Photo: Dustin Long

Pit road’s friendliest team has drivers smiling, laughing

3 Comments

In the final moments before they begin their 400- or 500-mile journey, Cup drivers ease their cars down pit road, passing their pit box and crew, sharing a wave, thumbs up or fist bump as they drive by.

Their team, though, isn’t the only one to wish them well.

The Richard Petty Motorsports pit crew for Bubba Wallace waves at every vehicle — including pace cars and safety trucks — that passes their pit stall before the race begins. They’re the only crew to do so, sharing a bond with drivers before the green flag waves.

“I appreciate it,” said Ty Dillon, who waves back. “I think it’s cool. I look forward to seeing those guys on pit road. Just makes you smile.”

Landon Cassill is another who waves back to the No. 43 pit crew.

“It’s nice to have a smiling face and a wave,” he said.

Former champion Martin Truex Jr. also makes sure to wave at the Petty pit crew members.

“If you don’t wave at them you actually feel bad because they’ll like make sad faces,” Truex said.

Tire carrier James Houk started waving to all the cars a few years ago when he noticed that not every pit crew stood in its stall and saluted its driver as they passed before the start of the race.

If I’m a driver and I’m driving past and I see all these crew members waving at their drivers and I’m just like I didn’t get a wave, I’m going to be sad about it going out on the race track,” Houk said. “That’s why I started waving at them.

“I was just like, ‘Man, they need somebody to at least tell them good luck.’ ”

The rest of the pit crew soon followed. While pit crew members have changed through the years, the tradition remains.

The first few times that you do it, you’re a little bit embarrassed,” said jackman Will Goodnow, who joined the crew after last year’s Coca-Cola 600. “At least I was. Now it’s fun.”

There’s nothing to be embarrassed about for any new members. They’re continuing a tradition that dates back to the team’s namesake. While Richard Petty didn’t wave to his competitors, he’s known as much for signing autographs and spending time with fans as he is for his 200 Cup wins and seven championships. It’s only fitting that this pit crew treats competitors as Petty treats fans.

“I absolutely notice it because I’m probably the only driver that drives down pit lane and has since I’ve started, give everybody a thumbs up,” seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. “For the longest time the only people that waved back was the 43 (crew).”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said that when he sees the Petty pit crew waving: “I always laugh. It’s kind of cool.”

He also waves back.

But understand this isn’t a hi, how you doing gesture. Houk, the ringleader, sparks the enthusiasm with his exaggerated waves and gyrations. His teammates follow.

“We have fun,” fueler Ian Anderson said. “We love what we do.

Up and down pit road, we are part of a traveling circuit. We see the same faces, the same people every single week. So when it comes down to it, we’re all friends and family until that green flag drops. From flag to flag that’s when we compete.”

The same five pit crew members also service the No. 11 car for Kaulig Racing and Justin Haley in the Xfinity Series and wave to the cars before those races.

That’s where Cup rookie Matt Tifft first encountered the pit crew’s waving.

“I thought it was kind of weird,” Tifft said. “I thought it was a joke or something but they obviously always did it. I met some of those guys on the plane because sometimes we share their flight back and they’re all super cool guys.”

Bubba Wallace’s pit crew waves not only to him but to all the cars before a race. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

For as much fun as they have, there is some order to what they do. The five pit crew members line up the same each week. Houk is always first.

“James is the ringleader,” said Rear tire changer Justin Fiedler, who is next after Houk.

Front tire changer Brody Essick is third — he always has his helmet on because that’s part of his pre-race routine. Goodnow is fourth and Anderson is always fifth.

It’s Anderson’s job to count how many drivers wave back at the crew. The record is 28 set earlier this year.

Essick comes up with a number of drivers he thinks will wave and the rest of the crew decides if it will be higher or lower than that total.

For the Monster Energy Open, Essick projected 14 drivers would wave back. The field had 24 cars, two pace cars and two safety trucks. Fourteen drivers waved back to the team.

So, not every driver waves. Sometimes a driver might not do so because he’s fiddling with his radio or focused on his pit stall. For others, they’re just focused.

“I always think they’re being silly,” David Ragan said. “I always think they need to act more mature and get ready to make a pit stop.”

Ragan also recognizes how he prepares for a race is different from others.

“Everybody gets ready for a big event in different ways,” he said. “Some people listen to music. Some people act funny. Some people clam up, don’t say anything. Some drivers stand there and sign autographs, and some drivers stand near the back of the car and don’t say anything.

“For me, I try not to be too goofy before I get ready to go. That way, in case I make a mistake, it doesn’t seem like I didn’t have my focus.”

Reigning champion Joey Logano also isn’t big on waving back.

“Call me a jerk, but I’m not really wishing anyone luck at that point,” he said. “It’s all about going to win.”

One driver who has never waved back to the No. 43 pit crew is Denny Hamlin.

So what’s up with that?

“I’ve seen it, but I don’t wave back or anything,” Hamlin said.

Told that he’s the one driver the No. 43 pit crew hopes will wave back to them some day, Hamlin said: “Maybe I’ll give them a wave.”

The next chance should be this weekend at Pocono Raceway. The cars are lined on pit road before the start. The key for the No. 43 pit crew is to have a pit stall close to pit exit so they can wave to most, if not all of the field.

It was something I always looked forward to that brought down the tension and nerves before a race – Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Pit stalls are chosen based on qualifying. Slower cars pick late and have fewer choices. That can mean the team has a pit stall that is behind all the cars that are parked on pit road and the crew doesn’t get to wave. Or, as happened in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, the field is parked on the front stretch and doesn’t come down pit road.

Essick said that “it’s kind of a bummer” when they don’t get to wave to the field.

At ISM Raceway this year, the team’s pit stall was behind where all the cars were parked, meaning the crew members would not get to wave to the cars as they went by.

No problem. They waved as the drivers walked by to their cars.

The pit crew understands what they do is not for everyone. Still, many wave. They appreciate Johnson’s thumbs up. They note Chase Elliott waves a couple of fingers at them — “Somebody’s waving at you, so wave back,” Elliott said. Houk said Dale Earnhardt Jr. would wave as enthusiastically at them as the crew waved to him.

“It’s in my personality to want to make friends or get along with everyone,” Earnhardt said. “I thought it was our thing. I don’t know those guys personally, but it was something I always looked forward to that brought down the tension and nerves before a race.

“I’m all for everyone getting along. I also appreciate boundaries and going to battle and knowing your enemy. But there is a place in the sport for brotherhood and fellowship. I felt like that’s what was happening in those moments.”

 and on Facebook

Richard Childress Racing names crew chief for No. 21 Xfinity car

Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday that Andy Street has been promoted to crew chief for the No. 21 Xfinity car that will feature drivers Myatt Snider, Anthony Alfredo and Kaz Grala this season.

Street has been with RCR for 16 years. He joined the team as a design and test engineer. He served as an engineer in Cup, scoring 10 wins with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Most recently, Street’s role was as an engineer in the Xfinity Series. His duties included R&D work as a design engineer specializing on chassis and suspension systems.

“Andy is a brilliant design engineer, who has spent a lot of time and effort at RCR over the past 16 years,” said Andy Petree, vice president of competition, in a statement from the team. “When Andy stepped into the Xfinity Series crew chief role in Richmond Raceway last fall, I was very impressed with how he went about the weekend running and leading the race team. He proved he is worthy of this role. He’ll be the perfect complement to both Justin Alexander and Randall Burnett because of his engineering background and having worked with both of these guys on the R&D side of the company.”

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
Leave a comment

One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

NASCAR Twitter
Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
1 Comment

Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

Follow @JerryBonkowski