Pit row accidents, even fatalities, are not new to motor racing, but the recent death of a crewman during a NASCAR race in Atlanta has refocused attention on one of racing's most perplexing problems how to reduce high-speed congestion in the pits.
The crux of the problem is this: Every second spent pitting which includes slowing down, getting fuel and tires, and getting back to racing speed can be worth 100 yards on a superspeedway. Drivers work for laps to get around another car and they don't want to lose that advantage when they come in for midrace service.
"I don't know if there is an answer," Dale Earnhardt, the four-time Winston Cup stock car champion, said when asked about the subject. "I know it's not safe the way we're doing it, but is there any safe way? The drivers think about it and talk about it, but so far no one's come up with a better idea. If some one does, we'll all listen."
Most pit stops in both NASCAR and the Championship Auto Racing Team's Indy car races are made during caution flag periods, when speeds on the race track are reduced from 200 mph to 65 or 70 behind a pace car. Obviously, time spent in the pits under yellow flag conditions is not as costly as time spent there under green flag full speed conditions.
Caution periods create another problem, however. When a yellow flag is displayed, it usually triggers high-speed gridlock along pit row as from 25 to 35 cars come in at the same time. Drivers who have been racing at speeds of up to 200 are asked to slow down and find a 26-foot patch of pavement where their crew awaits with 22 gallons of fuel and two or four tires.
"When you've been going 200 and slow down to 75 or 100, it feels like you're going about 10," one driver said. "You think you've got plenty of space to stop when you hit the brakes, but it's not always true."
That, essentially, was what happened in Atlanta 10 days ago when Ricky Rudd came down the pit road and hit the brakes. His car spun and whiplashed into the side of Bill Elliott's pitted car, pinning crewman Mike Rich between them. The impact crushed Rich's chest, and he died a few hours later of a heart attack while undergoing surgery.
"Nothing like this ever happened to me before," Rudd said. "I'm tore up about it. I don't know if I hit a grease spot or what, but when I hit the brakes they locked up and spun the car around. Hitting a car is one thing, but hitting a human being was tragic."
Earnhardt pinpointed a problem inherent to Atlanta.
"It is the only track where the pit row is slanted in toward the wall," he said. "Instead of being flat, or slanted out toward the track, it tends to pitch your car in toward the crew. That's apparently what happened to Rudd. Once a car breaks loose, it slides downhill and that's toward the pit wall."
It was the second time in four years that Elliott's crew had been hit while doing its job in the pits. In the 1987 Winston Western 500 at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway, Elliott's car was pitted when Michael Waltrip's car was hit from behind and knocked into Elliott's pit area.
Although he did not make contact with Elliott's car, Waltrip slid into four crewmen. Chuck Hill, a neighbor of Elliott's from Dawsonville, Ga., suffered serious internal injuries, a dislocated hip and broken arm.
Dan Elliott, Bill's younger brother and a member of the crew, suffered bruises in both accidents.
Harry Melling, owner of Elliott's car, was so distraught after the Atlanta incident that he said he was considering pulling out of racing.
Sometimes, the crew most in peril is the driver's own.
At Phoenix, a car driven by Ted Musgrave didn't stop in time and slid into his waiting jack man. Jeff (Pancho) Walton was knocked 10 feet into the air, but his only injuries were a bruised knee and leg.
"Our driver came in a little too hot," said crew chief D.K. Ulrich.
That is what NASCAR must address -- how to keep drivers from coming in "a little too hot."
Les Richter, vice president of competition, says the matter is being studied and that a solution will be announced before the opening race of 1991 at Daytona. The rule would be in effect for all Winston Cup and Busch Grand National races.
"It's going to be something that will slow cars down on pit row, both coming in and going out," Richter said from his offices in Daytona Beach, Fla. "The mechanics of how to implement it are not yet in place, but the plans are to have such a severe penalty for excessive speed that drivers will not want to take the chance of being sent to the rear of the field."
Pace-car speeds vary from track to track. At Bristol and some short tracks, pace-car driver Elmo Langley will hold it down as low as 35 mph, but on the high banks at Daytona it is 70. Drivers are informed of the planned speed at their pre-race meeting.
"When cars on the track are running 65 or 70 and you see someone like Earnhardt going through the pits at what looks like about 120, it catches your attention," one NASCAR official said. "It also catches the attention of the other drivers and pretty soon the pits are like a speed trap."
Richter said, "The one thing we must prevent is drivers coming in hell-bent for election and speeding out the same way in hopes of picking up a position or two on the track.
"We don't want to take away the speed of the crew in doing their job of refueling and changing tires, but we must slow the cars down while entering and exiting their pit."
Richter said that NASCAR had rejected several widely circulated rumored changes in pit procedure, among them freezing the field in the position they held at the time a yellow flag was displayed, and permitting pitting only under the green flag.
"The green flag-only idea means the drivers and crews would be trying to be even faster than they are today because time lost under the green is so much more costly than time lost under the yellow," Richter said. "They could be so rushed [to get their car back out] that they could let it go with a loose lug nut or something equally as dangerous.
"We stress pit safety and pit strategy at every driver's meeting.
"In the past, we set no specific speed limits on how fast they could run in the pit lane. We warned drivers of the consequences and asked them to be careful and considerate, but what it has come down to is that there is just too much competition these days. We are using pit procedures we used 10 to 15 years ago and times have changed. Drivers didn't have the urgency then that they have today because the competition was so much less intense."
In 1974, for instance, there were 30 races and Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and David Pearson won all but one. This year there were 29 races and 14 different winners.
"I wouldn't change places with them cats that change tires for a minute," Petty said. "It used to be that we'd come in at different times and pit stops were part of the strategy. Nowadays it's chaos. There's so many cars in there every time they drop a yellow flag you don't know where you're at sometimes."