The race is over. The winner is doing burnouts on the frontstretch. The pit crew is high fiving each other and ready to spray sponsor beverage products into the air in Victory Lane. Such is the image of first place.
Fans file out of the grandstands while listening to top five driver interviews over the P.A. system. They make their way into the parking lot to negotiate traffic and make the drive home. The fans tune the car radio to post race analysis being anchored by NASCAR hosts. Drivers give comments from the media center and crew chiefs speak while managing their car through tech inspection.
This is but a fraction of the full picture when the checkered flag brings the roaring race engines to silence.
Tired and worn out road crews now face the unenviable task of loading up bent and battered racecars. Elliott Sadler and Kurt Busch made the most crash headlines at Pocono and did some considerable damage to once pristine machines. Those chassis were not dumped into a recycling bin in the speedway’s infield. What once rolled on four wheels now needs plenty of help to get through the back door of a car hauler.
Sadler’s ride was taken to NASCAR’s research and development center for examination. The results will be used to improve safety aspects of the cars. Busch’s crashed piece was transported back to Penske Racing’s shops here in North Carolina. Neither process is easy.
The metal is hot all over, from the exhaust system, brake components, and cooked oils. The damaged pieces are sharp, jagged and ready to easily slice through many skin layers unless one is extremely careful. Dirt, tire rubber chunks, along with infield grass and water is shoved into seemingly every seam and gap. And not all four wheels are left that were used to roll the car around to begin with.
The car is blown off with compressed air to remove the surface dirt. Saws cut away twisted and sliced steel and aluminum. Heavy-duty tape is run over all metallic edges to keep the crew safe from stitches and injuries.
If the frame rails have not bent and collapsed, casters are slid in to take the place of missing wheels. All teams carry a set for just this instance. Every team also hopes they are never needed.
In my final year working on a race team I saw a few mangling crashes. Darlington in 2008 comes to mind.
I was with Germain Racing and we were competing in the Nationwide Series race. A green-white-checkered situation formed to finish the event, carrying it into extra laps. Fuel was an issue as leader Mark Martin ran out while taking the green flag. A pileup entering turn one collected several automobiles including my driver Mike Wallace.
Into the late night in the garage area we used the casters as the only way to move our destroyed racecar. But it was even worse for the Martin ride. Their transporter was parked nearby.
As we rolled our twisted frame with great difficulty we had a clear view of Martin’s crew welding casters to the crumpled frame. The rails were so damaged; the caster sleeves had no space to even slide into. The crew had no help to get their car home other than fabricate their own method. Our car was trashed but the expression ‘it can always get worse’ applied here.
The transporter trailers are designed to store cars that meet the inspection templates. Sometimes cutting and forcing the remains into a hauler after a race is the only route to go.
Hours after a grandstand has cleared, pit crews are still finishing work. The winning team is sometimes on their way home. While the crash victim team works well into the dark for the goal of just bringing a car back to the shop.
Much like making a movie or a television show, there are so many more hours involved than just what the fans see. The unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes are always hard at work.
To the fans, when the checkered flag waves the day is over. For some garage area souls, a long day of work is just beginning its next chapter.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts “Motorweek Live” Thursdays at 9pm ET. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com)