AS a NASCAR driver comes screaming toward the pit, seven elite athletes are perched on the pit wall, preparing to launch themselves at the race car faster than a pack of hungry pumas.
Itching to go, the jack man checks and rechecks his jack while a tire changer moves his air wrench from hand to hand and a tire carrier practices his breathing. When the car pulls in, the race is on.
The jack man runs out, screeches to a halt and jacks up the 2-ton stock car in one motion.
Front and rear tire-changers dash out just as quickly, hitting five lug nuts per tire in about one second.
Working with the tire carriers -- and for the rear tire, the jack man -- they yank the 70-pound tire off, hang a new tire, and hit the five lug nuts on it.
Meanwhile, the gas man hoists an 11-gallon, 90-pound gas can and empties it into a 4-inch hole in six seconds, then does it again with a second can, while the catch can man catches the spillover.
They do all this in 12 or 13 seconds, if all goes well.
You can ooh and aah at the quickness of a premier running back, and you can marvel at the power of a major league hitter. But for quick-moving explosive bursts of power, hand speed and all-around teamwork, you can't beat the unsung over-the-wall guy.
"They're going from zero to 100% in the snap of a finger," says Corinne Mauldin, pit crew coordinator for Richard Childress Racing. "They have to jump into action from a dead stop."
Today's pit crews are fitter, stronger, more agile than ever -- and remarkably focused. They may be working while "the brakes are on fire, or the tires are on fire, or the car's leaking oil, or there's fuel spilling on them," says Breon Klopp, founder of the pit crew school, PIT Instruction & Training. "They're sitting out there on their knees hitting lug nuts, with cars whizzing by that are literally a foot-and-a-half, 2 feet away."
Over the last 10 years, pit crew members have emerged as bona fide athletes, partly in response to changes in the race cars and the sport. As the cars have become more technologically advanced, the races have become extremely competitive. Never has success or failure in the pit been so important.
"The pit stops in a race are basically a race within a race," says Andrew Carter, a pit crew coach at Roush Racing. "Say you have two cars that are running equal speeds on the racetrack. What you gain or lose in the pit could mean the difference in winning or losing the race."
As a result, more teams are recruiting pit crew members for specific athletic skills. Some are even snagged from local college and pro football teams.
Trainers and coaches work with the crews on drills and exercises designed to promote explosive speed, physical agility and hand-eye coordination. It is a far cry from the early days of NASCAR, when pit stops were leisurely affairs and drivers had time to get out of the car and have a cigarette or maybe a sandwich. Some of the pit crews were even recruited on race day from the bleachers.
That all changed one day back in the early '60s, when the Wood Brothers Racing team (today Wood Brothers/JTG Racing), shocked everyone by actually hurrying through the pit stop. Jaws dropped as the crew scurried around the car in an orchestrated fashion. Clearly, its members had been practicing.
The Woods Brothers won, and others teams soon followed suit.
NASCAR has just about the longest season of any sport -- 36 or more weekly races. By the end of the season, injuries and general weariness have taken a toll. Trainers keep this in mind and pace the workouts throughout the year.
At Hendrick Motorsports, strength and conditioning coach Mark Morrison focuses on core training and agility. The pit crew gets plenty of lower, mid- and upper-torso work, squats, footwork drills and position-specific exercises that mimic the job of each member.
A key component for all crews is developing timing between the crew members. "Training together as a group is important," says Scott Plattenberger, a front tire changer for Roush Racing. "The more time you spend, the more that helps your chemistry as a unit." The pit crew will spend about four to six hours a week on training, says Robert Johnson, Roush's strength and conditioning coach. The workouts include a mix of traditional strength training, agility exercises and interval training.
The training focuses on core strength and balance, so that if the pit crew member slips, trips or is launched by a car, he'll have the skills to adjust his trajectory and land safely -- the way a cat can flip in the air and land on its feet.
All of this training is aimed at gaining an incremental -- but critical -- amount of time. In cases where two drivers are neck and neck, says Plattenberger, "If we have a 12-second stop and the other crew has a 12.3-second stop, we've gained that spot."
It's no secret that NASCAR evolved from humble beginnings -- bootleggers and moonshiners running from the law. "Some are even still around," says Carter. That's a far cry from today's sport, but there's one similarity: They, too, could have used an elite pit crew.
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How to rev up your engine
Want to develop the strength and agility to pit a car in 12 seconds flat?
In addition to standard strength and conditioning exercises, circuit training and cardio drills, many pit crew members do specialized exercises designed to mimic the functions of their jobs. Here are just a few of them:
* Tire changer: Holding a 5-pound medicine ball, the changer runs to the car's wheel well and rams the medicine ball at the wheel studs, simulating hitting the lug nuts as fast as he can. Then he pulls away, as if yanking off the tire. Can also be performed from a stationary position. The purpose is to build speed and dexterity in removing the lug nuts through repetitive motion.
* Tire carrier: While standing, the carrier holds a 45-pound plate at waist level, then lifts it straight up, similar to the motion of positioning the tire. By using a weight instead of an actual tire, the carrier is able to do more repetitions, thus building endurance.
* Jack man: Using a 35-pound medicine ball, the jack man runs around the car, halts at just the right point, then goes through the same motions he would if he were actually jacking up the car.
* Gas man: Standing on a very smooth, 2-foot-by-8-foot Formica board, the athlete slides back and forth with booties on, like a speed skater, while attempting to hit a stationary cup with a gas spout. This improves lateral motion and builds leg strength.
-- Janet Cromley