FONTANA, Calif. -- There was no time to think. Not here, at the Auto Club 500, where hesitation is the difference between a champagne bath and a fiery wreck. No sir, this is NASCAR on a race day, when you act first and douse the flames later. So in a second's time, I close my eyes, hope fate's wind will carry me softly, and make my decision.
Sam tried to look the part, as best he could.
"Like the drivers, we represent a company that's paying our bills, so we need to be professional," explains my boss, Trent Cherry, the rear-tire carrier and coach for the pit crew of this year's Daytona 500 winner, Ryan Newman. "We got to clean you up. We're not the [Cincinnati] Bengals. Did you even shower this morning?"
When Newman needed an honorary pit crew member to join the No. 12 Alltel Dodge team in L.A., it seemed like a win-win to me. No, I'd never been to a race, nor had I seen an actual car engine. But like any NASCAR-illiterate Angeleno, I do own a Johnny Cash T-shirt -- because of the movie, of course -- and a track record of ill-tempered driving on the 405. Plus, it was a chance to get dirty with the throwbacks. See, as a new generation of NASCAR drivers whiten their teeth, don the covers of romance novels and pimp Propecia, I was hoping to start the morning off with a beer, put on 15 pounds and curse at any friggin' thing that moves with the ghosts and greasers of a bygone era -- the tough guys on pit road, the men of Old NASCAR. Except, it seems the push for New NASCAR has affected the crews, who apparently now give grooming lessons.
A shot at redemption comes three hours before the hammer is to drop. I'm on tire prep in Stall 16, our spot on pit road, cleaning the stud holes of rust with a battery-powered brush, a towel, and a can of Brake Clean -- which does not, in fact, "cause eye, skin, nose, and throat irritation," as the label suggests (my nose feels just fine). It's a 60-minute gig, but at least there's time to smoke near highly flammable materials -- or not. Says tire specialist Whit Satterwhite, flashing his can of chew: "We keep it clean for the kids."
It seems good ol' boys, like Angelenos, can't drive in the rain, so a delay sends us back to the garage, where idle time will surely have warring pit crews engaged in some sort of mass Southern-style beatdown -- or at least huddled together under tarps. "We do stare down the other teams," front-tire changer Ben Brown confirms. "Just pick the smaller guys." Well, how 'bout the chump in slacks and an overcoat? "Whenever I wear jeans, they wear suits," explains NASCAR newbie Sam Hornish Jr., Newman's teammate at Penske Racing. "My teammates are very helpful, but I'm still trying to figure this all out." Silly rookie.
Then, back at our hauler, there's a cute team cooking session. I help transport driver Rick Johnson with the mac and cheese, and learn that the autographed souvenir from Daytona is not, in fact, a checkered tablecloth. Then, a crew strategy meeting, and a warning for the new guy. "Just do you job fast," Newman says, "and get it right the first time." Adds crew chief Roy McCauley: "We're gunning for a championship. We can't afford a mistake by someone who doesn't have the experience or knowledge." Yikes!
Which one of these guys doesn't look quite like the others?
The hammer drops! Engineer Andrea Mueller -- the first female on a Daytona-winning crew -- offers me a headset, and here's what I gathered early on: Newman is one of those loud blurry dots, and he complains a lot. Says the car is tight, and yet it's loose too, largely due to what they call a "weeping track" -- even their tracks are sissies.
Still, when Newman pits under caution, the seven "over-the-wall" guys temporarily turn tough. They clear the Dodge with what Cherry calls "the leap of f------ faith" while evading our erratic neighbor Kyle Busch. ("He's taken a few guys out," White said.) Then they change four tires, add fuel, and adjust the track bar, wedge and air pressure -- all in 13 seconds.
Utilizing a maneuver they call a "cage fighter," our gas man George Whitley does double duty: he pulls the right front tire -- which would've been Brown's task -- and gets back in time to plug in and do his job, thereby cutting our time. Says Cherry, who as the crew coach is something like an NFL position coach to McCauley's head coach: "If George wasn't so athletic, it'd be impossible."
Turns out three of Newman's crew members played collegiate sports, including fuel-catch-can man Britt Goodrich (a former North Carolina State linebacker) and White (linebacker at Virginia). Newman's crew also won last year's Nextel Pit Crew Challenge, an All-Star-type event with a $70,300 purse. "These days, everybody on pit road is an athlete," says Cherry, a former QB at Lenoir Rhyne College.
Fortunately, the skills I developed as a backup JV QB won't be needed today. My pit stop task: make sure the DVD-R is running so these tech geeks can review their performance after each stop -- which I completely failed to do on two of our first seven stops. (Hey, use your imagination, people!)
Ryan Newman's pit crew found some very important jobs for Sam to do.
At 8 p.m. there's another rain delay. Exhausted, we head back to the hauler, where we, the symbol of a new NASCAR generation -- educated, athletic and clean -- will surely unfurl our yoga mats, blow-dry each other's hair and discuss whether Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson will get married already. It seems the crew takes its cue from Newman, a wholesome, married Indiana boy with an engineering degree from Purdue -- all of which would suggest we're boring. Except Newman's one of Gillette's Young Guns, which could mean we're also dangerous, and loosely affiliated with Emilio Estevez.
And so a funny thing happens when night falls, fatigue sets in and walls crumble inside the familiar confines of the team's mobile headquarters -- there are charley horses, "King of the Hill" impressions, and wagers. One hundred bucks says Krissie Newman can't get her husband to reduce his body fat -- by any percentage, really. Admits our portly driver of his beloved Krispy Kremes: "Do you have any idea how hard it is to eat like that and look like this?"
And just like that, New NASCAR is Old NASCAR, and its ghosts are glorious greasers once again. Or, as Krissie Newman puts it: "They're like a bunch of brothers, always having dumb conversations about nothing." Makes sense. This crew has been together for two and a half years. Some of them have been on the crew for five. Both numbers are atypical.
But the fun and games can't last forever. This road is more than gas and glory. There's pressure, too. Great commitment is necessary. A win at Daytona can net a team $1.5 million. That's why you get fired if you miss a race; why they're more than weekend warriors; why they get together throughout the week to practice at the Penske Shop near Charlotte; and why their wives and families must be very understanding.
Back in Newman's hauler during the rain delay, there was plenty of fun to be had.
"Break time's over, boys," McCauley says. "Get your ducks in a row." Energized, we march back to the track, and this time we forego the stretching to toss the pigskin under the stadium lights and a soft drizzle on pit road. It's official: This is the coolest crew in NASCAR -- and I just drilled the gas can. Luckily, they call the race for the night.
"Will you be joining us tomorrow?" Cherry asks.
Wouldn't miss it for the world.
After a pleasant night's rest at a Fontana motel, I'm back at the track on Monday morning. Hey, that reminds me
Lets stack some tires!
After starting 10th, Newman pits under caution, and now we're running and air-gunning, changing two tires -- not four -- in five seconds to get him out ahead of the pack. A nifty strategy, and now he's in first!
Then Newman rubs a wall, drops to 13th, and I'm told we can't complain about our driver.
"Ryan," McCauley says, "drives it like you stole it." Down the stretch, Newman breaks from a three-wide pack, and finishes 10th. There are yelps, high-fives and semi-manly hugs. "Top 10 wins championships," McCauley reminds our driver, who now sits second in the points race, off to his best start ever. Please -- no thank yous necessary.
"But, hey," Cherry says, "before you go, can you help with these tires?" And now I'm wondering if there's a soccer game in town.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.