From the Marbles - NASCAR

Everybody longs for the days of "show up and race" in NASCAR. Now, you could do just that, but if you did, you'd get smoked off the track by the guys who prepare, plot, scheme, strategize, predict and then show up and race. A NASCAR race may only be about three hours, but most of the rest of the week is spent setting up for the next track time or breaking down from the last one. A NASCAR operation is more highly choreographed than a celebrity wedding, and you can't get the full sense of the technical interplay at work every single week without seeing it up close and in action. So let's do that, shall we?  

Recently, The Marbles got the opportunity to spend some time hanging in the pit box and the #29 hauler. And since we were actually invited this time, we had time to leisurely snap some photos and bring you along on the experience. Join us.

First off, let's make sure everybody knows what we're talking about when we're talking about a hauler. Behold that big ol' truck below. That there is a hauler:

Now, let's go inside that selfsame hauler pictured above.

The way a NASCAR hauler works is a model of precision from first to last. Everything has a place and everything fits in its place. Start with the way the haulers park at the track; it's a ballet of gargantuan vehicles nose-to-tail and then side-by-side. The most desirable parking space -- the one closest to the track entrance -- goes to the points leader, and on down from there. So the start-and-parkers are much closer to the infield barbecues than the track itself, which is somehow appropriate.

The hauler is tow truck, tool shed, race headquarters and driver sanctuary all at once. That photo above was taken from inside the hauler looking back toward the rear. Every single door, hatch, drawer and locker has a specific, designated purpose, and it's the driver's job to make sure everything's in its place and locked down.

Dig into those drawers and closets and you'll find everything from the crew's preferred snacks (Twizzlers and Krispy Kremes) to miscellaneous tools to essential replacement parts like springs, shocks and front ends. (That's a shock tester there on the table at right.)

Now, let's move on to the nerve center of the operation: 

That section is up a couple of stairs and right behind the cab. And those couches are every bit as comfy as they look. This is where Harvick, crew chief Gil Martin and others will hang out and discuss strategy, review tape or just chill and wait out rain delays or whatever. Harvick's fire suit is in a closet here; since he was already wearing it, I didn't get to grab it and a fire helmet and impersonate a NASCAR driver. Again.

But hang on a second, you're saying -- don't they fit cars in this hauler somewhere? Glad you asked ...

This picture here is taken from the exact opposite direction as the one above. The two cars for each race -- the primary and the backup -- fit in the top half of the hauler. You can see the hallway pictured above in the lower part of this photo. There's a hydraulic lift that puts the car into the hauler. Assuming the car's not too wrecked, the team can be packed up and ready to go within 45 minutes after the driver leaves the track and wheels his way onto the hauler.

Of course, most haulers will get caught in postrace traffic if they try to leave within a couple hours after the checkered flag. (Fun tip for racegoers: Hang out after the race and then play the NASCAR Pro-Am, where you race the haulers up the highway. Chances are, you'll be able to run them all down eventually.) 

Anyway, the hauler is all too silent in the moments before a race starts. The only guy there is the hauler's driver; everybody else is out on the track, twitching and nervous. So let's join them there.

Here we are out at the track just before the race begins. You can see Harvick's wife Delana up there in the pit box, and Fox Sports reporter Dick Berggren in the center with the yellow headphones. There are computers and television monitors up top and down below, so that the crew can always track what's going on at any second of the race.

The mood of the crew at this point is antsy. Nobody's nervous, at least not outwardly -- they've done this a few times before, you know -- but they're ready for the race to go ahead and get underway.

The pit box itself is a distinctive entity, too; it gets broken down into its component parts, packed up by an independent contractor, and hauled to the next track. After the crew leaves behind the pit box, the next time they'll see it is at the next track. So don't leave your car keys in there.

Once the race begins, there's really not a whole lot for the crew to do between pit stops. (That's not quite true, of course, but let's not get technical.) There are about seven full-time guys on the average NASCAR crew, guys who travel with the team for race week, and another seven or eight who get flown in on Sunday mornings, do their job, and get the heck out.

In that photo at right, a crewman is practicing tightening rivets on a mock tire. Since lug nuts can go everywhere and an extra second in changing a tire is enough to kill a good run, it's imperative that these guys practice their craft again and again and again and again ... 

The driver spends the first few laps communicating with the box about strategy and setups. Most crew chiefs devise the first laps of a race the way a football coach devises plays -- setting up the first 30 or so, with plans to react to the race as it unfolds. In Harvick's case, this meant leading a lap early to snag a five-point bonus, then dropping back to run in the field. As we'll see, this strategy had its merits.

As the laps wear on, the crew starts loosening up, readying for the stop. They put on their helmets, get their tools set and get on the wall:

And then it's time for the stop. In this case, Harvick took four tires and a full tank of fuel, and it went off perfectly.

Harvick then spent most of the next three hours driving fast, turning left and, amazingly enough, staying out of trouble. And how did it shake out? Well, let's see:

Congrats to Harvick and the entire 29 team. It was an exceptional experience, being right there in the mix, and every NASCAR fan owes it to himself/herself to save up a few bucks and get a Hot Pass. A deep thanks to the 29 team and Shell/Pennzoil for opening up the hauler and the pit box to me and, by proxy, you. I am, of course, available for any team who wishes to have a good luck charm on the box.

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