It was the Daytona 500, the premier event of the NASCAR season, and Mike Lingerfelt was pumped.
The front tire changer for Tony Stewart’s team had no idea that by the end of the day he would be hit by his driver on pit road while retrieving an errant tire and suffer a broken leg.
That was in 2000. Just more than seven months later, Lingerfelt was ready to return. Now, a little more than 11 years later, he continues to race out onto pit road as NASCAR drivers barrel through at speeds of 45-55 mph. He jumps off the wall and races around the car as others zoom by, racing to meet top speed as he changes the tires.
He never thinks twice about it.
For the men who have grown up pitting cars in the sport, that’s just how it is.
Sure, pit road is a dangerous place. It’s easy to forget that, though. Serious injuries are increasingly rare. Pit crew members and drivers weekly engage in a choreographed dance in which each works to go as fast as he can — and to protect the others.
Drivers try to balance keeping top speed and gaining positions on stops with an awareness of where all those pit crew members whipping on and off pit road are. They watch for their own jackmen and tire men racing around their car. They peel out of the stop watching for the crew members of the teams pitted in front of them. They try to race out of their stall without tagging anyone.
They are almost always successful in that endeavor. That leads people to take it for granted, to view pit crews merely as men doing their jobs.
But what is it really like?
Joe Garone, who leads Furniture Row Racing now, puts it in terms anyone can relate to: “Go stand next to the highway where the speed limit is 55 miles an hour and walk about three feet from a car. Would you do that? I wouldn’t do it. But I’d go over the wall.”
Lingerfelt can relate to that feeling. He spent “seven months and 14 days” rehabilitating after breaking his leg in 2000, doing therapy at the Carolina Panthers’ stadium, among other sites, in an effort to speed up his recovery. He wanted to get back.
He never considered any other option. For him, like many in the sport, this is more than a job. It’s a passion.
“It’s still dangerous,” he said. “But you keep that in the back of your mind because you’ve still got a job to do and you can’t worry about it. We go out there each and every day and perform our jobs to the best of our ability and don’t ever worry about getting hurt.”
He puts that accident — and others — in perspective.
“It was just a freak accident,” said Lingerfelt, who has spent 17 years as a pit-crew member and now works for Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle. “I got put up on the hood a couple of weeks ago. I really didn’t see; he forgot where the pit box was and turned in real late.”
Lingerfelt had a 14-inch rod in his leg after his 2000 incident but had that removed after two years because it was too long for his leg. He says he never feels the pain from that anymore. Over the years, he’s learned how to manage a potential brush with the car, how to minimize the risk in any incident.
“You kind of see him coming, so immediately just jump, that way you’re in the air,” Lingerfelt said of preparing for when a car might run into him. “You don’t want to get hit on the ground, that’s when you get hit really bad. Bounce off the fender or a hood and kind of absorb some of the impact. It’s when you’re feet (are) planted, that’s sort of bad news.”
He’s been “bruised a little bit head to toe,” but that’s not backing him off.
When it comes time to rip off one of those sub-10 second stops, Lingerfelt thinks only of what he has to do — the thought of all those other cars and the chaos that surrounds him slips from his mind.
It helps that things have changed over the years. As with everything else, NASCAR has monitored pit road and worked to make it as safe as possible. The sanctioning body mandated pit-road speeds in the early 1990s, one of many changes made over the years. This season, the "catch can man" was removed from pit stops as a new fueling process was instituted, removing the person standing behind the cars on the stops and putting six men per team on pit road instead of seven.
The equipment used and gear on the crew members has also become increasingly safer. Lingerfelt has been one of those members testing Mechanix Wear products on pit road as gloves and pads became tailored to each man’s job, allowing heightened protection for the pit crews.
Championship crew chief Robbie Loomis, now vice president at Richard Petty Motorsports, says that fire has always been the biggest concern on pit road. He points out that people who want changes there, such as increasing pit-road speed, need to keep in mind the consequences of any such change.
“It doesn’t take much when you get hit by a race car as heavy as these things are, they don’t have to be traveling very fast,” he said of the potential for injury. “. . . It’s as dangerous as it’s ever been.
"I think the drivers have stepped up their level of respect for the crew members through, I think, their appreciation for knowing how hard their guys work and train and how tight the competition is on pit road, so I think that’s helped. But to me it’s still pretty dangerous.”
Ryan Pemberton spent years working on pit crews. Now a crew chief at Red Bull Racing, he remembers just how different pit road once was.
When he was a teenager, he held the sign up for Mark Martin’s team. In those days, the signboard wasn’t stretched out on a pole like today, but rather someone walked out on pit road holding it above their head so the driver could see it. There was no pit-road speed at that time, and he remembers a time when a car raced between him and pit road at high speed, almost blowing him over.
At the time, he just thought that was cool and admired the driver’s skill and ability to watch out for him. Much has changed on pit road since then, but one key thing has not: Drivers still watch out for all those crew members scurrying about on pit road.
A few weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson bumped into one of teammate Jeff Gordon’s pit crew members while pulling off pit road. He immediately radioed his team to check on the crew member and made sure he was OK later. He said that was the first time in all his years of racing that he had made contact with a pit-crew member.
But it’s clearly something drivers are aware of as they enter and exit pit road.
“Those guys have an extremely dangerous job on pit road,” Carl Edwards said.
It’s a job, though, that most wouldn’t trade. And one where it’s easy to forget in the heat of the moment just how daring pit-crew members must be.
“I try to tell people that when I get focused and I got out to do a job, I honestly forget that there’s 150,000 people in the stands and there’s a million people watching on TV, however many,” Lingerfelt said. “You just get so focused on what you’re doing you forget everything but the job at hand.”