If you want to improve your best lap time around a track by one full second, you will either need to spend a lot of money improving the development of your car — better engine, better dampers — or drive like a maniac at 10-tenths, pushing your car to the absolute edge. Either scenario comes at a cost, whether its dollars spent at the machine shop or dollars spent destroying tires. And for all of that cost, a 1-second improvement on a two minute lap time over 30 minutes of racing equals just 15 seconds total. That’s it. To earn that mere 15 seconds over 30 minutes of driving at the absolute edge puts you and your car at considerable risk. A simple mental mistake could throw you off the track, which can put you behind 30 seconds or more. In that situation, you are going the wrong direction in time. But, what if you could get 15 seconds, without spending any money at all and without driving your car like a complete lunatic? For endurance drivers, a 15-second improvement is easy: all you need to do is orchestrate a better pit stop.
Race teams that run NASA’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill or the Western Endurance Racing Championship series know that a good pit stop can save tons of time on track. Many teams during the long 25-hour race will do between 15 to 20 pit stops. Saving 10 seconds per stop equals 200 seconds of time, which is 3 minutes and 20 seconds, putting you almost two full laps ahead of your competition. Think about how hard you have to drive at night to put your competition down by two laps. That is difficult to accomplish. Instead of driving at the limit, take a more conservative approach on track, save some gas mileage and move ahead in the standings by just improving your pit stops.
I use the word orchestrate because it is the perfect word for the coordination of many moving parts toward a single goal. That is what a pit stop is: many people working hard with different jobs toward the shared goal of getting the car back on track as quickly as possible.
If you don’t have a plan, I can guarantee you your pit stop will be a small disaster. The team that is just down the pit wall from you, the team that has a plan, will most certainly be out of the pits and putting down laps before you. And they will do it using the same equipment you have and spend no more dollars than you did. It comes down to having a plan and practicing it.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
I’ll never forget a particular Friday night at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. It was freezing cold. All of the teams were done qualifying and most people were in their motorhomes getting warm and trying to get some rest before the longest day in motorsports. The hot pits were empty except for one team: my team. We were in the hot pits practicing driver swaps, fuel stops, and tire changes. We were the only one of 77 teams entered that year practicing in the dark — because we knew we would be doing pit stops in the dark. Spoiler alert: my NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill clock trophy is one of my favorite trophies I ever earned in racing. And my team earned that trophy not with a fast car, but with good strategy and fast organized penalty-free pit stops.
It doesn’t have to be the 25 Hours of Thunderhill to take pit stop practice seriously, it could be a short three-hour enduro where you will do one or two pit stops. The time saved on pit lane will only help you with track position. The concept of what I call “full dress rehearsal” is just that, practicing with all of the gear on with a stop watch rolling to ensure everyone is proficient and timely in their job. We aren’t a NASCAR team. We do not have paid employees who earn up to $120,000 a year jumping over a pit wall. Since my pit crew is paid a salary in free hot dogs and beer at the track, they don’t have as much experience fueling racecars. That is why it is crucial that these volunteer crew members be given multiple opportunities to practice what they are going to do when the race goes green.
Pit stops can be stressful, and when people get stressed, they rely on their basic training, if they ever had any. The trick is to provide them basic training to fall back on. Also being aware of things that can complicate a human’s ability to complete a task — fireproof gloves are clumsy, face shields on helmets often fog up — will help you to mitigate those problems and find solutions to deal with them. You can’t take fireproof gloves off during a pit stop, so how do you work around that problem?
For driver swaps, I designed a pit stop where the driver doesn’t need to do anything to get him or herself into the car. I want the driver thinking about what they need to do: look to the crew chief for the signal to leave, don’t stall the car, remember the pit speed is 25 miles per hour, get back on track minding the blend line, race hard and bring home a victory. Those are the things I want the driver concentrating on instead of thinking about their lap belt.
To solve this, I let two crew members share the duty of getting the driver into the car, one in the interior and one at the driver’s door. Their tasks are: cinching the five-point harness, connecting the Cool Shirt, plugging in the radio, connecting the driver water tube to the helmet, hooking up fresh air to the helmet, putting up the window net and closing the doors. The goal with this system is to get the driver safely into the car before the fueling is done. The only thing holding a car up at a pit stop is the ability to get as gasoline into the fuel tank as quickly as possible. The flow of the fuel jugs defines the pit stop time. The driver swap must be efficient enough that it doesn’t extend the pit stop. That is what all the practicing is for. Efficiency is key.
When I am orchestrating a pit stop for my team, I take that role seriously, almost as if I were an NFL head coach, hence my laminated pit stop “play sheet.” I need to ensure everyone on the team knows exactly what we are going to do when the car comes down pit lane. That means I ensure everyone has their equipment, they know what their job is, they know when they need to be suited up, they know what the play call is and, most importantly, they are ready to go before the car comes in. Nobody should be stressed when the car comes down pit lane because everyone is ready.
The NASA Endurance Racing Regulations detail specific things which are required to be in a team’s pit stall for an endurance race. If a team fails to have these items in their pit stall that will equal a penalty, which nobody wants.
8.1. Pit space
All competitors are required to keep two gallons of water, at least one 5 lb. or larger BC or ABC rated fire extinguisher (with a gauge indicating fully charged), and at least 5 pounds of oil absorbent in their pit space.
NASA officials have checked my pit box every event ensuring I have the required equipment listed in 8.1. Another important requirement by NASA is the use of a crew member holding a fire extinguisher during a fuel stop.
8.2.13. During refueling, at least one crewmember must hold a fire extinguisher and be ready to put out a possible fire while other crewmember(s) refuel the vehicle. The person manning the fire extinguisher must remain seven (7) to ten (10) feet away from the refueler(s) so as not to be engulfed in any flash fires that may occur.
NASA Endurance Racing Regulations also dictate what refuelers need to wear while fueling a racecar.
8.5. Refueler attire
Refuelers must wear safety equipment equivalent to the driver (except head neck restraint) as per the CCR (i.e. Nomex suit, gloves, shoes, and helmet) during refueling. There is no limit to the number of refuelers provided that each is wearing the proper attire. All over-the-wall crewmembers in contact with any fueling device or catch pan is considered another refueler and subject to proper attire. All refuelers with open faced helmets must wear a balaclava (head sock) while refueling whether they have any facial hair or not.
PIT BOX LAYOUT
Once the team understands the rules of the pit stop and is outfitted with the right equipment for the pit stop, it is time to orchestrate where everyone should be when the pit stop is about to begin. To do this I use bright orange duct tape and a Sharpie. I lay a piece of duct tape on the ground where Fueler No. 1 is supposed to stand and then I write on that duct tape, “Fueler 1” to designate exactly where he or she should be standing when the car comes down pit lane.
When we lay out our orange duct tape, each piece of tape details where every crew member needs to be, where the pit board needs to be and where the car needs to land. We also outline where our fuel spill carpet will go. This is important because NASA does not allow the fuel spill carpet to remain in the hot pits during the race, it has to be laid out a lap before the car is coming in and taken away after the car leaves. The tape marks help ensure the carpet is laid exactly where it should be for the car to stop on top of it. We do not use paint for any markings in the pit lane based on NASA rules.
2.7. Pit spaces / Markings
Competitors will not mark the track property with any type of permanent marking such as paint. Each team is responsible for their own space and its maintenance. Any tape applied to any surface MUST be removed immediately after the race. Failure to do so will result in penalties to the team.
When we put our orange tape on the ground to designate where each person will stand, we bring a measuring tape and ensure the fire extinguisher crew member is exactly 7 to 10 feet away from the filler door on the car pursuant to NASA rules. You can’t help put out the fire if you yourself are on fire.
TIPS AND TRICKS
From years of racing, with many different failures and experiences, we have streamlined how the team operates during a pit stop. Here are a few specific tips and tricks that have helped our team during enduros. One thing our team implemented was a pair of bright green day-glow gloves worn by the crew chief. They are easy to see at night and the driver knows not to move an inch until the green glove says it’s OK. Our cars use LED lights that match the cars’ livery to help spotters and the crew chief know exactly where the car is at on track during a night race.
Communications for everyone. This is a huge part of ensuring a pit stop can be fast. Not only does our team have multiple spotters around the track during the entire race, we also have radios for the crew members, so if there is an issue during a pit stop, they are all aware of it. It is tough to hear what is going on when you have a helmet on. We have a specific hands free system that uses an ear bud and a throat microphone for the crew members wearing helmets.
Another quick tip from our team is having an extra gas cap at the ready. Gas caps love to get dropped by gloved hands that are in a hurry. And gas caps also love to bounce around and roll directly under the car. We use a small catch tray with foam in it that is placed under the fuel door on the ground to catch any spilled fuel. Inside that tray is a spare gas cap just in case the team needs one in a hurry.
BRING IT TOGETHER
Once you have your plan, you have your equipment, you have practiced your pit stops over and over and over again, the next thing to do is to be ready for the unexpected. I like to have my entire tool cart at my pit wall and lots of spare parts (axles, distributors, etc.). I like to have lots of people around that aren’t on the “over the wall” pit crew team ready to help when something goes awry. Because this is racing, something will probably go awry. It is the team that can solve problems quickly that will be on the podium when the long race is over.
We have discussed a lot of subjects in their broad sense to improve pit stops. SpeedNews has covered more intricate details of some of these subjects in the Toolshed Engineer column. Links to these specific columns that relate to fast pits stop and can help your team are listed below:
Besides the multiple columns mentioned above on the subject of improving pit stops, I recently was a guest on Ross Bentley’s Podcast Speed Secrets where Ross and I discussed many aspects of improving a racing team, including how to organize infrastructure for better pit stops. You can listen to the episode here.
So, if you want to improve your standings during an enduro that requires pit stops, simply look at how your team is organized, have a plan and practice, practice, practice. If you do those things, I guarantee you will move up the leaderboard. Good luck and get out of those pits quick!