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When the winner of the Daytona 500 pulls into Victory Lane on Feb. 17, this much is certain: He'll thank more folks than Julia Roberts at the Oscars. Somewhere in that appreciative litany will be mention of his race team, but those kind words will be easy to miss, sandwiched as they likely will be between the paeans to the maker of his oil filters and the designer of his sunglasses. That's too bad, because while the driver gets the spotlight, the faceless guys whooping it up behind him are just as responsible for his presence in the winner's circle. "Drivers get so much of the attention," says Jeff Gordon, who received his share last year, when he won his fourth Winston Cup championship, "but the equipment your team gives you and what your team does with it is everything."
Team is not the first word that comes to mind when talking about NASCAR, but try telling that to the seven guys who, six afternoons a week, spend an hour running around the back lot of Hendrick Motor-sports in Harrisburg, N.C., changing tires and refueling cars. The seven make up Gordon's pit crew, and their daily practices are only one aspect of their training. There are also weightlifting sessions plus videotape study—on top of a full day's work in the shop. "We've always given a lot of attention to the pit crew," says Gordon's car chief, Brian Whitesell. "Other teams are now giving as much attention to it as we have."
There's more to Team Gordon's success than the pit crew. Hendrick Motorsports has 350 employees, including engineers, fabricators and mechanics, contributing to its six race teams. Without a doubt, though, the three most important elements of any team are the driver, the crew chief and the pit crew. Knock out one of those legs, and you're in for a period of transition. Knock out two, and you're in for a very long year.
That's what happened to Gordon near the end of die 1999 season, when his longtime crew chief, Ray Evernham, left to oversee Dodge's Winston Cup program. At season's end, his pit crew—a group of hired guns who flew in on race day and were famously dubbed the Rainbow Warriors for then-flashy fire suits and style in the pit—bolted for Dale Jarretfs team and more money. The exodus didn't do much for morale around the Gordon shop. "[The holdovers] had a look on their faces like, Should I stay or should I go?" says Gordon. "I worked hard to get that look off their faces."
Under new crew chief Robbie Loomis, the 24 car finished ninth in 2000, Gordon's worst finish since his rookie season in 1994. However, as he became accustomed to Loomis's laissez-faire leadership style, Gordon sensed the need to become more hands-on. Under Evernham, Gordon confesses, he barely knew his crew members' names. Under Loomis he was giving them pep talks in the hauler before each race.
"There have been times I've had to motivate them and times I've had to calm them down," says Gordon. "I recognized that I needed to step up, and Ray's leaving forced me to do that, which was definitely a good thing. The team we have now is made up of guys who stuck it out, who went through that season that had given them all the more reason to bail."
Their reward for sticking it out was additional responsibility. When it came time to replace the Rainbow Warriors after the 1999 season, pit crew coordinator Andy Papathanassiou didn't go with mercenaries. Instead he chose a riskier route, plucking guys from the shop, guys who would be in it for the long haul. "Loyalty is important," says Gordon. "Maybe because we got burned [by the Rainbow Warriors], loyalty means a little more to us. When you have your whole pit crew say, 'We're going over there for more money,' that's tough to take."
The trouble with the plan was that the garage wasn't crawling with guys who were used to turning 14-second pit stops. Men who can carry 70-pound tires or, in a blink, fasten them to a car don't grow on trees, nor do fellows capable of raising a 3,400-pound car with one pump of a jack. "Four of our seven guys had never been over the [pit] wall in any capacity," says Papathanassiou.
An offensive guard at Stanford from 1986 through '89, Papathanassiou, who's better known as Andy Papa, broke into the racing business in '91, when he sneaked into the garage area a few days before a Winston Cup race in Sonoma, Calif., and asked teams if they needed help. Journeyman driver Derrike Cope's crew offered him a job waxing cars and sweeping floors, which was enough for Papa to quit his job as a contract administrator with Oracle. Papa was soon promoted to jackman, and one of the first things he noticed was that a successful pit stop required considerable athletic prowess. Yet many crews he observed were unathletic and lax in their training. "Coming from an organized system like Division I football, I knew that organized practices and workouts would help them perform better and lead to more consistent pit stops," he says.
Evernham had arrived at a similar conclusion, and the two struck up a friendship. After Evernham hired him to be his pit coach in 1992, Papa set about building a system modeled, to a large degree, after a college football program. It was a revolutionary concept. Crew members were subjected to rigorous daily weight training, pit-stop practices and videotape study. Before the current Hendrick Motorsports shop—which has a 2,000-square-foot weight room—opened in '96, Papa had his crew lift whatever heavy objects they could get their hands on. It wasn't unusual to see, say, a tire changer pumping a 70-pound tire or a jackman curling a 20-pound jack stand. Most Winston Cup teams have emulated the Papa approach, which has created fierce competition for the fittest crew members.