Ryan: How a single lug nut could impact pit crew salary structure

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The tools will be the same, the choreography (mostly) will be the same, and the number of crew members will be the same.

The aesthetic impact of NASCAR’s move to single lug nuts will be negligible next season.

When wheels on the NextGen car are fastened via a center-locking hub system, the appearance virtually will be indiscernible from afar aside from the eagle-eyed viewers who can spot the variance in how the tire changers’ hands move across the wheels.

It theoretically should be better for safety (fewer loose wheels, and no stray lugs whizzing through the pits). Because of the 18-inch tire (that the single lug is designed to support), drivers have been pleased in early returns by the mechanical grip. And it will enhance the street model relevance of the NextGen.

In many ways, this could be a change that is similar to electronic fuel injection – a huge fan outcry (though not all negative) in the short term but largely accepted within a year.

But similar to EFI (which resulted in the long-term ramifications of having throttle trace data widely available to all drivers and helping negate their trade secrets), the single-lug pit stop still could have a significant behind-the-scenes impact on NASCAR.

In this case, it could mean a reshuffling of the salary structure for the five-person pit crew that is highly valued for changing tires in 11 seconds.

As analyst Steve Letarte noted Monday on NASCAR America (video above), the switch to a single lug nut could be a financial windfall that drives up the price for the jack man and gas man while decreasing for tire changers.

These wouldn’t be necessarily dramatic shifts. Salaries for fast tire changers have risen into the low- to mid-six figures. They still should expect to be handsomely paid because teams will pay to gain positions in the pits, and tire changers will remain an important part of the process.

The talking points Monday from NASCAR were that fast tire changers with good hand-eye coordination would remain valuable, and that skill and speed still will be at a premium.

That is true – to a degree. There is no getting around the fact that accuracy and hand speed will be less important when hitting one lug instead of five.

The scramble around the car will be even more important, but it should be easier to find (or train) finely honed athletes with those physical attributes. The actual changing of the tire is a more specific skillset and a limited talent pool.

As Letarte said, the single lug nut “takes the 10 A-plus tire changers on pit road and makes 20 or 30 of them.

“But it takes the 10 to 15 A-plus jack men and makes five of them.”

The reason for that is because with a single lug shaving a few tenths of a second off the five-lug pattern, tire changers will be ready quicker for the jack to raise the left side of the car. That should increase the demand for fast jack men, who already are critical as the de-facto “quarterbacks” with oversight of the pit stop and the adjustments made during it.

The time difference also could make the fueler more critical during a two-can exchange (which requires a swap at the pit wall). With a 17.75-gallon fuel cell, it’s estimated that teams currently can fill about 1.7 gallons per second – or about 10.4 seconds for a full tank.

If the single lug nut drops times for changing four tires in the 10-second range, suddenly having a swifter fueler could make the difference in leaving early.

Time is money, and that could be one of the main takeaways from a single lug nut next year.

Some other stray thoughts on Monday’s news:

–The switch to aluminum alloy wheels prompted many fair questions about how effective they will be in crash damage vs. the steel rims currently in use by NASCAR.

Presumably, due diligence has been done on their durability, and many other series (IMSA and Supercars to name a few) have success with using aluminum wheels. But it will bear watching the first few times a NextGen car hits the wall and tries to limp to the pits.

–Yes, there aren’t many passenger cars with one lug nut. But there also aren’t many with 15-inch wheels. The argument that the move makes Cup cars “less stock” sort of misses the point that it also makes them more relevant (a primary thrust of the NextGen) via the 18-inch wheels while also allowing for better braking and cooling systems.

— The social pushback from diehard fans was understandable given that NASCAR fans have been asked to absorb a lot of change over the past two decades (with some growing attuned to resisting much of it). However, there was a sense of optimism, too, that was missing in similar furors about the top 35 rule and the Car of Tomorrow.

The sense here is that the storm over center-locking wheels quickly will pass and probably won’t become a third rail issue that eventually will occupy the NASCAR dustbin of history.

–The next big news on the NextGen car?

It probably will be about three months until NASCAR provides a grand unveil of the 2021 model (from its special features to the car’s suppliers, vendors) sometime in June.

After next year’s rollout, the focus will turn toward an engine overhaul (maybe by 2023 but with lesser modifications possible before then).