Every week, crewmembers compete in post-race dash for airport
NASCAR might be all about the driving experience for a few hours of each Cup event, but the people behind the scenes go through a lot of work to avoid getting stuck in their vehicles for very long after each race.
It's annoying. It's frustrating. And it's inevitable. If you're going to go to the race track to see a NASCAR Nextel Cup race in person, you're going to deal with traffic -- lots and lots of traffic.
Bristol Motor Speedway, for example, boasts of 160,000 fans who gather there twice a year to watch racing. That's more than double the average attendance of the Super Bowl.
Race fans consider sitting in traffic part of the price they pay for the thrill of watching the action in person. But what about the teams whose job it is to be at the track 38 weekends a year?
For the drivers, it's simple. Typically they arrive early in the race weekend, long before traffic is an issue. After the race, they take a helicopter out of the track to the airport, and they're well on their way home before the average race fan has managed to get out of the parking lot.
It's not so simple for the rest of the team. They arrive to and from the race track in rental cars and contend with traffic just like fans, with most tracks offering no special help to simplify the ordeal.
That means that teams value shortcuts. Dan Timmons, owner of Nitro Manufacturing, designs and manufactures pit boxes for teams in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series.
"At Daytona, for example, there are over 100 planes lined up to take off the minute the race is over," he said. "There are race cars still being loaded on the trailer, and a lot of the over-the-wall guys are already at the airport trying to get out. The longer it takes them on pit road to pack up, the further back in that line they are to take off. The easier you can make things work on the road, the better."
Daytona is unusual in the race after the race because it is right next to the airport. Rather than drive between the track and the airport, team members walk.
Joey Meier has been piloting planes for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. since 1997 and also spots for Martin Truex Jr.
"Daytona is the fastest place to get to the airport, but because there are so many airplanes, you could sit for a long time before taking off," he said. "You have that first wave of drivers who are leaving. Then you have single car teams with single airplanes, because they're only waiting on eight guys. Then you have the next group of all the big team planes, the 40- and 50-seat airplanes."
"If you show up at an airport after an hour, you get a really good idea of who ran good at the race because their airplane is still sitting on the ramp," Meier said. "They're tearing down and going through inspection, so when they show up, it's just a matter of getting in and going."
Meier said for certain tracks where it's quicker to walk from the track, teams abandon their rental cars in the track infield.
"Guys used to leave their lights on or flatten a tire," he said. "They did things of that nature so you at least had an excuse to leave it there. But after a while, when there were 20 cars in the infield with their lights left on or flat tires, the rental car people caught on. It was a whole lot easier for them to walk over on a Monday and pick up that car than it was to have to go get a wrecker or jump start it or change a tire."
Team members trying to get to the airport away from the traffic surrounding the race track are often going against the traffic pattern of fans leaving the race, which is why many park as far as five miles away from certain tracks.
"Some of the places take really good care of you," Meier said. "Chicago does a really good job of getting race crew guys out on a separate road and going."
"Loudon, New Hampshire, couldn't care less," Meier said. "You're there with the fans, and that's what it is. So you just go into it knowing that.
"If you come out of the tunnel at Texas and you're in the wrong lane, and you don't know it's the wrong lane until it's too late, they make you go the wrong way to the airport. You can't get there. So you end up taking back roads."
Because of the likelihood of ending up on a back road with no idea where they are or how to get where they need to be, many team members carry Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to find their way.
"Some of the traffic routes you've been taking for years get changed and you don't know where you are. So we've gone out and bought GPS units simply to get to the airport after the races. It's become that big of a nightmare."
Another nightmare encountered by teams is when they get to where they parked their rental cars, and the cars are gone.
"The first California race, we had four cars get towed," Meier said. "Normally for your race-day guys, it isn't a bad deal because they don't have any bags. They can just find a ride with somebody else. But with California being such a distance, they fly out on Saturday, so they have bags."
"All their bags and everything got towed. So we had to wait on those four cars. Then the guy who towed them and was in charge of getting the cars had no idea where they were. It was a mess."
Meier said nobody wants to be the last person to the airplane.
"The feeling is, say there are 50 people and you're waiting on eight. Well, those 42 people somehow managed to get there before you. We know where you're working and we know what you were doing, so why did it take so long to get here? And there's always a group of individuals who stop for food or park in the wrong spot or get lost."
"The last person definitely gets scowled at when he gets on the airplane," Meier said. "So it's kind of humorous how much energy is exuded by where you're going to park so that after the race, you have the quickest escape plan."