The Pit Road To Safety
November 12, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Only this time, the issue wasn’t driver safety or seat belts or head restraints. No, the safety of pit crew members, specifically the over-the-wall guys, was at issue after a frightening accident on pit road.
During routine pit stops on Lap 111 of the Pennzoil Freedom 400, Ward Burton pulled out of the pits to head back out on the track. But instead, Burton’s car rammed into the side of Casey Atwood’s, which had completed service and was moving down the pit lane.
Atwood was in the middle lane, but he couldn’t get to the outside line preferred by NASCAR because Jeff Gordon was there. The two collided, and Burton’s car bounced off Atwood’s and veered toward Ricky Rudd’s car, which was in the middle of a tire change.
Front tire changer Bobby Burrell, jack man John Bryan and front tire carrier Kevin Hall were innocent victims, getting tossed aside like rag dolls. NASCAR official Kenny Lawson was hit, too.
Burrell tumbled and hit his head, suffering a serious injury. He was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where he was awake but in serious condition. As of just after noon Monday, Burrell was conscious and communicating verbally with family members.
Bryan suffered a knee injury and was treated at Baptist Hospital in Miami before being released Sunday and flying home. Hall had some contusions but was released from the infield care center and traveled home Sunday night with the team.
Lawson, who jumped as Burton’s car approached, miraculously avoided injury even though he tumbled off Burton’s hood.
There were plenty of questions after the incident. First and foremost, what happened?
“I thought I was clear, and I was coming out (of the pits),” a shaken Burton said. “Somebody was coming down or made it three-wide or something. When I was coming out, my right front hit their car in the side and sent me into the side of the No. 28 (Rudd). I feel horrible about it.”
Atwood had nowhere to go, he said.
“I pulled out of my pits, and there was a lane on the outside of me, and I couldn’t go up any higher,” Atwood said. “When I was driving by (Burton), he pulled out of his pits. Nobody did anything wrong. It’s stuff that happens on pit road. It’s tight on pit road.”
That seemed to be the answer to the next question: Who was to blame?
“If you look at that, how could you have avoided something like that?” said Ray Evernham, Atwood’s car owner. “That was the oddest thing I ever saw. You think, ‘Wow, that could happen every time that we do it.’
“I don’t have the answer for that. You can’t penalize people for having an accident.”
But Jimmy Makar crew chief for Bobby Labonte, said it wasn’t that simple.
“We’ve had close calls for a long time,” Makar said. “Pit road is a dangerous place. It always has been. I know we’ve done some things over the years to make it safer – speed limits and such, limiting the number of people out there, when they can go out there. But when they are down on their knees around the other side of that car, changing tires and working on it, they’re sitting ducks for an accident when you’ve got these race cars around.
“It’s just not a good situation. I think we need to take a longer, harder look at what we can do.”
Makar suggested making pit road wider to “give the drivers an opportunity to pull out away from the cars pitting.” But that’s simply not possible at places like Martinsville or Bristol.
When a driver pulls out of his stall after making the pit stop, it’s up to the spotter and crew chief to tell the driver whether it’s clear to go or not. But that’s a decision often not made, simply because there’s no time.
“You are trying to make a split-second decision,” Evernham said. “When you drop that jack, the driver wants to go. You’re trying to look and figure if they’re going to get there. It’s a hard deal because there’s a bunch going on. It’s hard to tell a guy, ‘Wait, wait, wait.’ They’re lined up two-wide, so you’re going to try to squeeze out.”
Others suggested that crew members wear helmets, like Cal Wells’ team does. None of the injured crewmen wear helmets, and helmets are rare on pit road.
“Of course it would have helped Bobby because he’s got some head injuries,” said Rudd’s crew chief, Michael McSwain, “but it wouldn’t have helped Johnny because he’s got a broken leg.”
Still, helmets would be a good place to start.
“It’d be good to get guys to wear them,” said Robbie Loomis, crew chief for Jeff Gordon. “It’s kind of like these drivers and head restraints. It’s hard if they haven’t grown up using the helmets. It’s one of the things we’re going to have to look at hard. We’ve got the best guys on pit road, and we want to make sure we take care of them.”
Mandating helmets is perhaps a ways off.
“It’s like the different laws in different states as far as riding a motorcycle with a helmet or not,” said Bill Elliott, who won his first race in more than seven years Sunday. “You want to go out there and bust your skull, that’s your prerogative.
“Each and every crew guy needs to look at that option and decide what they need to do. Even though we do have a pit road speed today, these cars still can get tangled up. They still are running fast.”
But they aren’t nearly as fast as an incident on pit road in 1990 at Atlanta involving Rudd and Elliott. Back then, there was no pit road speed limit, and as Elliott’s team was making a pit stop, Rudd lost control and slammed into the rear of Elliott’s car, killing crewman Michael Rich.
“That brings back a lot of bad memories for me,” Elliott said of Sunday’s incident.
NASCAR changed its rules for pit road soon after the Elliott-Rudd incident, and many wonder whether it’s time for another hard look at safety in the pits.
“When you put man and machine together for sport, sometimes people get hurt,” Evernham said. “We’ve got to try to minimize that happening. It’s not ever going to go away, but we’ve got to minimize it and somehow protect those guys on pit road.
“It’s like trying to fix restrictor-plate racing. Everybody wants to do something, but none of us knows what to do.”