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Pit roads appear increasingly dangerous, and perhaps NASCAR should start penalizing drivers

  Pit road is dangerous, yes, and typically jammed. Too dangerous lately? Maybe NASCAR officials need to crack down on drivers (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.
   The pit road brush back.
   A dangerous game of chicken.
   Sometimes drivers brush back rival crewmen on pit stops
   Sometimes crewmen jump out in front of a rival's car, to force him into a bad pit stop.
   Sometimes drivers stop short or long, to jam in rival and slow his pit stop, and take rival crews out of their rhythm.
   Yes, pit road is a dangerous place, even with speed limits and crewmen now wearing crash helmets. But pit road this season has appeared even more dangerous than usual.
    In part that's because it's increasingly difficult for drivers to pass each other out on the track – with the car-of-tomorrow and ever tighter rules – so drivers are pushing the limits on pit road, because it's much easier to pass cars there.
    However, while the cars themselves are safer than ever, crewmen still have little protection of their own, against these 3500-pound machines barreling down on them in such tight pit road quarters every 15 or 20 minutes of these three hour races.
   And this season it seems like every week or two a crewman is hit, or a one driver hits a rival's car on pit road.
   The most recent – Clint Pittman, who is rear-tire man for Casey Mears, is now out for the season after suffering a broken right foot…after being run over by Denny Hamlin on pit road at Loudon Sunday. Kurt Busch even hit and spun David Ragan's car 180 degrees at Loudon, though fortunately no one was hit. And at Richmond Tony Stewart hit a pit crewman too.
   NASCAR didn't penalize anyone in those incidents.

  Maybe NASCAR should also crack down on pit crewmen: why are some of these guys working outside the pit box? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

  The one thing NASCAR has cracked down hard on is pit road speeding, most notoriously Juan Pablo Montoya at Indianapolis, while he was easily leading the race late, during a round of green flag pit stops. Montoya was the only driver on pit road at that moment, so no other crews were in jeopardy. But NASCAR ordered Montoya penalized with a 'pass-through,' which cost him the race.
   Why crack down on speeding when there is no one particularly at risk, and yet issue no penalties when there are incidents, even injuries?
   Should NASCAR crack down on these incidents and penalize drivers who run over crewmen or who run into other cars on pit road?
   Would it make pit road safer if NASCAR were tougher on these offenders?
   Seems obvious.
   But Brian Vickers says some crewmen deliberately take dangerous chances, to slow rivals, by swinging wide when running around to the right-side of the car for example.
   Jimmie Johnson says he's not a fan either of NASCAR penalizing drivers for hitting rivals, in part because he's seen rival crewmen trying to intimidate drivers by jumping out in front of them on pit stops.
    "I'm probably one of the most careful guys on pit road, and fortunately I haven't hit anyone," Johnson says. "It's hard for me to think that NASCAR needs to enforce it.
   "From a driver's standpoint, nobody wants to push that envelope, I wouldn't think.
   "I do see crew guys trying to brush you back and screw you up. But why would that be my fault, if he's trying to brush me back?
   "I've never tried to intimidate someone (with a brush back with his car). But I've had people try to mess with me.
   "But I think pit road has been a pretty darned safe place, to start with, over the years.
    "But, yes, guys do get banged up, and it is a dangerous place."

  NASCAR pit roads are no video game. But if NASCAR penalizes drivers for pitting outside their box, maybe NASCAR should calls fouls too on pit crewmen who work outside the line. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Dover has been known for having one of the tightest, most dangerous pit roads on the tour; but the track has now had a major pit-road renovation: A new 1,592-foot concrete wall on the frontstretch runs from turn four to turn one. And pit road is now four feet wider, and the pit stalls themselves are four feet longer.
   Would a pit crewman deliberately jump into front of moving stock car, just to try to slow down his pit stop?
   "Yeah, sometimes," Vickers says.
     "Maybe it's just their style (to swing wide, for example). 
     "Are they going to make the crew guy run a lap (as penalty) if he jumps out in front of a car?  They do it (jump out in front of cars). 
     "The last thing I want to do as a driver is hit a crew member, I can assure you. 
      "I don't think there's a guy out here who wants to hit a crew guy. 
     "But when you pull in your pit box, and the crew guys are on the wall (ready to leap into action), and they're anxious and ready to go, and their car is a few (pit stalls) behind you, and they jump out a little bit early…and they're watching this and they're not paying attention to here….
    "Trust me, I've had plenty of guys jump out in front of me. 
     "And I've had guys that they have a tendency to swing way out of the box (when running around the car).  They run around the car about four or five feet out in pit road; they're not even in their box.
    "But you get in the heat of the battle, with 43 cars out there, with seven pit crew guys each….
    "I'm not saying a crew guy never intentionally run out in front of a car, and I'm not saying a driver has intentionally hit one.  I'm just saying that 90-plus percent of the time I can assure you that it's an accident. 
    "To start penalizing people? Who wants to make that call? 
    "Who wants to decide a championship over something that you really don't know what happened? 
    "Pit road gets pretty tight; there are a lot of people running around, there are a lot of cars moving around….
    "Pit road speeds are already pretty slow. 
     "How are you going to determine Tony Stewart hit that guy, how are you going to determine if that was his fault? 
    "I don't want to make that call. 
     "I don't think NASCAR does either. 
     "If somebody did make that call, if somebody were willing to make that call, is it going to make pit road safer? 
    "I doubt it. 
     "I can assure you that I'm trying to avoid people on pit road because I don't want to hurt anybody. If there was a penalty for it, it wouldn't change anything. 
     "If you want to make pit road safer, the safest way to do it is just get rid of it. The safest way to not have accidents on pit road is to get rid of it: bring everybody down after 20 laps to make pit stops. 
     "If we're going to do that, then let's not even have a race, because it's dangerous on the track too. Let's just play video games."
    On a more serious and more practical note, Vickers says NASCAR could provide drivers with better, bigger pit roads, with wider pit stalls. There is considerable variety in the size and design of pit roads.
   "You can make pit road wider, you can make the boxes bigger," Vickers says. 
    "We rarely see incidents like this at the tracks that have really big wide pit boxes. 
    "I would go that route, way before I would start penalizing guys…because that's just a sandbox you don't want to play in. It would be so hard to decide who's at fault…because rarely do I think it is ever intentional.
     "If they are going to make any change at all, it should be mandating these tracks to build bigger, wider pit roads, and bigger, wider boxes, so you get in and out of your box, even if someone's in front or behind you."
    NASCAR ordered over-the-wall men to start wearing helmets in 2002, after an incident at Homestead in 2001 when three of Ricky Rudd's' pit crew men were injured, some seriously, when hit and sending barreling down pit road after two rivals banged into each other leaving the pits.
    NASCAR ordered pit road speed limits in 1991 after one of the most significant pit road injuries occurred in 1990, when Mike Rich, Bill Elliott's tire changer, was hit and killed during a pit stop.


    To a driver, sometimes all the frantic action on a 12-second pit stop is just a blur (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




Penalties for hitting crew members?

I've been an avid Cup fan since 1993 and it's always puzzled me that drivers will be penalized for running over an air hose but not for running over a pit crew guy's foot. (a member of his team or anyone else's) But then it had never crossed my mind that anyone would ever deliberately "take one for the team" just to slow down a rival's pit stop, guess my mind just isn't devious enough. If that idiotic practice does happen, I hope it doesn't take someone's career ending injury or Heaven forbid, a death to disavow anyone of that ludicrous idea. I used to think a driver should suffer some penalty for hitting a a human being regardless of who or where, but your article's made me rethink that. While I'd thought it would clearly be black and white, I now understand that it'd be another grey area where NASCAR could make those judgement calls that drive fans nuts.

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