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

November 03, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

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.

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