In virtually the only day during the entire NASCAR season when the spotlight shines on pit crew members instead of drivers, these unsung heroes take center stage in the event during All-Star Week at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.
SPEED will again broadcast the Sprint Showdown and All-Star Race. Tune in at 7 p.m. ET on May 17 to watch rivals race for $1 million -- and the fireworks!
"We know the drivers are the stars and they're the ones that go to driver introductions and fly home on their jets Sunday evening," said Larry McReynolds, former crew chief and SPEED analyst. "But it's all because of the guys in the shop and in the trenches. It's that pit crew. I'll be on that crusade until God tells me differently. Our drivers are the stars and quarterbacks but without those linemen, they're not worth a flip."
With the agility, speed and accuracy necessary to win the coveted Pit Crew Challenge, teams train a little differently in the weeks leading up to the event.
"We work with the car and practice pushing it instead of doing cardio and running at the end of pit practice," said Trent Cherry, pit coach for Penske Racing, who trained last year's winner, the No. 12 team. "We get our legs underneath us and see what it feels like to push the car a long distance. But we don't really do a separate practice set just for the competition."
Since teams must push the car 40 yards after servicing it -- numerous times if they continue to win their heats -- physical conditioning takes on a more important role than during a typical race weekend.
"When we won last year, we competed in five different heats and it killed us," said Cherry, who also serves as the rear-tire carrier for the No. 12 team. "We've got pretty good athletes on our team and we were all hurting pretty badly. A lot of teams were dropping two and three guys toward the end that couldn't keep up with the car. We finished pushing the car 40 yards and [event coordinator] Jay Howard was yelling, 'Back them up, we're going again.' "
Even athletes at the pinnacle of fitness won't progress to the fifth and final round if they're plagued by penalties.
Athletes in action
Drivers aren't the only athletes whose at-track performances are under scrutiny each week. The over-the-wall gang can make or break a team's raceday.
"The strategy to win is to have no penalties," Cherry added. "When you look at the 2007 sheet, out of 24 teams I think seven of them had penalties in the first round. So, automatically by not having a penalty, you've got a 50-50 shot of making the first round. One penalty is five seconds and if you blow someone out, you really only beat them by about one second, so there's no way you can overcome a penalty. That's a huge part of it, but you also need an athletic and strong team to keep up with the car."
"The way to win is the same thing I told the No. 31 team in 1998 and every year we went to Rockingham for the event," said McReynolds, who served as the crew chief for the winning team in 1998 when the event was held at North Carolina Speedway. "You want to be mistake-free but don't get so caught up in being mistake-free that you're slow. Be solid and do what makes you good stop after stop and race after race."
In stark contrast to race situations, pit crews are instructed to sacrifice speed for accuracy, as any mistake, such as loose lug nuts, results in a five-second penalty.
"It's still about performing your task with perfection and accuracy but quickness," McReynolds added. "If you're quick, obviously accuracy might suffer. That level of accuracy would be just fine on race day but the rules are stiffer in this competition and loose lug nuts or spilled gas gets a big, fat penalty."
The Pit Crew Challenge recognizes not only the premier seven-man pit crew, it singles out the best in each individual position and awards that man $10,000 at the end of the evening.
"While it's about the group of guys, it's also about individuals and how they perform," McReynolds said. "But the end result is about how the team performs and that's the same thing they face on race day. If the front-tire changer is done with both front tires in 12.5 seconds and the rear tire changer is done in 14.5 seconds, they'll have a 14.5-second stop. This combines two things: the individual's performance and the team's performance."
One of the things that makes the competition unique is the team who leaves the arena with the paycheck often is not the same team contending for the race win that week.
"I love it when a team sneaks in," McReynolds said. "We [No. 31 team] snuck in back in 1998. We knew we could win but I don't think a lot of other people recognized it. It's the same with some of the teams that have won this competition. It hasn't been the normal ones you'd predict, such as the 24 or 17 teams. It's been the 12 team, the 1 team and the 9 team ... teams that weren't necessarily on the radar simply because they weren't a 24- or 48-caliber race team."
Recognition and trophy aside, pit crew members have the chance to showcase their skills one time a year for their home crowd and oftentimes their families.
"The neat thing about the competition being in Charlotte is looking through the stands and seeing the wives, kids, girlfriends and families," McReynolds said. "It's these guys' night to shine. It's so neat to see the drivers come out and support those guys.
"Shame on a driver if he doesn't come out and support his team. There's one part of me that says it should be mandatory for every driver with a team there to attend, but shame on them if it has to be mandatory. That's like saying it should be mandatory to wear a head-and-neck restraint device. It shouldn't have to be mandatory -- you should be smart enough to wear it anyway."
Winning the competition not only provides the best pit stall selection for the Sprint All-Star Race (7 p.m. ET Saturday on SPEED), it gives the teams a mental shot in the arm.
"When we won, it wasn't about walking into the garage the next morning and pounding on our chests," McReynolds said. "We didn't think we were bullet-proof the next day in the race. But it was the self-satisfaction and the recognition of being the best of the best on that given day. That's what those 24 teams are going for."