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It’s not often that we see them on camera; like a rare bird, they dash out of shot, intent on accomplishing the task at hand. But that doesn’t stop our curiosity; instead, we sit at home and wonder why they’re there. What do they do? Is it really important? The fact is, our heroes, the drivers of NASCAR, wouldn’t be able to go anywhere without them.
These people are the teams, crews and support staff for the Sprint Cup circuit.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to watch these unsung heroes on TV and in person. And even if they don’t get to live in the limelight like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, these participants are every bit as committed to this sport as the more recognizable names in NASCAR.
In Darlington, I got the rare opportunity to peek inside one of those pretty tractor trailers that fill every infield of every race and speak to their drivers. The trucks gathered at the Civic Center in Florence to line up for the NASCAR Car Hauler Parade. The drivers opened their rigs, let the kids turn the steering wheels and allowed everybody to look. Most of the trucks were filled with the tool boxes, extra noses, hoods and trunk lids for the teams. Otherwise, the interiors of these cargo carriers are nothing more than barren boxes with various places to tie things down – not very glamorous, but oh so vital.
Now, if you’ve attended a race during the past year and wondered why Ricky Bobby’s face from Talladega Nights was plastered on a hauler in the infield… that’s because he’s carrying tools. If we didn’t have tool boxes, there would be no repairs to your favorite car and Tony Stewart would lose unnecessary points. The truck drivers behind the wheels of these haulers even have cool names stenciled on their rigs – like The Ice Man. The amber colored skulls decking out his marker lights never hurt, either.
The locals turned out on that Wednesday night and cheered these trucks’ arrival to downtown Darlington. The airhorns sounded and lights flashed – but the real telltale sign that these guys are part and parcel of NASCAR? The huge smiles on every one of their faces. We all cheered for them, and then they honked louder… their dedication clearly matching the high pitch of the horn.
The next day, during practice, we sat just under the spotters’ stand. With so few spectators, many of the spotters didn’t stay up top – you know, where we never see them. They usually appear as nothing more than dots on the broadcasts, a long line of men and women sporting headsets and microphones. That afternoon, many of them sat down with the masses and willingly shook hands with passing fans. David Green spent several minutes giggling with his co-conspirator as my husband tried for a photo.
And if you ever get the chance to walk pit road before a race, you will also get to watch some other behind the scenes grunt work. Uniformed members of all the crews scuttle about, ferrying tires and attaching the latest decals to their war wagons. In the corner, you’ll see two or three guys sitting down with a box of lugnuts. Mechanically, they place the nut on the end of a threaded screw gun and chase the lugs through. One by one, an approved nut is dropped into the “good” box. Occasionally, a bad one is sorted into another. Later, a second poor sod will sit on a tire and meticulously glue each nut to a wheel, readying it for the 12-second pit stop they may or may not be a part of.
If you ask one of these guys for a picture, all will grin and welcome the interruption. They, too, have it in their blood. This is race day, and the countdown is on!
This past week, during the All-Star festivities in Charlotte, we all got to cheer for the pit crews in their very own day of glory. That’s outstanding; for when we watch the race every Sunday, too often we dismiss these athletes as nothing more than ants climbing over the wall. That’s why the Pit Crew Challenge is such a great event; it’s a chance to appreciate all the work they put in to be able to remove a tire in two seconds flat. The No. 83 Red Bull team put the rest of the Cup world on notice that they’re here for the party with their surprising victory at the end of that night.
A few days later, as crews walked up on stage for their intros – did you see all the smiles? Not only on the team members competing, but their families cheering for them in the stands; there wasn’t a frown to be found.
What does this all mean?
One of the most attractive qualities of our sport is that we can all relate to zipping down the highway, taking a corner a little too hard, and reveling in that combination of speed and freedom. This is not something that NASCAR has reserved for the chosen few; instead, this sport is meant for every person whose heart beats a little harder when that engine turns over. And the people who make this circuit their home for 10 months out of the year are the ones that live this ideal. When the new employee on the race team – who spends his day shuttling parts from the hauler to the garage bay and back – stops to share his enthusiasm for his job with a curious fan… that’s the type of interaction that turns to pure gold.
So, three cheers for our unseen heroes! We seldom hear of their work; but without these members of the NASCAR family, this incredibly cool sport of ours just wouldn’t get very far off the starting grid.