The Homely Lug Nut: The Inventiveness of Teams

Posted by jlubans on February 11, 2014

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Caption: The pit crew in NASCAR racing (Note the two NASCAR umpires in white).
A decade ago, I had a short-lived flirtation with NASCAR, the stock car racing syndicate. Racin’ (that’s right, Racin’) is as American as apple pie; no, make that as American as “shrimp and grits” and deep fried sticks of butter. That’s more like it.
Why short-lived? Well, I was studying the Petty Motorsports team, owned by Richard Petty, racing’s éminence grise, the King, with 200 victories. And before Richard, there was Lee Petty, the daddy, another superb driver. The Pettys are racing’s royalty. Long retired, Richard attends every race; schmooze’s with the sponsors and, back in my day, was in charge. Now, a conglomerate out of Boston owns Petty. While better funded, the Petty teams have yet to get consistently good.
Kyle Petty, the son, was driving the Petty #43, but had only won a race or two. Tragedy had touched Kyle - his son, Adam, died in an accident during practice.
But, the word back then was that the Pettys were on the comeback trail and I wanted to write about their pit crews, the teams that take care of the cars and the driver. The pit crew was becoming increasingly important to the outcome of any race. Regardless of brilliant driving, a slow pit crew would keep the car out of victory lane. As I look back on my time with Petty, I think their lack of improvement soured their willingness to let me observe. Welcoming at first, as the season wore on and the three teams never finished in the top 15, more often in the 20s or 30s in a field of 40 cars, I felt less and less welcome. Midway, I gave up on the story.
After this long introduction, here is a short glimpse into racing and team inventiveness. It comes from my weekend in the inner circle of the half-mile (very short) Martinsville racetrack (make that Speedway!) out in the Virginia countryside:

On a becalmed black sea of tires sits a man. He’s wearing sunglasses against the Sunday morning sun and a fire suit – the kind with all the decals on it. He is either the front tire changer or the back tire changer. Either way he’s one of the seven-member Over-the-Wall team that gets to jump in front of the stock car as it veers at 50mph into the pit zone.
I ask him what he’s doing, and he tells me: “Gluing lug nuts”.
“How does it work?” I ask. He explains that this procedure is the invention of an Italian mechanic some 26 years ago to save time at pit stops. Attaching the lug nuts to the hubs eliminates handling them by hand. The end of the steel bolts that the tire slips over and the lug nut screws down on have a bullet shape. The bullet ending allows the lug nut to sit on top of the bolt, without being knocked off. The air-wrench then pushes the nut onto the bolt and zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, done.
“Done”, means get to the other side of the car, and then back over the wall out of harm’s way. Much can go wrong: imagine there are 7 pit crewmembers flying around the car all at the same time. The engine is smoking and the driver is counting the seconds before he can peel out. Other cars are pitting, only a few feet away. The gas can might spill. The hydraulic hoses can become constrictors. Somebody might forget to tighten a lug nut – a major goof, since the car has to return to the pit area. NASCAR assigns an umpire to each pit crew – to keep an eye on the rules being followed. The saying goes, “If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t racin’.”
A little further down pit lane I ask another tire changer why he’s gluing his lug nuts with a brilliant pink. Pink’s easier to see. Another time saving touch, each tire will have a vertical stripe on it, to match against a mark on the wheel well. At one time, pit stops for new tires, drinks and ice for the driver, cleaning the windshield and adding a few gallons of gas took a leisurely 50 seconds – friends and relatives made up most pit crews. Now, anything around 14 seconds gets high fives, longer than that the team is visibly disappointed. If your pit crew is not made up of NFL linemen or other athletes, you’re not going to win.
In the race – the Sunday morning calm transformed into a tangible roar - the lug nuts fly off, pneumatically spun off in all directions
After a successful pit stop, the two tire changers, caress their smoking air wrenches and give them a drink of oil – it’s a ritual. In between stops, the tire changers practice the drill against a board fitted with five bolts, over and over.
After the car screams away a sweeper gets out into the lane and sweeps the used up lug nuts to the side of the lane, looking down the track to see if anyone is coming in. The homely lug nut's fate: from celebrity to cast-off in less than 4 hours. The pink, magenta and orchid colors fade in the pit gutter. There is an after life; used lug nuts are recycled during daily pit crew practices ever seeking a faster time.

Copyright John Lubans 2014

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