DAYTONA BEACH, Florida: Len Wood is lucky. He spent 18 years changing the rear tires on the family’s No. 21 Ford and his only scar is a burn mark on his stomach.
“A lug nut hit me and went down my shirt,” Wood said. “As it went down, it burned me pretty bad. To this day, I still have a little circle burned into me.”
Others, especially those from an era when crews weren’t protected from the dangers of a speeding car, have suffered far worse.
And some have been killed.
Wood, who has moved from the pit crew to team owner, wouldn’t have been injured if he was still attempting 13-second stops since everyone who now jumps over the pit wall must be wearing a crash helmet, fire suit and gloves.
Other rules, particularly a speed limit and restrictions on when a crewman may jump onto pit road, have reduced even more of the dangers, but much like the improvements made to the race car and the speedways, everyone is constantly reminded that nothing can remove all of the risk.
“It is racing,” said Tom Gideon, NASCAR director of safety for research and development.
While crewmen getting knocked over by speeding cars, loose wheels and flying lug nuts still are commonplace, nobody has been killed on pit roads since Mike Rich was struck on pit road at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1990.
Back then, there was no speed limit on pit road. Crewmen also weren’t required to wear helmets or fire-resistant clothing.
Rich’s death led to a strictly enforced speed limit at every track. While speeds will approach 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour) during Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) Daytona 500, cars are limited to 55 mph (88 kph) on the pit road.
Also, crewmen aren’t allowed over the wall until their driver comes to a complete stop. Anyone doing service must have an approved helmet, fireproof underwear and head sock, as well as a fire suit.
Gas men also must wear a special apron and can no longer toss empty cans over the wall.
“When we approach safety with the drivers and teams and crews, we always get a little rumbling, but they’re far more accepting than in the past,” Gideon said. “They understand we’ve done the research. We know what helps them.”
Another factor that has helped reduce serious injuries on pit road is the switch to specialized crews. When Len and Eddie Wood changed the tires for drivers like David Pearson, Neil Bonnett and Buddy Baker, they also were mechanics. Crews now are comprised of athletes, many of them former college football players, who do nothing but work out and practice stops.
“We had to do the cars back then,” said former gas man for Dale Earnhardt, Danny “Chocolate” Myers. “We’d work on the cars up until race time, then we’d change clothes and pit the car. I got bumped around a lot, but nothing major. These professional pit crews are quicker. They work out all the time. We didn’t have time for none of that.”
Ryan McCray is the front tire carrier for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford. He’s proof a gifted athlete is no match for a 3,400-pound race car.
“I’ve been run over a few times and tore my ACL one year,” he said. “I still wear a big brace on it. It could have been worse.”
That injury occurred in 2009 when Clint Bowyer hit a tire while leaving his pit stall at the Michigan Speedway. The 75-pound tire shot into McCray’s right knee, tearing the ligament.
McCray got his fingers pinched between the brakes and tire during a stop in 2003 at the Pocono Raceway. He was also sent airborne in 2009 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway when Jeff Gordon ran into Johnson’s car.
Nonetheless, McCray has never considered finding safer grounds at the race track.
“No way. I live for it every day,” he said. “It’s one of those jobs you don’t go out and have it handed to you. You have to be an athlete now.’’
When asked if he’s had any close calls, Ryan Patton, the rear tire carrier for Jimmie Johnson, said: “Every stop. If you’re afraid, you’re not doing your job.”
Like creating a speed limit following Rich’s death in 1990, most of NASCAR’s rules on pit road came in response to accidents and injuries.
Two races after the start of the 2002 season — after Casey Atwood hit Ward Burton, who then bounced into Rudd’s car at Homestead in 2001 — NASCAR required everyone over the wall to wear a helmet. NASCAR official Kenny Lawson, tire changers Bobby Burrell and Kevin Hall and jackman John Bryan all were struck while working on Rudd’s car.
Burrell suffered a head injury that required a nine-day stay in a local hospital.
Crew man Randy Owens was killed during the 1975 Winston 500 when an air compressor tank blew up in Richard Petty’s pits. The canister flew into the air and landed on Owens.
Teams now use nitrogen compressors, which aren’t affected by cold or hot temperature. In addition, nitrogen is nonflammable that reduces the main cause for explosions.
While crewmen were required to start wearing fireproof suits in 2002, the sanctioning body added fireproof underwear this year following two pit road fires last season.
Walls that separate the race track from pit road at smaller tracks have been heightened and reinforced, but not in time for crew chief Paul McDuffie and mechanic Charles Sweatlund and NASCAR official Joe Taylor. They were killed at the Darlington Raceway in 1960 when Bobby Johns’ car flipped onto pit road and struck them.
NASCAR reduced a lot of the congestion a year ago by taking many officials off pit road and relying on a video monitoring system to patrol each stop.