When the winner of the Daytona 500 pulls into Victory Lane on
Feb. 17, this much is certain: He'll thank more folks than Julia
Roberts at the Oscars. Somewhere in that appreciative litany
will be mention of his race team, but those kind words will be
easy to miss, sandwiched as they likely will be between the
paeans to the maker of his oil filters and the designer of his
sunglasses. That's too bad, because while the driver gets the
spotlight, the faceless guys whooping it up behind him are just
as responsible for his presence in the winner's circle. "Drivers
get so much of the attention," says Jeff Gordon, who received
his share last year, when he won his fourth Winston Cup
championship, "but the equipment your team gives you and what
your team does with it is everything."
Team is not the first word that comes to mind when talking about
NASCAR, but try telling that to the seven guys who, six
afternoons a week, spend an hour running around the back lot of
Hendrick Motorsports in Harrisburg, N.C., changing tires and
refueling cars. The seven make up Gordon's pit crew, and their
daily practices are only one aspect of their training. There are
also weightlifting sessions plus videotape study--on top of a full
day's work in the shop. "We've always given a lot of attention to
the pit crew," says Gordon's car chief, Brian Whitesell. "Other
teams are now giving as much attention to it as we have."
There's more to Team Gordon's success than the pit crew. Hendrick
Motorsports has 350 employees, including engineers, fabricators
and mechanics, contributing to its six race teams. Without a
doubt, though, the three most important elements of any team are
the driver, the crew chief and the pit crew. Knock out one of
those legs, and you're in for a period of transition. Knock out
two, and you're in for a very long year.
That's what happened to Gordon near the end of the 1999 season,
when his longtime crew chief, Ray Evernham, left to oversee
Dodge's Winston Cup program. At season's end, his pit crew--a
group of hired guns who flew in on race day and were famously
dubbed the Rainbow Warriors for their flashy fire suits and style
in the pit--bolted for Dale Jarrett's team and more money. The
exodus didn't do much for morale around the Gordon shop. "[The
holdovers] had a look on their faces like, Should I stay or
should I go?" says Gordon. "I worked hard to get that look off
Under new crew chief Robbie Loomis, the 24 car finished ninth in
2000, Gordon's worst finish since his rookie season in 1994.
However, as he became accustomed to Loomis's laissez-faire
leadership style, Gordon sensed the need to become more hands-on.
Under Evernham, Gordon confesses, he barely knew his crew
members' names. Under Loomis he was giving them pep talks in the
hauler before each race.
"There have been times I've had to motivate them and times I've
had to calm them down," says Gordon. "I recognized that I needed
to step up, and Ray's leaving forced me to do that, which was
definitely a good thing. The team we have now is made up of guys
who stuck it out, who went through that season that had given
them all the more reason to bail."
Their reward for sticking it out was additional responsibility.
When it came time to replace the Rainbow Warriors after the 1999
season, pit crew coordinator Andy Papathanassiou didn't go with
mercenaries. Instead he chose a riskier route, plucking guys from
the shop, guys who would be in it for the long haul. "Loyalty is
important," says Gordon. "Maybe because we got burned [by the
Rainbow Warriors], loyalty means a little more to us. When you
have your whole pit crew say, 'We're going over there for more
money,' that's tough to take."
The trouble with the plan was that the garage wasn't crawling
with guys who were used to turning 14-second pit stops. Men who
can carry 70-pound tires or, in a blink, fasten them to a car
don't grow on trees, nor do fellows capable of raising a
3,400-pound car with one pump of a jack. "Four of our seven guys
had never been over the [pit] wall in any capacity," says
An offensive guard at Stanford from 1986 through '89,
Papathanassiou, who's better known as Andy Papa, broke into the
racing business in '91, when he sneaked into the garage area a
few days before a Winston Cup race in Sonoma, Calif., and asked
teams if they needed help. Journeyman driver Derrike Cope's crew
offered him a job waxing cars and sweeping floors, which was
enough for Papa to quit his job as a contract administrator with
Oracle. Papa was soon promoted to jackman, and one of the first
things he noticed was that a successful pit stop required
considerable athletic prowess. Yet many crews he observed were
unathletic and lax in their training. "Coming from an organized
system like Division I football, I knew that organized practices
and workouts would help them perform better and lead to more
consistent pit stops," he says.
Evernham had arrived at a similar conclusion, and the two struck
up a friendship. After Evernham hired him to be his pit coach in
1992, Papa set about building a system modeled, to a large
degree, after a college football program. It was a revolutionary
concept. Crew members were subjected to rigorous daily weight
training, pit-stop practices and videotape study. Before the
current Hendrick Motorsports shop--which has a 2,000-square-foot
weight room--opened in '96, Papa had his crew lift whatever heavy
objects they could get their hands on. It wasn't unusual to see,
say, a tire changer pumping a 70-pound tire or a jackman curling
a 20-pound jack stand. Most Winston Cup teams have emulated the
Papa approach, which has created fierce competition for the
fittest crew members.
While Papa's program isn't as sophisticated as the Stanford
football team's, he's hired two more full-time coaches so that
all crews in Hendrick's six-team stable get the necessary
training. Mark Morrison, who from 1997 through 2000 was a
strength and conditioning coach with the Florida State football
team, works in the same capacity with Hendrick, while Matt
Clarke, a former baseball coach at Albertus Magnus College in
New Haven, Conn., handles the X's and O's of the pit stop. "I'm
trying to take the same approach I would breaking down the
fundamentals of baseball," says Clarke.
No detail is too small. For instance, before each race front tire
carrier Craig Curione determines which spoke on each of his
Goodyears lines up best with a lug nut and marks the spot with a
strip of tape. During a pit stop he will carry the tire by that
spoke, enabling him to save valuable milliseconds when he mounts
it. "Nine times out of 10 I can put the tire right on the stud so
we don't have to rotate to get it on there," Curione says. "When
I do that, Todd [Gantt, the front tire changer] is on the lug
nuts as soon as that wheel hits the hub."
As the sport becomes more competitive, a greater premium is
placed on flawless performance in the pit. In the 1995 Daytona
500, for instance, Gordon's car was running great, but he had no
chance to win after a miscue midway through the race. His jackman
let the car down before a new front left tire had been securely
mounted, causing a substantial dent to the front fender. The
mishap cost Gordon the race--he finished 21st--and nearly the
Winston Cup title, which he won by a scant 34 points over Dale
"I think the competition has gotten tougher and tougher, and
everyone's equipment is about equal," says Loomis. "So it makes
passing harder, and that makes the pit crews more important."
That wasn't the case in last year's Daytona 500, a race that
featured 49 lead changes after NASCAR tweaked the rules and
opened up the restrictor plates. All that fancy passing, though,
might prove to be a passing fancy because NASCAR has undone most
of those changes for this year's 500, which means the race could
look like the '99 event, in which passes were rare. "Pitting will
be extremely important this year," says Gordon. "It's still going
to be exciting and good drafting, but I think you'll see the cars
calm down. Good starting position and good pit stops will be
That bodes well for Gordon. His car performed extremely well in
testing at Daytona and Talladega in January, and his team has
given him strong cars on restrictor-plate tracks. (Gordon won at
least one superspeedway race every year from 1995 through 2000.)
As for the pit stops, he looks to be in good shape in that area
too. Last year Papa was pleased that the team usually kept Gordon
from losing track position in the pits; for example, in a race at
Dover Downs International Speedway last June, Gordon entered and
left the pits in first place each time. Now he'd like to see the
crew perform at an even higher level of efficiency.
"Last year we had a team that matured from that introductory
level to a team that was championship caliber," says Papa. "The
next step in the evolution is to have the ability to take a
fifth-place car and put it in a position so that Jeff can win
the race, not only maintaining his position, but excelling.
That's what we're looking to do this year, excel."
COLOR PHOTO: SAM SHARPE [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES
COLOR PHOTO: SAM SHARPE Jacked Gordon stuck with shop guys over hired guns, then trained them like a football team. Last year, the plan paid off in the pits.
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES Power shift With crew chief Loomis (left) using a more hands-off approach, Gordon has happily become much more hands-on.
The garage wasn't crawling with guys used to turning 14-second
pit stops. "Four of our seven guys had NEVER BEEN OVER THE WALL."
"Guys had a look on their faces like, SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I
GO?'" says Gordon. "I worked hard to get that look off their