Evolution Of The Pit Stop: The Early Years
August 25, 2010 | 3:04 P.M. EST
The best pit crew of the 1980s emerged among a half dozen crewmen within Richard Childress Racing. Built by driver-turned-team-owner Richard Childress, the team won four consecutive Unocal Pit Crew championships from 1985 to 1988. The annual competition was held at the one-mile superspeedway in Rockingham, N.C., and open to the teams that had qualified for that weekend's NASCAR Cup race. Year after year, the RCR team excelled with its fast times and flawless performances.
The few who drew a full-time paycheck from RCR had one common bond: They were diehard racers with a passion to win. It was all they knew and what truly defined their lives.
That mentality was and continues to be evident in Childress, a Winston Salem, N.C., native. He grew up in the sport, working the grandstands at famed Bowman-Gray Stadium selling peanuts to fans watching the local short-track stars, as well as NASCAR Grand National legends such as Richard Petty, Curtis Turner and Rex White, on a bi-annual basis.
Childress began his own driving career at the track in the early 1960s, enjoying countless victories and a strong fan following. In 1969, he transformed his team into a very modest Sprint Cup operation, collecting an impressive six top-5s and 76 top-10s in 285 starts, but no victories. Still, his cars were strong - enabling him to mix it up regularly with NASCAR’s top drivers and teams.
When Dale Earnhardt, an up-and-coming superstar suddenly became available with 11 races remaining in the 1981 Sprint Cup season, Childress jumped at the chance to get him and left the driver’s seat to make room for the young, aggressive driver. Earnhardt didn’t win at first, but was competitive. He left Childress on good terms to wheel Ford Thunderbirds for veteran team owner Bud Moore in 1982-83, but returned to the small but promising one-car organization in 1984, picking up where they had left off.
Little did anyone know at the time a dynasty had been born. The team produced 67 of Earnhardt’s 76-career wins and six of his seven championships in 17 seasons. Success enjoyed during that magical time came from Earnhardt’s incredible driving talent, Childress’ seemingly bullet-proof cars and engines, and a crew that turned wrenches on the team’s Chevrolets during the week and then produced precision pit stops on race day. So good were they at getting Earnhardt off pit road that the six-man crew was dubbed “The Flying Aces.”
Horace Simpson carried tires to crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine and Will Lind, the front and rear tire changers, respectively. David Smith handled the jack duties, while Barney Boyd fueled the car with Rick Slaydon working the catch can. Eventually, Danny “Chocolate” Myers was added as the gasman with Bobby Moody handling catch can duties.
“We thought we were pretty good,” Shelmerdine says. “We had pretty good results most of the time. There were a lot of great pit crews on pit road back then, but hardly any of them beat us out very often. There was a certain standard you had to keep up to compete and we did that and then some.
“The pit crew was just another piece of that winning combination. Very few names changed in the line-up for a lot of those years and that was key. When one guy zigged, we all knew when to zag and perform as one unit.”
Lind believes the fact their lives came together at a specific time in a specific place was meant to produce something great. “I’d like to say there was some great plan, but I think it was just one of those deals where you put five or six people together who were more opposites than what they had in common,” he said. “We just really meshed very well together. That’s half the battle with chemistry anyway. I think it happens by itself more times than when people try to make it happen. But it was just a group of guys who believed in each other. We were pretty much a band of brothers who spent more time with each other than we did our own families and somehow it all worked.”
Lind also remembers how the over-the-wall pit crew was chosen. It usually came through a very short conversation, such as, “You're changing tires next Sunday.”
“There really wasn’t any great science to it back then,” Lind recalls. “I got my opportunity to change tires when Larry Pollard left and went to work with what was then known as Petty Enterprises with Richard and Kyle Petty. I was just the next guy in line. It wasn’t like I was any kind of trained specialist to fill the position. I was there and I was a mechanic and the tire guy on the road crew. I got thrown into the mix. My first time doing it, I believe, was in 1983 when we went to Riverside, Calif., and won the thing with Ricky Rudd driving.”
In that era, the mechanics of a pit stop were quite different than what’s performed today. For instance, drivers brought their cars to a complete stop in the pit box before crews were allowed to go over the wall. Second, tire carriers handed tires off to changers and didn’t place them on the spindles. Finally, a third air gun was put into play, allowing work to be performed on both sides of the car at the same time. Even so, a time of 22 to 23 seconds was considered a good stop.
“Things were different then," Lind said. “You couldn’t leave the wall until the car was in the pit box. You couldn’t go out slightly ahead of the car like they do today. The times weren’t even relative.
“We had three air guns back then, too. We had a left-side guy who jumped over and loosened the left-side lugs while we were on the right side. All the teams did that before NASCAR outlawed the third gun. Still, we won the pit crew championship four years in a row and no other team has ever won four, much less four straight.”
Myers, a longtime RCR employee, recalls how everyone on the team had a variety of responsibilities.
“We had no specialists whatsoever like what makes up teams today,” Myers recalls. “A pit crew member was the same guy who worked on the brakes, the same guy who worked on the motor and swept the floor. Everybody did everything.”
Smith worked extremely hard to perfect his role as jackman, as the entire stop started with his ability to get the car in the air faster than anyone else. He worked with jack developer George Brunnhoelzl to perfect a jack that was lighter and faster for pit road.
“I was the first to use a one-pump jack,” Smith says. “We started with a three-quarter pump in the jack that needed was five or six pumps to get the car in the air. Then, we went to a seven-eighths pump that needed only three or four pumps. Then we went to a one-inch pump. It was a bear to get pumped but I could do it in one pump. That cut off several seconds in the pits. We put a longer handle on it for better leverage. And over time, we also made the jacks lighter.
“Having Dale Earnhardt as our driver was a big plus, but we did our part to beat other cars off pit road. We did that consistently. When Earnhardt came down pit road in third or fourth, we would most times have him coming out first or second. We all worked well together and just knew what the other guy was doing. We just made it happen.”
Smith, a one-time crew chief for Earnhardt, was one of the first to recognize the need to train pit crews. He initially developed and perfected the basic program that all Sprint Cup teams use today.
“There are a lot more trained athletes out there now,” Smith continued. “As I got older, I started working out on my own and I felt stronger and more in shape. I knew to compete with the younger guys, I was going to have to. The guys today train hard and work hard. I spent a lot of time watching race tapes to make me a better jackman. [Teams now film their stops.] I also watched the tire carriers and tire changers because when I retired as a jackman, I was also Dale’s crew chief. From 1999 until 2005 when I left RCR, I was the pit crew manager and trainer. So I was working on the routines for those guys. I hired a regular trainer so those guys would be fit, eat right and not be tired out during races.”
“The Flying Aces set the standard for a lot of the other pit crews,” said Danny Lawrence, chief engine builder for RCR in the 1980s. “It was kind of like watching Tiger Woods play golf when they pitted a car. He doesn’t ever look like he’s in a hurry and they never did, either. Today, they use lighter aluminum jacks and better air sockets, etc. Then, it was just the ability of the guys to get the job done. Earnhardt was really good at getting in on pit road, but there was no pit road speed in those days. But we never seemed to have loose wheels because the boys didn’t make mistakes. Those guys had a lot invested in the race because they also worked on the cars. They didn’t fly guys in to change tires back then. They were the guys over the wall.”
Myers adds there was one important piece of the equation that glued the team together.
“We were best of friends then and we’re still the best of friends today,” Myers says. “It wasn’t that we just liked each other, we loved each other.
“I think what made the team so good was Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt. They didn’t hesitate for one minute to give us what we needed to win. Richard was right there with us when we got there in the morning and when we left to go home at night. Sometimes, he was there longer than us and Dale was the same way. Those were two guys who never gave up whatsoever. Because of those guys, we just gave it all we had.”