NUTS ABOUT NASCAR
Auto Club Xfinity 300
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Sun, Mar 22, 2015
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Photographs by Gabriela Moya and Brian Kennedy
Such a little thing, the lug nut. Even with five of them in hand, the number that are supposed to go on a NASCAR tire, you don’t have much to carry. But what a fuss has been made over the nuts in NASCAR over the past few weeks. Why? Because neither the Sprint Cup nor the Xfinity Series now patrols the wheel hubs to see whether the tire changers get the five lugs tight.
Why not? Because they’re not putting officials over the wall to see what cars do on pit stops anymore. Instead, they’re monitoring things electronically, and it’s pretty tough to see from a distance whether the five tiny yellow nuts are properly secured.
In addition, officials have decided that leaving things to the teams allows for a certain amount of freedom but only so much temptation. Leaving too many lugs off is a recipe for disaster. Tighten just one? That wheel’s coming off, and the time and damage that would be the cost would not be worth the risk. Two? Ditto, or at least, you’d be asking your driver to deal with a heck of a vibration and, likely, ancillary problems. Three? Well, that’s getting into an area where maybe, just maybe, crews will go.
To get to the bottom of this, and as a way to make what was otherwise a not-terribly-interesting Xfinity 300-mile race at Auto Club Speedway interesting, LA Car went on the hunt for the truth about the nuts.
The question: Does your team have a decisive position on how many lugs should be tightened?
A crew member of the #20 GameStop Toyota said, “We’ll see today.”
The team of Daniel Suarez, who drives the ARRIS Toyota, just smiled and wouldn’t say anything.
Looking ahead a week, someone with the Ryan Reed team said, “It’ll be three at Martinsville, especially on the left side. And with ten laps to go on a restart, well, you get what you get.” This might in part be because that track is short. Vibration in a wheel might not have time to show up, since there’s essentially no straightaway on that track. Speeds are much less than at, say, Fontana.
Anyway, the guy with the Reed team brings up an interesting point: by the time the crews get around to the left side of the car, the pit stop is ending. The fuel is almost done. And so whatever time is left, being governed by the amount of gas that can be packed in, is used, and then that’s it—off the driver goes. In the old days, there could be a wait for that last lug. But as the guy said to me, “Not no more.” So if the crew spends a little more time on the rights, and gets five tight, and has little time left for the lefts, then those will be sacrificed.
Then again, a crew member for Saturday’s eventual winner, Kevin Harvick, said, “You’d better get at least three,” speaking of the need for tight wheels on a big track like the one in Fontana. But, he added, “You don’t wait on fuel.” When I asked him what the driver had to say about the matter, he replied, “It’s not about the driver.”
Adding to this, a crew member whose team will not be identified said, “They’re all talking about three, but it’s five. Nobody wants to take that chance.”
But if they did, which lugs would they tighten? It would make sense that they’d want to stagger it, so that it was one tight, one loose, one tight, one loose, etc. until you get to five. But what I was told was this, “Any three. It’s not a matter of staggering them.” Hmm. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but so far, nothing’s happened. When a wheel flies off, then things will be rethought.
And in general, as the following comment, by yet another crew member who asked that his team not be identified illustrates, old ways are hard to change: “There are five lugs there. You’ve been training for five. It’s going to be hard to hit three.” But then again, there’s that time pressure.
Tires and tire changing in general are a big deal in NASCAR, as in any form of racing. But perhaps the exact degree of complication that is involved is a story little told. There’s a lot to know, and so here’s your primer on the subject.
First, it’s probably well known that the lugs are glued on so that the crew member has to do little more than hit them with the gun. But the process of gluing is more complicated than it seems like it might be. The crewman first takes a drill and hones the hole so that it’s exactly circular, and clean of burrs. Then someone else goes around with a spray cleaner and gets things spotless. Then the first guy goes back and puts an exact bead on the lug. The lug is laid on the hole, as are all five, and a weighted disk, sharply painted, with a T-handle, and the car number, is put on top to set the glue.
Then, while the wheel is lying on the ground, yet another disk is put over top of the well of the wheel. Some teams have smaller ones, maybe the size of a small pizza, others have ones that cover the entire wheel opening. These lie on the tires while they sit behind the pit wall. When I asked what these disks did, a crew person said, “That’s so nobody messes with the lugs.” That concern apparently goes away when the race starts, because the disks come off so that the tires can be ready for putting on.
They sit, by the way, on opposite sides of the pits, one front and one rear on each end. Makes sense, right? That’s where they’ll be needed.
The tire gauge these guys use has to be pretty precise, obviously, but compared to the four-dollar dealie you use from Target this one’s, well, kind of different. It’s worth about $200, and it’s obviously digital and super-accurate. And what’s put into those tires is not air. It’s nitrogen, and it is supplied to teams by a company which turns up at each of the tracks. The tanks are small, stainless steel, at least this is true of the ones the guys were using to top up the air on pit road in preparation for the tires going on.
The crew members themselves aren’t what they used to be. In the past, the mechanics, guys who spent the week in and under the cars at the shops, served as the “over the wall” gang. Today? There are pros who do nothing but pit stops. Not that it’s their fulltime job, but they’re brought in for the weekend. This is not true of every team, but it is true of the better teams even in the Xfinity (NASCAR second-tier) series. I asked one crewmember whether I’d make a good pit crew member at 158 pounds. His answer, “Have you seen these guys?”
In fact, I had, and many of them look like 6’1”, 205-pound athletes. No fat. All lean muscle. Scary if they decided you were the enemy.
And make no mistake. Pit stops matter. The faster ones are in the 12.5-second range. That’s timed from the moment the first guy touches the first lug nut until they all wave the car out of the pits. The total time from when the car enters the pit box until it leaves it is about 18.5 seconds, by my watch on Saturday. The difference between the fastest and slower cars? About two seconds. Not much, but it can make the difference of a spot or two on the track. Maybe three or four.
The thing that TV doesn’t show is the craziness of those 12 seconds. There’s far more frenzy than TV can communicate. The guys are close, maneuvering around one another. The guy with the jack has to have space; the others have to make space. The dance is delicate. Inches matter.
The movements are all scripted, and rehearsed. Most teams have a lug attached to their pit cart, a wheel stud with the five-bolt pattern, so that the guys can practice their drilling technique on it. Over and over again, they hit it. One-two-three-four-five. But it’s almost faster than you just read that. Zip-zip-zip-zip-zip with the gun, five bursts of air-powered energy.
The crew members warm up like athletes, stretching, doing high kicks, practicing the motion of rotating their bodies, arms out, that will be the one they do to swing the tire in place. Over and over they do it, muscle memory their goal.
Everything can be fine until the driver messes things up.
Saturday, that happened to Mike Bliss, driving an unsponsored car, number 19, officially called the TriStar Motorsports Toyota. He was a lap down anyway, and in 26th spot, when he slid through his pit, over the front limit line. The crew quickly ran out and motioned-pushed him back. He reversed, but was crooked in the pits. There was very little space between him and the wall. The crew scrambled. They had to maneuver around each other, the left front tire changer having to stop his work while the jack man jumped past him to raise the left side of the car.
Bliss took a few extra seconds on his stop for all of this. The difference? Six places. In the next lap he was 31st. So yes, timing matters, even if this guy wasn’t going to do anything particularly special on the track.
T three and four will be the same, Getting into three, there’s a blacker groove.” The handling lessons learned Saturday, in other words, will be important the next day. And none of that would be possible if it were not for the tires. The all-important tires, and, of course, the guys who change them, and the lug nuts that hold them on.
Kevin Harvick started sixth and won the race. He and Erik Jones, in third, were the only two non-regular Xfinity drivers in the top six. They do not get points in the Series. Top finishing regular was Brendan Gaughan.
Ty Dillon now leads the Xfinity Series points, with 187. He was 14th on the day. Gaughan, by the way, is sixth, at 164. This series, unlike Sprint Cup, has no playoff format to end the season. They compile points throughout the year like Winston Cup used to.
Forty cars were listed on the grid. Thirty-eight started on the lead lap, and 17 finished on the lead lap.
Pole winner was Erik Jones, who is 18. The pole award was called the “21 Means 21 Pole Award,” so he was outside the pale there. The race was titled “Drive4Clots.com 300,” which one can only assume does not urge that one actually drive to get a clot. Such is the sometimes-absurdity of the sponsor game.
Read Brian Kennedy’s How To Make NASCAR Relevant Again
Read Brian Kennedy’s Harvick Does Hockey
For more information about the Auto Club races, click here.