut I came to. It is only 4.5 inches to the 9 o’clock position but that still takes time to get there, tenths of a second. I would start at 3 o’clock so I was finishing at 6 o’clock. That means my gun is finishing at the bottom of the pattern, so it is closer to the ground than if I did a clockwise pattern and ended at the 12 o’clock location. I would sit the gun down, pull the tire, pick the gun up, switch it into on and start doing a clockwise pattern to tighten the lugs. I start where I ended, at the 6 o’clock because it is the shortest distance to get back to the lugs. I finish at my 3 o’clock position, which is closest to where I’m heading to get to the other side of the car.
Neff: In talking with an old tire changer, he said the key to being fast is to get low enough so that you can see all of the lug nuts. If you kneel too high, you have the bottom lug obstructed by the cone so you need to have your legs spread far enough to be able to see all five lugs. Is that crucial for speed in changing tires?
Copp: It definitely is. There is an interesting dynamic that comes with that. Tire changers are typically smaller in size because they can get low. The drawback to that is that their arms are shorter than taller guys. When they reach in to pull the tires out, there is a 10-inch tire width on the tire and another half-inch on either side of the tire with the sidewall flex on the tire. So you have to pull that out, so you have to make sure your knees are back far enough for the tire to clear the knees. The bigger part is the tire carrier has to put the new tire on. It is swinging in, not from a tread width standpoint but from a 9-3 o’clock position, at its largest diameter, so you have to clear a lot of room for him. It is a double-edged sword because the smaller guys have a better view of the lug nuts, but it restricts the room you have to play with for the rest of the pit stop for your tire carrier. For me, I’m 6’3” so I sat back farther to be able to see all of the lug nuts and my tire carriers loved me because I gave them more room to swing the tire in. There’s a balance, but it goes back to what we said before about the cohesive unit and working together and learning each others’ tendencies. Once you do that consistently, it doesn’t matter what the body build is as long as you have time to work together.
Neff: How about jack dudes? It seems like the jack man determines the overall speed of the stop because the front changer beats the jack man around the car. The rear changer usually gets there before the jack man starts raising the car. Is it important for the jack man to be faster or smoother with his actions?
Copp: The majority of pit road prefers they be smooth on the pump, so as the car rises, it is smooth and the changers can continue their actions while the car comes up. If he’s late getting to the side of the car and doesn’t get the car up quickly enough, then he’s going to have an effect on the time of the pit stop. It is a fine line. He has to be aggressive to get the car up in the air, but he can’t be overly aggressive lifting the car or the changers won’t be able to keep up with the lugs as they move up into the air. They are the ones who can determine the speed of the stop if everyone else does their job correctly. If the changers hit all 20 lugs and the carriers index properly, then it is going to come back on the jack man for the speed of the stop. If any other element messes up slightly, then the jack man is going to be waiting on them.
Neff: Finally, the gas guys. They are generally the biggest and strongest guys because, most of the time speed isn’t critical unless you’re doing a gas-and-go at the end of the race.
Copp: They’re becoming more and more crucial over the last few years. We’ve gone from having two gas men down to one, and then made the rule changes with the new fueling system and what goes on. The gas men have been an intricate part of the pit stop of late, along with the strategy of when to pit, when not to pit. Rear tire carriers have started coming into play by holding the first can while the gas man goes to get the second can, thus reducing the transition time between cans. At the end of the day, you never want to wait on gas so now that we’re limited to six guys over the wall, what do we do to keep the pit stop speeds coming down? Agility has become a big focal point for gas men because of that. Also, the ability to make adjustments here or there, pulling a tire on the right side if it is a short fuel run before heading back around and hitting the fuel hole to make sure the car is full before it leaves. Agility has become an emphasis with the gas men. It isn’t just put gas in the car and let it go. Even though we’ve lost the catch can man, you still have to get the car full and still have the same duties that you used to, along with some others so the gas men have to be more versatile than they were in the past.
Neff: How did you become a tire changer? Did you start out in racing or were you working in a garage?
Copp: I think I have an interesting story on that. I’ll try and condense it. For years, I watched racing on TV and I wanted to be the front tire changer because I thought it was the most dangerous spot. You could get run over and I thought I could be on TV. That’s where I came from before I got into racing. I learned you could make some money being a crew member in the Pro-Cup Series. A guy came and asked me if I wanted to be on a crew and I told him I was the best tire changer ever. I’d never picked up an impact gun like that in my life and after the race, he realized that and asked me what the deal was. I was homeless and told him that I lied to do it because I needed the money. I told him my whole story; he took me under his wing and from there, I was able to continue getting better and established my racing career. His name was Russ Galindo in the Hooters Pro-Cup series. He was out of New Jersey. He helped me out and from that point on, a tire changer was what I’d viewed myself as and I continued to get better and it stuck with me because I was halfway decent at doing it.
Neff: Where do most of the jack men come from?
Copp: Most of them are coming from college football. They’re bigger and they can change directions. Most of the drills that they’re doing are the same as they did when they played football. They need to be explosive because they’re bending down to pull a tire out, so they have to have the upper body strength. They have to be agile and on their toes and drive off of them as they explode around the car. A lot of the jack men are coming from college football.
Neff: And gas men are all old jack men who can’t get around the car as fast as they used to?
Copp: That’s how it used to be, but that is changing to more guys from a football standpoint as well. They need to move and change directions around a car if they have to pull a right front or left rear tire or make adjustments. In the past, jack men aged and weren’t able to do the jacking as quickly as they needed to. They’d transition to gas men but now, they’re getting fuel men from college football. It is becoming a younger crowd doing the fueling.
Neff: Finally, what is the fastest full fuel pit stop we’re ever going to see? Aren’t we ultimately going to be limited to how fast the fuel can flow out of the gas can?
Copp: Exactly right. NASCAR came up with the self-venting fuel system and that was supposed to slow the stops down. It is just like the cars themselves. We limit them, put restrictor plates on them and the teams figure out a way to get back up to that speed that caused NASCAR to put the plates on them to begin with. Pit stops are the same way. They did it with the fuel system. They lengthened the studs a few years ago. We were in the 12-second bracket and that moved it up to 13s. But by the end of the season, we were back down in the 12s. I don’t know how fast it will ever be. I think we’re close to maxing it out although… I think you can see a 10-second pit stop. From the abilities of the members going over the wall, their physical attributes increasing I think that is possible.
When you watch the race this weekend, take a little extra time to watch the pit stop and think of all of the components. It is a speedy ballet that allows the teams to get their car back on track as quickly as possible and, when it is done right, it is a thing of beauty.
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