SCORE Journal

SCORE Journal - June 2018

SCORE Journal - The Official Publication of SCORE Off-Road Racing

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Page 121 of 134

Pit Crews: The Untold Story By Stephen Romero Photography courtesy of BFGoodrich Tire, Steve Meyer, Baja Fools, Mag 7, Stuart Gardner, Andrew Flavin Some summer days in the Baja Peninsula are hot enough to fry an egg. There’s scorpions, needle-sharp cactus, and clouds of dust that nearly block out the sky. It’s an intimidating environment to newcomers, but if you make the cut to become part of an off-road pit crew, the experience can be amazing. Year after year this mostly volunteer group of enthusiasts, recruited by a handful of pitting services and clubs, drift across Mexico’s border and into the Baja Peninsula. It’s here that they become a critical part of SCORE desert racing, where their contributions date all the way back to the 1960s. Along with those that pilot the chase trucks, pit crews are vital to the SCORE off-road race teams. Some of the individuals are recruited by a pitting service or clubs. They give up personal vacation time to gather off the beaten path and head into the Mexican desert for only 30 seconds of what looks like organized chaos to the untrained eye. For the pit crews, it’s an adrenaline rush like no energy boost can deliver, and about as fun as it gets outside of driving in the race car itself. Inside the Pits Pit crews are organized, trained and directed by pit services or clubs like Baja Fools, Mag 7, BFGoodrich Tires, Baja Pits and others. Most crews will pit all classes of vehicles, with some exceptions. Within that service, a “pit captain” is normally selected (sometimes called a pit leader). That person organizes the pit crews from a list of qualified recruits. Pit meetings are scheduled prior to each race to determine where the pit locations will be along the course. The nuts and bolts of pitting services at SCORE events are simply to equalize the playing field, giving independent racers an opportunity to compete with larger well-funded teams. They are responsible for changing tires, assisting the drivers and navigators who require food and water, fueling race vehicles, inspecting the vehicles for damage, and making repairs. Although the level of their support differs from pit to pit, they are essential to keeping teams in the race. Most racers know that Baja can turn from good-to-bad in a blink of an eye, so pit crews services are vital, as well as them providing records of when a team enters the pits and exits back onto the course. This safety data is also gets passed on to teams and officials in an emergency. Pit crews at predetermined points along the course can spend hours lugging hundreds of pounds of racing equipment inside the pits from one race car to the next. But few complain about it. Most expect only the chance to be involved behind-the-scenes at events like the SCORE Baja 500 or SCORE Baja 1000, the two most popular off-road races in North America. Becoming an official team member of a pit crew, however, often requires more than simply craving an experience for fun. These pitting services look for certain skills and a passion for the sport before you make the grade. “It’s truly an adventure and people get hooked,” said Frank DeAngelo, executive director of motorsports for Jackson Motorsports Group (JMG), the company is responsible for the BFGoodrich Tires Pits and have been doing this with SCORE for more than 40-years. “Our volunteer list is so extensive now that you must send us a resume and tell us what your skill set is. Then when a slot opens up for that type of position, we tap you and ask you to come out and give it a try.” According to Nate Hunt, who works directly with DeAngelo managing all of the off-road races as the official program director, the crews are made up of a wide variety of people. “The BFGoodrich pits can be made-up of Jackson Motorsports full and part-time employees, BFGoodrich personnel, and volunteers coming all the way from Ireland,” said Hunt. “Some of the volunteers have been doing this for 20 years and others are first-timers. It’s a real mixture of experience and people.” Real World Adventures Pit crew hopefuls come in search of an adventure, eager to tow-the-line as a team no matter the potential hazards they face. Many say they do it for camaraderie and little else; certainly not the money. Although some are provided a per diem, mileage reimbursement, food, and hotel rooms, many must be content with less. But for all the sacrifices seen in desert racing, the relationship between race teams and pit crews remains strong. Some of the leading pitting services that participate in SCORE events unraveled the mystery behind their dedication. 50 Years of Pitting History According to long-time racers, First Association of Independent Racers (FAIR), Chapala Dusters, Checkers Off-Road and Los Ancianos Motorcycle Club (which later became Mag 7) were some of those listed among the first organized pitting clubs to participate in Baja racing events, beginning in 1967 at the inaugural Mexican 1000. Their involvement made safely traversing the open desert possible. Some of the clubs required that you either joined or were voted into their organization before you could use their services for a small fee. Similar to the way it is today, the first pitting clubs were staffed by volunteers. The early pits erected small encampments along the course, stocked with limited tools, and almost no communications equipment, except the occasional hand-held radio that only worked for short distances and line-of-sight. It was the late 1960s and the information highway was more of a bad dirt road. Cell phones, satellite phones, computers and tracking devices hadn’t been invented yet. Any communications between teams and officials usually were relayed face to face at the pit stop. A pit club of yesteryear was lucky to have anything like you see in today’s pits. Air tools were rare, which slowed pit times down to a crawl. But they improvised, made allowances, and did their best to provide a pit stop worthy of a podium finish. “Mag 7 started pitting in ’67 when seven friends from Los Ancianos got together to race the inaugural Baja 1000 and they were nicknamed the Magnificent 7,” said race director Geoff Hill. “We’re a non-profit club of volunteers and any money we make goes towards our expenses, or it is put back into the club for new equipment. We just love the adventure. There are people from all walks of life. There are women and former military people involved with us, and many are racers themselves. We attract people from all over the country, some who are bilingual help us in Mexico.” As a past president of FAIR and a former desert racer, Dave Massingham recalls those early days as well, especially the enthusiasm among members of his club. “We supported a lot of local racers when the first Baja 1000 was created in the late ‘60s,” said Massingham. “Dick Landfield, George Morgan, and Stan Parnell were the early originators of the pit club. Parnell was the creator of the Parker Pumper. Bob Steinberger later became club president, while he was also serving as the Weatherman for SCORE racing. We had a 22-foot box van that went down into Baja and distributed the pitting equipment to the crews we had established. Our crews used FM radio communications (Ham radio) to relay the information to Steinberger, we didn’t have satellite phones and cell phones. He was always on a certain radio channel and we could talk back and forth. Anybody could pit, but if a FAIR club member pitted they had priority.” Although FAIR is no longer an active club they left a lasting legacy of sportsmanship that continues to this day. BFGoodrich Arrives in the 1970s For many of the early pit crews, it was a humble existence with tents and canopies out in the middle of the Baja desert. But it wasn’t long after that first decade, that official SCORE sanctioned off-road desert racing fans began to spot the familiar big rigs of BFGoodrich Tires deep in the interior of the Baja Peninsula. “When I first started in the late ‘70s there was some volunteer pitting clubs, but that was it,” said JMG’s DeAngelo. Racers embraced BFG’s involvement at that time, and with it, strategies in the once primitive pits began to change for the better. Equipment was becoming high-tech, race teams were realizing how much time a good pit crew could save a competitor when seconds mattered. “We automatically started helping those racing in Mexico on BFGoodrich Tires,” said DeAngelo. “There were just a few teams racing in the early days, and usually we had one pit with our tractor and trailer, which would service the cars and mount the tires. In ’82 we began to enroll teams that were racing on our tires to help us develop pit networks every 100-120 miles on the race course.” Noel Strang of BaJa Fools also remembers those days well. Strang was there in the ‘70s, along with other members of the Baja Fools, who pitted for Husqvarna and Kawasaki at that time. Strang has seen the progress that pitting services have made, and how things have changed from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. “We pitted for Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart, Danny Hamel, and Larry Roeseler in the 1990s,” said Strang. Today, Baja Fools is the exclusive pit crew for SCORE Trophy Truck champion Rob MacCachren. The Evolution Continues Around 2000, pitting services and clubs were becoming very specialized. Exclusive arrangements were common as factory teams and the front-running SCORE Trophy Trucks looked for every possible advantage. Expertise, appearance, and style began to mean something even in the middle of nowhere, much like the impact made by BFGoodrich Tires did in the late ‘70s, and continues today. RPM Off-Road is one of those teams that now runs its own specialized pit crews in the familiar orange shirts with RPM’s logo emblazoned across it. They pit exclusively RPM Trophy Trucks and their other class entries, much like MacCachren’s team at Baja Fools. “We’ve worked with Baja Pits and others for many years, and they’ve always done an excellent job for us,” said RPM Off-Road president Justin Matney. “But in racing, you have to gain an advantage anywhere you can. Our pit crew members are from RPM Off-Road and Geiser Brothers, and they regularly work on the race trucks. We’ve also built each chase truck for each race vehicle (part wise) and they carry specific components for our vehicles. We also have specific crew chiefs that take care of these trucks in the pits. For example, TT-4 is a specific race truck with a specific crew. The trucks have become so competitive that seconds matter and it comes down to the drivers and pit crews at each stop.” In the ten years since RPM Off-Road has been involved in desert racing, they’ve seen plenty of changes. “From electric grease guns and air jacks to night lighting systems, the pits and how they are operated have has drastically changed,” said Matney. “With the advancements of tracking and satellite phones, there are improvements in a team’s chances of winning.” Who’s for Hire, Who’s Not Not all pitting services and clubs that set-up pits in Mexico are created equal. There are several types of pits in SCORE desert racing: Fee-based pitting services, emergency pitting services, private pitting, and no-cost pits. Fee-based pits might run between $400 and $1,200 (fuel, tires and other essentials are not included). “BFGoodrich is unique in that we provide the pit service to anybody that is racing on our tires,” said DeAngelo. “We do it at no charge, and we set up our pits along the course. At the 50th BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 500, we will have three pits. In comparison, we had eight at the 50th BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 1000 last year. At this year’s Baja 500, we might pit 60 to 70 vehicles with a pit crew of 20 people. We have welders, mechanics, EMTs, bilingual translators, communications people, and pit leaders. What’s amazing is that with eight pits we’ve had 170 people working during the race. But that wasn’t the extent of our support, we had mountaintop relays, and people back in our headquarters in South Carolina helping with communications. Our pit support last year at the Baja 1000 was closer to 220 people.” As a side note to those racing with BFGoodrich Tires, company tire specialists are often on the ground too, helping answer technical questions about their tires. Two-Wheel Specialty Pits Motorcycle racers and teams also have pits that are crucial to rider’s safety and finishing the race. One of the newest motorcycle pits scheduled for the 50th BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 500, is Colton Udall’s Champion Adventures. Champion Adventures offers a pit service for motorcycles overseen by Udall himself, who brings multiple SCORE championships and class wins to the party. When Udall announced that he was leaving OX Motorsports and his time in the seat, after an unfortunate series of accidents, he came up with the idea that he could use his talent elsewhere, so he turned to Champion Adventures. He admits it will be a challenge to get it off the ground. “I’ve worked with pit crews, did mileage runs, and learned everything I could when I was racing,” said Udall. “I learned a lot from Johnny Campbell and Honda about pits, even how to properly fuel the bike. We started this pit crew a little late this season, but there’s plenty of important things about pitting to make this work. I’m ready to go down to Mexico and help Baja racers run safer and faster races. I’ve heard so many things from competitors that say they’ve run out of gas or they can’t communicate with the pit crews, or that the crews don’t know how to work on their bikes. I can help a lot more people to make their races go much smoother. If I can help save them a minute or two in the pits it will make a difference. I have teams signed up right now for the 50th BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 500, and plan to expand my services to include adventure tours on bigger bikes like Africa Twins.” Picking A Pit Figuring out which pit service to use comes down to strategy, and each race is going to require different things from the pit crew itself. This is where a bit of research will help. Before each race, mandatory pit crew meetings are scheduled by all pit services, including BFGoodrich Tires, where fuel, tires, and equipment is discussed and arranged for drop-off prior to the start of the event. “We work with three fuel suppliers for our teams and then the fuel is delivered to our pit locations,” said DeAngelo. Other Things to Consider Each pit service or club handles emergency pits and the staging of its teams differently. If a race team feels that they want the option to do an emergency pit anywhere across the course there is that option as well. They can arrange that with any pit they like. There may a fee, or not as it depends on the team. Typically there is a cost for emergency pitting. BFGoodrich Tires as an example, handles emergency pitting differently than most. “I don’t know what others do, but we will have two or three lanes to fuel and service all of them,” said DeAngelo. “By mid-day, we are down to two lanes, and then near the end, we might have just one lane. We ask everybody to register first if they plan to stop, or if they might stop. But if you’re running our tires, usually we can make accommodations for you in an emergency.” One of those teams that sign up for emergency pit support from Baja Pits and BFGoodrich is RPM Off-Road. “We’ve been signing up for their services for a long time,” said Matney. “I can’t tell you how many times I needed just a few more gallons of fuel and come across a Baja Pits. We log all the pits throughout the course and all of our teams have these pit packets.” According to race director Hill of Mag 7, they see a lot of the big names in racing making emergency pitting arrangements with them prior to the event. Aside from the 60 racers, they pitted at last year’s SCORE Baja 1000, they also see their share of smaller Sportsman type teams that don’t have chase trucks to get fuel or tires out to them in remote locations. “We get MacCachren’s team, the Wilsons, and the McMillen’s that signed up for emergency service. It’s such a cheap insurance policy for the teams in case they break and we’re nearby we can keep them in the race,” he said. “We get a lot of Europeans and Japanese racers that use our emergency service. We had one motorcycle rider from Japan that was totally gassed, he didn’t speak any English and wanted to get off the bike. We gave him a sandwich, he took a bite and it was like the most amazing thing he’d ever eaten in his life. He just went through 400 miles of dirt and he couldn’t believe this sandwich. It was memorable to see his face. It’s those experiences that are really fun for the pit crews.” Mag 7 is also prepared for staggering the teams pitting just like BFGoodrich Tires and leaves it up to each pit captain to find a location where multiple vehicles can pit without much effort. As off-road desert racing continues to grow, the advancements of fueling equipment, tire mounting, and communications will likely benefit desert racers in a positive way. But behind those advancements are the people, who make it happen, in any weather, in any location. They are fundamentally everything that is good about a sport that has more than half a century of history behind it and counting. SJ

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