Cover Story: NASCAR pit crews - it's a dangerous job

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Race fans start your engines.  Two of NASCAR's biggest events and another class are going into the Hall of Fame.

Charlotte is the center of the racing universe.

We are off to the races.  Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord is the place to be.

Tens of thousands of race fans are in town.  A lot of them camping out at CMS and getting ready for a week and half of NASCAR action.

Saturday night is the All-Star race.  Friday night is the final practice and qualifying.

24 NASCAR Sprint Cup teams went head to head Thursday night in the Pit Crew Challenge.  The Number 11 Fed Ex team took the title. Their second in a row.

They get to split $70,000 and they get the number one pit selection for the All Star race..

It's a dangerous job, but somebody's got to do it.  Not just dangerous for the drivers, but for the pit crew too.

A crash last weekend in Dover, Delaware brought that home.  Fortunately, all the drivers were OK.  But one of the crew members in the pit was hit by a bouncing spring from one of the wrecked cars.

Back when Junior Johnson was running hooch, safety wasn't exactly top of mind.  But these days, the pit crew has a lot to worry about.

How would you like to be standing just feet from cars going by at 180 miles an hour?  They don't think about it, they told us.  But rest assured it is on the minds of NASCAR.

They operate in relative anonymity.  From the stands they look like ants racing around a car.  But these are real man.

"We're real people and we bleed real blood."

In the last decade since Dale Earnhardt's untimely death NASCAR has become more safety conscious.

So much attention is given to drivers safety.  And keeping fans safe at the track.  And rightly so.

But what about the team members who keep these fast cars on the fast track?

"When I first started going over the wall in the Sprint Cup Series you wore a ball hat if you wanted to and a head set."

A lot's changed, Rodney Fetters told us, for the pit crews since he began in the business 14 years ago.

They're now required to wear helmets, fire resistant suits and fire proof shoes and gloves.

"We're protected as we can be.. there's not much that you can be protected from a fast race car if it hits you," Fetters said.

But this assistant pit crew coach for Greg Biffle's Number 16 car says every year NASCAR implements something new from a safety standpoint whether it's on his side of the wall or the other side.

And drivers like Bobby Labonte say there is a camaraderie among the teams when it's a question of safety.

"If you ask them a competitive question they won't tell you.. if you ask them a safety question everybody's going to help everybody out," said Labonte.

Technology has improved their odds.  But still it happens.  Fears went through the crowd after a wreck last Saturday at Dover.  No drivers were hurt.

But debris from the crash, a spring, struck a pit crew member in the leg hard enough he had to stay in the hospital overnight.

"What we do is dangerous. when you step off of that wall you're taking into consideration.." taking into consideration, he said, that you're dealing with tons of metal and lightening speeds.

"If you have to worry about that in the back of your head.. you don't need to be doing what we're doing. That's just not how you do it.. you have to do it without thinking about it."

Fetters says every year some company comes up with something new - whether it's better fire-resistant suits, better gloves, better helmets that take more impact.  As technology evolves so does their safety.

Still it's a dangerous job but one they wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

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