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The Pit and the Pandemonium
Rick Reilly
November 30, 2005
Should your brain pack up and move to Pluto, leaving you to volunteer for Jeff Burton's NASCAR pit crew, as I did, here are the actual, helpful safety tips they will give you, no joke: 1) When on fire, don't panic. 2) If a tire comes at your face, try to block it with your arm. 3) Should a race car flip at 150 miles per hour and hurtle toward the pit, be sure to run.
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November 30, 2005

The Pit And The Pandemonium

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Should your brain pack up and move to Pluto, leaving you to volunteer for Jeff Burton's NASCAR pit crew, as I did, here are the actual, helpful safety tips they will give you, no joke: 1) When on fire, don't panic. 2) If a tire comes at your face, try to block it with your arm. 3) Should a race car flip at 150 miles per hour and hurtle toward the pit, be sure to run.

Burton's pit crew enjoys making rookies so scared their spleens run up their throats.

"He's gonna be a Gas Runner, right?" Burton said at a team meeting before the Nov. 13 Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix. (Yes, I was, though I had no idea what the hell one did.) "Anybody show him pictures of the last Gas Runner we had?"

Burton and his crew know disasters, because they've been in more of them than Anderson Cooper. Gas Man Larry (the Legend) Hartle--he shoves the 81-pound fuel cans into Burton's Chevy--caught fire last year, at Michigan. As five teammates pounded on his prostrate body to try to snuff out the flames, Larry remembers thinking, Man, I must really be on fire!

Shock Man Skip Pope didn't have to guess. He knew. He was in the garage just a week ago when a tailpipe belched a plume of fire, turning his arms and legs into tiki torches. "I didn't enjoy it all that much," he said, surprisingly.

Oh, and the team's Jack Man, Josh Yost, nearly had his right foot sliced off when Rusty Wallace's car clipped him. Six months later Yost still can't work in the pit nor has he regained the feeling in his foot.

All of which made me ask the question, "Excuse me [nervously clearing throat]? But [sweaty brow] what exactly [cough, cough] does a Gas Runner do?"

"You'll find out," they said, grinning gleefully and handing me my uniform. It was not comforting: Fire-retardant helmet (if I wanted it), fire-retardant suit ("Remember, that suit's only good for eight seconds," one Tire Catcher said), even fire-retardant pit shoes, which carried a pleasant warning under the tongue: MOTOR SPORTS ARE HIGHLY DANGEROUS WITH RISKS OF DEATH AND INJURY. And then a cheery, "Just do it!"

Gas Runner? Why not Nitro Juggler? Wolverine Flosser? This is not what I had in mind. I was hoping for Guy Who Hands Driver Gatorade or Guy Who Washes Window with 20-Foot Squeegee. Gas Runner? What was that? Run after Burton as he peeled off, carrying dripping handfuls of Super Leaded?

I was getting cold feet in my flame-retardant shoes.

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