Commentary

Life in the pits

Watching a NASCAR event from the pit box

Originally Published: July 12, 2009
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPNChicago.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks. At 51 and a lifelong self-professed gearhead when it comes to auto racing and race cars, I'm living proof.

Having spent the better part of the past quarter-century covering professional auto racing, particularly NASCAR, I thought I knew just as much about stock car racing as guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

[+] EnlargeKevin Harvick's Car
Heather Bonkowski for ESPN.comKevin Harvick's crew pushes his car to the starting grid.
Well, yes, I do know a lot, but I learned even more Saturday night during the LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Thanks to the Best Seat In The House promotion by Shell and Pennzoil, the primary sponsors of Kevin Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet, I was able to live most race fans' dream: sitting atop the pit box and getting a first-hand look at how a crew chief calls a race and interacts with his driver.

Think of standing on the sideline at Soldier Field, ready to help Bears coach Lovie Smith call plays, or discussing how to pitch to the next hitter with Cubs manager Lou Piniella at Wrigley Field.

That's the same concept. I was right behind crew chief Gil Martin, complete with my own headset and radio. Of course, Gil ran the show, but I was there to offer advice if he needed it. He told me he'd keep that in mind.

Chicagoland Speedway has been one of Harvick's best tracks. He's won on the 1½-mile oval in southwest suburban Joliet four times, twice in the Sprint Cup series -- including the first race the track ever hosted in 2001 -- and two other times in the Nationwide Series.

Normally one of the top drivers on the circuit, Harvick is having the worst season of his nearly 10-year Cup career. He's mired in 25th place in the standings and is all but eliminated from making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a playoff format within the last 10 races of the season that determines the eventual champion.

It's not for lack of trying. Much like Richard Childress Racing teammates Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Casey Mears, Harvick has been beset by considerable misfortune that has not been of his doing. Mainly, he either has been in the wrong place at the wrong times when wrecks occur or inadvertently falls victim when other drivers struggle.

Prerace interviews

I had a chance to sit down with both Martin and chief engine builder Danny Lawrence and talk about the struggles Harvick and the team have had this year.

"Unfortunately, we've been caught up in a lot of other people's misfortunes for almost seven times in the last 10 races," Martin said. "The last three races [before Chicago] in particular, we've had cars capable of winning, and just got caught up in other people's misfortunes.

[+] EnlargeJerry Bonkowski and Gil Martin
Heather Bonkowski/ESPNChicago.comKevin Harvick's crew chief Gil Martin shares some of his knowledge with Jerry Bonkowski.
"We've had great race cars, we just haven't been able to show it. We haven't changed anything because the cars have been good. We just need to change our luck … and just get headed back in the right direction."

Indeed, Richard Childress Racing has had a history of building good race cars and having success. The late Dale Earnhardt won six of his seven Sprint Cup championships while racing for RCR, an organization that is especially strong when it comes to extracting every ounce of horsepower out of its motors.

"We've had success and been very fortunate not to have any [engine] failures," Lawrence said. "All of our cars are running real good, but you don't have to be off very much to be a 15th-place car instead of a top-five car. It doesn't take much at all.

"We're working real hard to get everyone back on track. It's no secret that we have been off a little bit. We see light at the end of the tunnel and we're getting better every week. The level of competition is so high right now, that you have to be on top of your game to win one of these races. We've had races we should have won. We're used to having at least one of our cars in the top five every week, and we've been off. We're working real hard to straighten that out and to get it."

Race time

Climbing to the top of what teams refer to as "the war wagon" -- where decisions are made when to make a pit stop and what type of changes will take place -- I find myself in a very comfortable position with a great view of the track.

The pit box has five television monitors that hang above Martin, two engineers that sit alongside him, as well as Harvick's wife, Delana, who keeps track of lap-by-lap times and speeds. Two of the monitors carry the TNT telecast, two others carry live and updated statistics, and the fifth primarily shows the on-track action from a camera within Harvick's car.

The engineers continually monitor the laptop computers that sit in front of them, which give Martin large amounts of information on how the car is performing, what type of fuel mileage it's getting, how many gallons of fuel are needed to complete not only the current run on the track (typically a fuel run is about 45 to 50 laps), as well as how much fuel in total will be needed to complete the 267-lap, 400-mile race.

With the headset and microphone atop my head, I am tempted to give a shout out to Harvick behind the wheel, but I think better of it, lest I be booted from the war wagon before the race even begins.

Harvick starts the race in 28th position. For the first 20 laps, he makes little progress moving up through the pack.

"It's terrible, tight in the center and loose off," Harvick tells Martin. In other words, the setup on the car makes it very difficult for Harvick to steer through the turns, and then suddenly becomes hard to control once he exits a turn.

One of the more humorous moments of the night -- perhaps not to Harvick, though -- is a brief conversation he has over the team radio with his spotter, essentially an observer who stands atop the grandstands and keeps Harvick advised of the location of other cars around him. (Due to safety equipment, a driver has virtually no peripheral vision, thus the importance of having spotters.)

"Clear, I guess," the spotter says.

"What do you mean, you guess?" Harvick retorts.

Since no other exchanges follow about that incident, it's pretty clear Harvick got his message across.

After making moderate progress up to 25th place, Harvick once again falls back, prompting Martin and his engineers to huddle to discuss strategy and what changes they'll make to the car during the first pit stop, which is slated to occur sometime within the next 25 laps or so -- or sooner if there's a wreck or debris is found on the racetrack.

"We'll tighten it up and put some wedge in it if you want to in the first stop," Martin tells Harvick, who agrees with his crew chief's call. Wedge adjustments, which are made with a wrench-like device, are designed to free up the suspension on the car, which should make it easier for Harvick to steer through the turns and diminish the chance of losing control coming out of turns.

Martin climbs down from atop the pit box to examine the first set of tires that were on Harvick's car at the start of the race. He's checking for excessive or unusual tire wear that could be causing the tight-in, loose-out issues. After a couple of minutes of examining the used rubber, Martin is satisfied that the problem is not the tires and climbs back to his perch.

"I think we're a lot better here," Harvick says after the changes Martin has made on the car start to show promise. "Let's see where it goes."

Slowly, Harvick starts climbing upward in the race. While he has a few occasional setbacks that may drop him a spot or two, he eventually gets as high as 10th on Lap 94. Unfortunately, it's as high as he'll score in the race.

[+] EnlargeJerry Bonkowski
Heather Bonkowski for ESPNChicago.comAll in all, life is good from the pit box.
He settles into a rhythm that keeps him between 13th and 16th position for the middle third of the race.

Throughout the race, Martin's head is in constant movement, swiveling around between watching the TV monitors to the laptops, and then turning around to watch Harvick's car go all the way around the racetrack.

Harvick's car is getting good, but not great fuel mileage -- well, at least in stock car terms, averaging 2.95 laps per gallon. That means he's getting about 4.4 miles per gallon.

One of the most interesting aspects of life atop the war wagon is that all pit stops are recorded from an overhead camera. Once Harvick's car is serviced and away -- typically in about 13 seconds or less -- pit crew members go over the tape to see if there were any errors made that could have cost Harvick precious seconds on pit road.

As the race continues to play out and wind down, Harvick appears to have a good chance of finishing with a top-10 finish, which would have been only the third of the season for him in the first 19 races.

Unfortunately, bad luck strikes again. With just over 20 laps left in the race, the power steering pump on Harvick's Chevy Impala goes bad, dropping fluid on the racetrack that brings out the caution flag.

The team tries twice, including an extra unscheduled stop, to fix the problem -- or at least keep things running for the final laps -- but it gets worse with each passing lap, as does Harvick's place on the grid.

When the checkered flag finally falls after Lap 267, veteran 50-year-old driver Mark Martin has won his fourth race of the year, while Harvick and Gil Martin go home with yet another disappointing finish for the season scorecard: 19th.

"We were having another good night, but then lost it with the power steering pump," Gil Martin said. "I haven't lost a power steering pump in like 20 years. We haven't had one go bad. It's a part that's pretty bulletproof, but tonight it wasn't."

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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