Author’s Note: The No. 28 U.S. Border Patrol Nationwide Series team thanked me for my help on Saturday, but I want to thank the entire team again for an opportunity that I will never forget. Thank you all, for everything.
“I’ll do it”
Famous last words, and apparently they had just come from my lips. I was with the No. 28 U.S. Border Patrol team and driver Kenny Wallace a few minutes before the start of the Camping World RV Sales 200 on Saturday when I said those words, and I’d uttered them in response to the team’s realization that they were short a pit-crew member – specifically they needed someone to hold the pit sign that tells the driver where to stop. So, before my brain could actually process what it was doing, my mouth said, “I’ll do it.”
Let me preface this by saying I never had more than the occasional idle thought of actually working on a NASCAR team. But there I was, standing in the pit, and I’d volunteered to do just that. The team satisfied themselves that I could actually lift the unwieldy sign pole, and the job was mine. I was outfitted with a radio and headset and instructed to see George for directions. George is the team’s jackman, and he instructed me on what to do and where to do it. The cars rolled off pit road, and I handed off the sign to another crew member to carry over the wall to show our pit location. After that, it would be my job to use that sign to direct Kenny to the correct pit and stop him in the correct spot. Shouldn’t be too hard – not much to screw up, right?
Yeah, right. I thought of them all – I could drop the sign in front of the car where Kenny would run over it, I could miss the mark where the car needed to stop, I could take out an over-the-wall crew member with it-during the interminable wait for the first round of pit stops.
I’ve known Kenny for a few years now. I write a lot of the content on his website and work with him on his driver diary here at Frontstretch. I talk to him at least once a week. All of which involves only my ears and my computer keyboard, and all of which meant that if any of the horrifying scenarios I was picturing actually happened, I would never, ever live it down. Above all, I was terrified of letting Kenny down.
I also discovered that anything on a pit crew is hard work. Not that I didn’t know that before, but I really knew it now. The sign pole is heavy and unwieldy. In order to hold it far enough onto pit road to hit the correct mark, you have to hold the far end of the pole. The sign is made of sheetmetal (I’ve seen some made of plastic as well; ours was metal) and acts as a counterweight. It takes a lot more strength than I would have guessed to move it up and down to direct the car in and then to lift straight up out of the way.
My knees shook from the drop of the green flag until the first caution of the race. Thank goodness for that caution; the mere thought of a green-flag pit stop was even more terrifying. Crew chief Rick Gay told Kenny to come in when pit road opened, and everyone sprang to get ready. That’s when it all seemed to fall into slow motion. I got the sign stuck out where it belonged and bounced it up and down over the tape mark where I needed to stop Kenny. Even at pit-road speed I was struck by just how fast that car comes at you while you’re standing still. I got the sign down in front of the nose of the car; Kenny pushed it a little as he stopped, and then I got it up out of the way as the crew worked their carefully choreographed magic. I didn’t drop it, and I didn’t hit anyone. I put it back where it belonged, and by the time I had the pole back on its stand, Kenny was gone and the stop was over.
And I got it.
I’d been in the pits before and watched pit stops many times, but somehow before, I never really saw. And what I saw was beautiful.
Before a stop, when everyone is waiting on the car to slide in, everything is all potential energy, bottled up, waiting. Then it’s a flurry of activity. I’ve heard that described as controlled chaos, but that doesn’t do what really happens justice. Chaos implies confusion, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s as carefully controlled as a ballet but at warp speed. Broken down into its most basic parts, it’s each man (or woman) doing a specific job. Each is part of a whole and the whole relies on each part.
After a stop, the pit is quiet, the potential energy having been converted to kinetic energy and spent. Movements go from warp speed to carefully deliberate as each person makes sure his equipment is put back in the right place and ready for the next time, when it all happens again in dizzying sound and color. Once everything is ready for the next go-round, some of the crew relaxes a little, getting a drink and sitting on a tire or watching the computer monitor on the pit box that lists Kenny’s track position as well as those of teammates Derrike Cope and Kertus Davis. I wasn’t quite that relaxed, but I tried to be, looking at the monitor and watching the cars on the frontstretch.
The second stop was easier. I was over that initial fear of the unknown and with that gone, I felt what a real crew member must feel – a rush of excitement and adrenaline the likes of which I’ve never known. Wow.
That caution carried a little drama. Kenny had been battling the No. 66 for a lap or so, but was ahead when the caution came out, and therefore the first car one lap down. We should have gotten the free pass. But NASCAR, in their infinite wisdom, gave it to the No. 66 car. Most of what was then said cannot be repeated on a family site, so suffice it to say nobody was happy with NASCAR’s decision and the offer was made to buy someone some glasses.
I actually looked forward to the third stop, which, if things went according to plan, would be our last of the day. The now familiar explosion of color and speed happened around me, and then it was over. George told me I did a good job. I thanked him wholeheartedly – I have never wanted to do something right so badly in my life. The rest of the race flew by, and we were done. I’d gone from sheer terror to a vague disappointment that it was over. The team thanked me, and I told them truthfully that I should be thanking them. And I discovered to my amazement that I want to do it again.
More than likely, I’ll never get that chance, but then, if you’d told me a week ago I’d be a member of a pit crew for a weekend, I’d have laughed. Then I said, “I’ll do it,” and my whole perspective on what a race really is changed. I finally get it. In a way that I never expected and didn’t even know was really there, I get it. And it’s something beautiful.