Jay Howard's production guys always put on a hellava show. But maybe this pit crew championship needs a makeover. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
FORT WORTH, Texas
Remember Dale Earnhardt's 'Flying Aces,' that legendary over-the-wall gang that helped him to so many wins and so many championships?
Wonder how those guys would fare today? Still remembering Kirk Shelmerdine's calculated lazy-loping work as right-front tire changer....in such contrast to Joey Knuckles' showmanship flare for Davey Allison over at Robert Yates'.
NASCAR pit crews have become almost super-human machines over the past few years, churning out 12-second pit stops despite tight rules, and occasional penalties....like the one, 'over the line,' that stymied Brad Keselowski at Martinsville.
But along the way, for whatever reason, the pit road 'superstars' have become increasingly anonymous.
Maybe it's the 'for hire' aspect of that part of the business lately. When NASCAR allowed Ray Evernham to introduce professional pit crews, flying specialists in every Sunday morning, at significant cost, the whole business changed, and probably not for the better.
Why NASCAR didn't crack down on that still seems surprising. Bill France Jr. came close to a crackdown, considering limiting the number of crewmen each team could bring to the track. That would naturally even the playing field.
For whatever reason, France backed down, and NASCAR hasn't picked it back up.
Which of course has made the wins by Jeff Burton's all in-house pit crew in the sport's annual pit crew championships all the more impressive.
As important as pit work is in this game, it is disheartening that NASCAR and series sponsor Sprint have just decided to axe this year's pit crew championship. The reason: officially it's 'lack of sponsorship.' The money was apparently spent on promoting Daytona's Sprint 'Unlimited' during SpeedWeeks, instead of promoting Charlotte's All-Star week.
(Update: When Bruton Smith, head of Speedway Motorsports, learned ot NASCAR's action Thursday, he responded quickly by saying he would find sponsorship for the pit crew championship and stage it again during All-Star week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, possibly at his zMax dragstrip on CMS grounds.)
Going over-the-wall isn't for the meek (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The All-Star week pit crew shindig, running since 2005 in downtown Charlotte, replaced the long-running pit crew championship held annually at North Carolina Motor Speedway at Rockingham and sponsored then by Unocal.
The All-Star week format differed significantly from the Rockingham championship format, and it was much more heavily promoted.
However the Charlotte event -- inside the coliseum, without engines on, and with crews pushing cars instead -- always seemed out of kilter. Even drivers didn't have to drive their own cars; wives and girlfriends at times got the nod, as crazy as that might sound.
Little wonder that despite the glitz and glamor and fireworks the Jay Howard production crew provided downtown, attendance has never been strong...usually a mish-mash of friends and family in the stands.
And just what the TV audience thought of the whole thing was never quite clear.
So this 'break' in the action may be just what the doctor ordered.
There is no doubt there will be an annual pit crew championship back on the schedule somewhere next season, in some form.
And this looks like the opportunity to rethink the whole thing.
For starters, any true NASCAR pit crew championship has to have real drivers in real cars with real 358s screaming and real Goodyears smoking.
Dale Earnhardt's Flying Aces pit crew