In NASCAR pits, no item too small for crew's attention

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Derrike Cope is focused on the race as he drives down pit road at Dover Downs International Speedway for a routine pit stop. As tires are being changed, he reaches for the squeeze water bottle, puts his lips on the plastic straw and sucks. What he expects is a cool drink of Gatorade. What he gets is a mouthful of air.

The routine is broken. So is Cope's concentration, and so is the silence on the radio headset, as he drives off upset and angry.

What happened to the water bottle?

Crew chief Barry Dodson speaks into his headset, soothing the driver.

"It's all right, Derrike," says Dodson. "We just had a little problem. It's no big deal. You're doing fine, and we'll get the water bottle fixed."

He says it in a soft, calming voice. But when Dodson turns to his pit crew, his anger flashes and he yells above the roaring engines on the racetrack, "What the hell happened to the water bottle?"

When the day began at 7:30 a.m., Cope and Dave Raymond, the Purolator racing program coordinator, welcomed a reporter as a crew member for the day. Apprehensive and appreciative of the opportunity to get an inside look at what goes on in the pits, I did not want to get in the way.

That's why they put me in charge of the water bottle.

"It sounds like a little thing, but it's important to me to get a cold drink," Cope said before the race. "I've had to get on my water bottle person before."

Then he laughed. How much trouble could a water bottle be?

A crucial role

As the Winston Cup stock car tour arrives in Atlanta next weekend for the final race of the season, the series championship is on the line. Just 40 points separate points leader Davey Allison (3,928), Alan Kulwicki (3,898) and Bill Elliott (3,888). With the race so tight, the role of the pit crew becomes critical.

Whether in Atlanta or in Dover, the life of a NASCAR pit crew person on race day is one of detail. For the Dover, Del., race, the day began at 3:30 a.m. for Odie Hughes and his son, Clayton, who handle the gas cans, Judy Honaker, who officially scores the race, and tire changers Matt Willingham, Clay Robinette and Brad and John Dodson. That's when they had to get up at their homes near Charlotte, N.C., for the commercial plane ride that brought them to Dover by 8 a.m.

The crew's day ended nearly 13 hours later, after the car and equipment were loaded for the trip home.

Shortly after arriving, the Hugheses help other members of the crew move the equipment to their designated spot along pit road at Dover. Because Cope qualified 31st, he is at the far end, near Turn 4, nearly a half-mile from their truck in the garage. Positions on pit road are chosen by qualifying positions, and most teams like to be closer to the pit road exit, by Turn 1.

Jeff Torrence, the tire specialist and the man who normally takes care of giving Cope his drink, has lined up 36 tires on the grassy slope behind the pit and marked them into nine specific sets. Now, he is sitting with a bucket of lug nuts, screwing them on and off, making sure every one spins easily. If a lug nut sticks or has an irregular thread, it is thrown away.

At the same time, Andy Lovell is checking his two computers. One constantly will keep track of every car in the race and show where it's running.

On the other computer, Lovell will record information from every pit stop and make detailed notes about the entire race. Meanwhile, other crew members are coiling air hoses and taping the connections between those hoses and the nitrogen (air) tanks. After each pit stop, the hoses are neatly recoiled and the air guns cleaned.

100 points of check

Dodson and the rest of his crew are in the garage, scrutinizing the race car. They have a 100-point check list. After each item is inspected, a crew member must sign off on it. "Basically, we're checking every component on the car," said Dodson. "We were one of the first teams to have this list. Now, nearly every team does."

This is a polished team. Cope won the Daytona 500 and the Budweiser 500 at Dover in 1990. Most of the crew members were part of the Blue Max team that helped Rusty Wallace to the 1989 Winston Cup championship. They have been together since last March, when Dodson replaced chief Doug Williams, who left for personal reasons.

"We've made drastic progress," Dodson said.

The team, owned by Bob Whitcomb, is dressed in dark blue uniforms. Each crew member wears a matching blue headset and tennis shoes. Dodson, the crew chief, will go through at least five pairs of shoes this season. No one will wear out fewer than two pairs. Just before the race begins, Whitcomb shakes every crew member's hand and wishes us good luck.

Obstructed-view seats

During the race, the crew spends most of its time lined up along the pit wall, leaning forward, heads cocked toward the fourth turn, eyes straining to see Cope's bright orange and white No. 10 Lumina.

It's a front-row seat, but it comes with a limited view. Most of the crew members have set VCRs at home to record the race, so they can see what really happened.

As the race wears on, the scene becomes more casual, with some crew members sitting on the grass behind the pit or on the tires. But a few laps before the car is due in for service, the tension builds. Everyone moves into position. Five men -- Dodson, who handles the jack; two tire changers; the gas man; and catch can man, who carries the can to catch the fuel runoff -- are poised and ready to jump over the wall, into the path of the moving car. Four others -- the signboard man, the front grill cleaner, the window washer and the one who serves the driver's drink -- are lined up to perform their duties from behind the wall.

The pit stop will be over in less than 18 seconds, faster than it takes to put on a pair of sneakers.

Throughout the afternoon, Dodson's conversations on the headset have been balm for Cope's nerves and support for his ego. It is one of the more telling details. Cope, a confident and competent driver, is surprisingly tentative over the radio.

Dodson continually tells him he is doing a good job. He warns him of accidents. He directs him through debris. As crew chief, Dodson is a coach, confidant and psychologist.

"You have to be," Dodson said. "Your driver is out there alone, and he can't see what's going on around the next turn. You've got to be there for him. If I got upset here in the pits, it wouldn't do him any good on the race track. I've got to stay calm."

Little things mean a lot

Every team is looking for an edge, and the edge comes in attention to detail. That's why little things such as positioning the car correctly on the pit stop and making sure the water bottle is working are important.

On the first stop, the team's signboard, which is extended across the pit wall to show Cope where to stop, is too far forward. As a result, the car stops in an awkward position for the tire change. Dodson yells at Cope to move the car forward, and tempers flare momentarily.

On the radio, Cope apologizes for the bad positioning.

"I'm sorry, I thought I was supposed to stop where the signboard was," he says. "I just didn't know."

"That's fine, Derrike," Dodson says. "He'll put the board where you need to be. Everything's fine. That stop was under caution, and we had nothing to lose."

But when Cope comes in under a green flag around Lap 300, expecting a cool drink, that is different.

Through the first half of the race, when Cope pits, the water bottle job goes like clockwork. I get the water bottle from the cooler, dry it off so it won't get Cope's gloves wet, and give it to Jeff Torrence. Torrence puts the bottle in a holder at the end of a long metal pole and pushes it through the window to Cope.

Very simple job.

When Cope finishes his drink, he tosses the bottle back into the pits, where, from my position at the back of the pit, it disappears. Usually, another crew member finds it and hands it to me.

But, on one occasion, the bottle is forgotten. When Cope is next about to pit, a trip to the cooler reveals it isn't there. Where is it? A frantic search locates the bottle, on the ground, broken.

It means Dave Raymond has to hustle that half-mile back to the truck to get another bottle. We can't just pour water in a cup, because Cope wears a full-faced helmet. Without a straw, he is helpless.

So Raymond, who also cleans the windshield, leaves for the garage. I pace, worried Cope will pit before Raymond returns. It gets tight. Five laps more and he'll be in. Raymond's red shirt appears through the crowd behind the pits, but he isn't moving fast enough for either Jeff Torrence or me.

I run to get the bottle. Torrence dunks it in the Gatorade. Together, we twist on the top as Cope enters pit road. When he stops, the bottle is passed into the car. We all sigh. It was close. And then we hear the irritated voice on the headset. Cope didn't get a drink. He got air.

There was no straw extending into the liquid inside the bottle.

Irritation abounds

Dodson is angry because his driver is upset. Torrence is irritated because he is the crew member usually responsible for the water bottle. Raymond is irked because he had to make yet another trip to the truck. And I am responsible for all of it.

Shortly thereafter, Raymond gets back to the pits with another bottle and a plastic tube, which he tapes onto the water bottle. Dodson asks if everything is OK. We say yes. He is happy.

He gets back to his headset and his position on the wall in time to hear that there is a crash in Turn 1.

"Derrike, slow down, there's an accident in one," he says, and gets no reply. "Derrike, please answer me. I've got bad nerves. I can't take this stuff. Derrike?"

Cope calls in, saying he is through the crash without incident.

The team makes it through the rest of the race without further problems. Cope finishes ninth and gets a huge thumbs-up sign from Dodson as he drives down pit road at the end of the race.

"We did good," Dodson says of his crew and driver. "If you had told me we'd be top 10 before the race started, I'd have been happy with it. Now, I wish it was top five."

Fortunately, the water-bottle incident is forgotten.

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