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Dennis Terry: More than just another lightning-fast hired gun....check out his 'day' job

Jeff Burton's winning pit crew. Curt Bowman with fist in the air (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

   The best right-front tire changer in NASCAR? Well, Dennis Terry gets dibs this spring, with his win in Thursday night's Sprint Cup All-star pit crew challenge.
   But Terry, who works for Martin Truex Jr.'s team on Sundays, isn't a big star.
   In fact, few over-the-wall men are even all that well known, even though they make the moves that can win or lose a race.
   And that's a bit odd.
   Pit crewmen used to be stars in their own right, back when. But now most are Sunday 'contract' workers, rarely seen the rest of the weekend, or back in the shops, and they frequently change teams.
   The rare moments when an over-the-wall guy gets his name in the news is not for busting off a great pit stop but rather either for getting clipped – or worse – or making a bad mistake.
   Right-front veteran Mike Lingerfelt found one of the more dramatic ways to get his name in the headlines – when he was badly injured when hit on pit road at Daytona a few years back. He was sidelined most of that season recovering.
   "I'm glad you don't know me for that reason," Terry said with a laugh. "I'd rather be an unknown."

It takes teamwork: Dennis Terry and Shannon Keys -- best front-tire men in NASCAR, officially (Photo: CIA for Martin Truex Jr.)


But that may be a nervous laugh, because pit road is one of the most dangerous places at any track.
   However that's not the reason for the high turnover rate of over-the-wall men. It's because they're so specialized, and when making mistakes they get called out, and changes are frequently made overnight. For example, Terry Spalding, Jeff Burton's new rear tire changer, has only been on that job a few days.
   Mistakes on pit road have been almost epidemic this season. Why? Longer wheel studs are sometimes blamed for throwing off rhythm; bad glue, too, is blamed.
   But really the reason is simple: "It is chaotic on pit road, but if you look at it from a broader scale, with this new car it's easier to make up positions on pit road than on the track," Marcose Ambrose says.
   "So we're all more aggressive. We all know pit stops are critical, and we're all taking more chances – trying to get to the line as aggressively as we can."
  "Working pit road this season is tougher," Terry, a 12-year tour veteran, says. "You're seeing a lot more mistakes on pit road.
   "So experience gives me an advantage. People are going for men with experience right now."
   Terry himself is somewhat unusual for a front-tire man – "because I'm a big man, 250 pounds….and you don't see too many 250-pound tire changers any more. My guys kid me for eating donuts on the treadmill.
   "But actually my size is working to my advantage this season, because with the longer studs we're turning the air pressure (on the air wrenches) up, and when you turn the air pressure up, you get a lot more 'gyro' on your gun and that makes it harder to hold. So us bigger guys have a little advantage now."
   Terry himself is not just an over-the-wall dude, with a Facebook racing blog ( http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lug-Nutz/62981901980 )
    His Monday-Friday job is as a landscape architect in Charlotte (www.dtdesigninc.com )
doing high-end design. "So I stay pretty busy during the week…and on the weekends, while all my buddies are fishing or playing golf, I'm running out in front of race cars. This is a lot more fun than playing golf any day."
    Of course 'this' is not all fast footwork, good eyes and nerves of steel -- The key to good pit stops is consistency…and not making mistakes. That's more important than sheer speed.
   "That's right…and that's all mental," Terry says. "As soon as you leave pit wall, these guys all have to have it right in their heads.
   "And some of them go over the wall already beat. That's hard to overcome…it's hard for me to overcome. So we practice and practice, and we can jump over the wall confident we have it all figured out.
  "Now every pit stop somebody is going to make a mistake. But hopefully we can minimize them.
   "And this year, really, once you get a handle on the longer studs, the key to the speed of the pit stop is up to the tire carriers."
     Under NASCAR's seven-man limit, Terry and his fellow right-front men have to work both sides of the car, and that naturally makes the job of tire carrier crucial. Can't carry a tire and a gun at the same time. So Terry gives a big nod to Shannon Keys, his carrier.
    "You have to have a good carrier, who can hold the tire on there until the changer gets his first two lugs on.
    "And Shannon is leading our team in bench-pressing."


Winners: NASCAR's annual Sprint Cup pit crew challenge -- Dennis Terry (R) and Shannon Keys (Photo: CIA for Martin Truex Jr.)

So while Terry and Keys may have been the best on the front tires Thursday night, and their teammates won individual honors in all the other positions, except at the rear tires, who has the best pit crew in NASCAR on race day?
    This season that's not all that clear. Mistakes, rather than fast stops, have been the rule. Drivers and teams are losing races on pit road, rather than winning them. In Jeff Gordon's victory at Texas last month, his crew gave him a great final stop…but the pit road story was down in Carl Edwards' pit, where a slow stop cost him what looked like a victory.
   "Who's the best pit crew?" Terry asks, repeating the question….answering it, sort of, with "Who's the best driver?
    "We have a great pit crew, but we went out in the second round, because of a mistake. The guys who don't make a mistake are the best that day. And that's the way it is at the track too.
   "Now we're only 19th in the points, so people don't pay us that much attention. But some weeks we are the best pit crew on pit road….other weeks it's Matt Kenseth's guys, or Jeff Gordon's guys, or Juan Pablo Montoya's guys. And Tony Stewart's guys have come a long way this year….
   "And Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team – one of our rear tire changers left earlier this year to go over there, and that team has really picked up a lot."
   Yes, turnover is a big part of the pit crew story at nearly every NASCAR team.
   "It's almost a year-to-year business, for me as a contractor," Terry says of jobs like his. "I was this crew in 2006 when we won this championship. But at the end of that season I went on to another team."
   But now he's back.
   And once again the fastest front-tire changer in NASCAR.

Ancient Druid ceremonies? Nope, just the opening spectacle of NASCAR's annual Sprint Cup pit crew championships (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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