Most endurance racing fans will tell you that long-distance races are won and lost in the pits during driver changes. My trip to ChumpCar World Series’ race weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park afforded my photographer Steve Davis and I the opportunity to watch several very experienced crapcan teams ply their
trade hobby on the track, but it was some of the driver changes that really grabbed our attentions. ChumpCar rules mandate a minimum time of five minutes for any stop where fuel is added, which sounds like a lot of time. The best teams, however, cram a lot of work and choreography those five minutes. Steve photographed a driver change by the veteran Kentucky Spirits squad during Sunday’s race that really impressed us both.
ChumpCar institutes a maximum time limit for driving stints at two hours. In this race, Kentucky Spirits drivers 90-minute stints to get four drivers into their Nissan 300ZX during the six-hour race. The pitstop begins one lap ahead of the actualstop, when a team member signals the driver on the front straight using a crapcan-caliber pitboard. The driver pulls onto pitlane at the end of that lap, checks in with the ChumpCar official to begin their five-minute timer, and then makes sure to hit his or her marks in the team’s hot pit.
Fueling regulations vary at different events, but ChumpCar typically follows the fueling rules used at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in most sportscar series: The driver change can go on during fueling, but no work can be done on the car until fueling ceases. As the Kentucky Spirits driver halts the Z, the next driver (in black) assists the outgoing driver out of the car while the fueler (in red) sets down the fuel catchpans and removes the fuel cap.
The fueler grabs the first fuel jug while a fourth crew member in full SFI gear (hidden in this photo) stands a car’s length away with a fire extinguisher trained on the fueling operation in case anything goes awry. Each jug takes about 30 seconds or so to empty; the fueler put in two or three jugs per stop. As the fuel goes in, so also does the driver. Rollcage design makes entering a racecar a bit of a contortion act.
Here’s a good view of the whole operation. The outgoing driver belts in the new driver to make sure the harness is snug. A fifth team member holds the next fuel jug on the pit wall for the fueler to retrieve after he’s emptied the current one.
With fueling complete and the next driver belted securely, non-suited team members are free to work on the car. While the fueler and extinguisher man put away the catchpan and fueling equipment, one team member checks the fluids under the hood and another puts fresh ice and water into the cooler that feeds the driver’s coolsuit, which is mounted under the hatch .
Unhappy with some aspect of the right-rear tire, it’s all-hands-on-deck to put fresh rubber on the car. Accomplishing all this work in five minutes seems like it could create a frantic and terse atmosphere, but Kentucky Spirits go about their business efficiently and calmly. They seldom look rushed, but the work gets done quickly nonetheless.
With the 300ZX fully serviced, the driver starts the engine, dips the clutch, and eases out of the pit stall. They stop at the end of pit road to sit until their five minutes has elapsed. When the timer goes off, the driver returns to the fray en route to a fifth-place finish, their third Top 10 finish of the weekend after their matching yellow 300ZX won Saturday’s race.
Kentucky Spirits have the advantage of numbers with at least six pairs of hands available at any given driver change, but the fluidity of the process starts with good planning. Their driver schedule is clearly laid out at the day’s beginning and one team member told me that when they started with ChumpCar, they practiced driver changes until they found a process that worked, which they’ve stuck with since. It doesn’t hurt that their drivers know how to pedal a car; several of their hotshoes are longtime autocrossers who’ve made that short jump to crapcan racing.
[Photos: Steve Davis]