Carl Long

Photo: Dustin Long

In the drivers seat: A look at one of the coolest jobs in NASCAR

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Some moments they are Joey Logano. Other times they are Jimmie Johnson. Or Kevin Harvick. Or some other driver.

This isn’t a video game or make-believe. This is role-playing in the real world: They pilot a Cup car. Crew members leap from the wall. Air guns whine. Lug nuts fly.

Cup drivers rarely have time to take part in pit practice. So someone has to drive the car. That perk typically goes to an entry-level employee whose duties often include gluing lug nuts to wheels, stacking tires and monitoring air tanks.

Mark Morrison said he’ll never forget the first time he drove the car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports.

That was 17 years ago.

One of the sport’s coolest jobs is more than a joy ride. Teams rely on these drivers to place the car in the right position so pit crews can hone their skills. With track position critical and tenths of a second the difference between winning and losing, what happens in pit practice can make a difference in a race.

It all begins with who is driving the car.

THE FRATERNITY OF PIT CAR DRIVERS

Marcus Horton is 30 but looks young enough to get carded. His father, Phil, is the pit coach for the Drive for Diversity program but Marcus Horton didn’t plan to be a pit crew member.

He has a business degree from Marshall University but admits: “For me, I wouldn’t want to be in an office all day. I like getting my hands dirty. I probably should have took up something different in college than business. I like art, I like photographs, but I’m not sure how well that was going to translate into the real world. I thought maybe I should do something that would benefit me in the long run.”

A couple of years after graduating, Horton asked his dad if he would coach him to be a pit crew member. The younger Horton was in the Drive for Diversity program for three years and served as a pit crew member for Carl Long’s Xfinity team last year. Horton joined Stewart-Haas Racing in December as a developmental pit crew member.

Erick Harps drove the car during pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports until a recent promotion to the engine shop. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Erick Harps, 22, was recently promoted to the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports, ending his tenure driving the pit car. He trained at Universal Technical Institute in California. Harps moved to North Carolina two years ago to work in the sport. About six months after he arrived, he got a job at Hendrick Motorsports.

Chris Tomberlin, 22, joined Team Penske on Jan. 2 as a developmental pit crew member. He will graduate this year from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he was a receiver on the football team.

“I’ve always been a fan of racing,” Tomberlin said. “The (job) opportunity presented itself. I couldn’t not accept it.”

That was before he found out he would be driving a stock car.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S CAR

When Harps told his parents he drove a car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports, his mother screamed in excitement.

But that wasn’t the first time he had been in a car. He had to undergo training — as any Hendrick pit car driver does — before taking part in live pit stops.

“You can’t step into one of them and think you’re going to drive it,” Harps said.

Hendrick Motorsports’ car has a race engine, providing more horsepower than a standard passenger car. The Hendrick car has a manual transmission, not automatic like many passenger cars, so if you can’t drive a stick, you wouldn’t be able to drive these cars.

Hendrick Motorsports also sets the car for each track. With the series heading to Talladega Superspeedway, that means the car will have a smaller brake package. 

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they have three different pit cars, so Horton has to know each of them. Each steering wheel is different. One is tight, another turns more freely and the other one rates between the two. The brakes also are different in each car. They’re touchy on one car, less so on the others.

“Every day it’s a like a new day for me trying to figure out where the car is going to stop and how I’m going to handle it,” Horton said.

That’s why each driver makes test runs before pit crews jump in front of the car.

“SILVER DOLLAR EYES”

One of the biggest adjustments for any pit car driver is seeing people run in front of the car during practice.

“The craziest thing is just from driving normally out on the roads, your instinct is to avoid a person” said Andy Papathanassiou, director of human performance at Hendrick Motorsports and a former pit car driver.

Having people run in front of the car is jarring for new pit car drivers. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“But when you are driving a pit practice car, you have to just focus on your mark because there are guys jumping all around you and you can’t veer from your path or then they will be in danger. So you have to literally put the blinders on and just expect that they’re going to get out of your way.”

Chris Krieg, pit crew coach at Stewart-Haas Racing, says when pit car drivers first do live stops, they all have the same condition. He calls it “silver dollar eyes” for how their eyes widen.

Horton admits when the pit crews started jumping in front of him, it altered how he entered the pit stall.

“I was stopping earlier and slowing down a lot sooner,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody on our team. It was definitely a hard time because they would be like ‘You can bring it in hotter,’ and I’d be like, ‘Actually I can’t because I think I’m going to hit you guys if I do that.’”

DO YOUR JOB

If the car stops beyond where the crew is positioned, they have to adjust and it slows the stop. Same for when the car stops too short.

There are times when a pit coach will tell the driver to purposely stop short or long or close to the pit wall to test the pit crew and prepare them for possible race situations. Other times, it’s more important to hit the right spots so the pit crew can get their reps.

“The more you practice during the week with the guy who knows exactly how to put the car where he needs to put it, the better you feel for the race track on Sunday,” said Landon Walker, fueler for William Byron’s team.

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they’ll have Horton or whoever else is driving the car to try to imitate each of the drivers for the pit crews. Each driver has their own nuance on how they enter the stall, something you likely can’t tell unless you saw them pit time after time. There are those who will lock their brakes to stop or roll the car in or stop short consistently. 

“The (pit car) driver is critical,” Krieg said. “If we waste a bunch of practice because they’re not hitting the marks where we need them to, they’re wasting time and reps and beating and banging on the crews’ body. Every rep is valuable and those guys have to be spot on.”

A PART OF THE ACTION

It’s a ride of a lifetime even if one is only traveling about 50 yards to the pit stall.

“It’s got a lot of power behind it,” Harps said. “The clutch is not an easy thing to overcome just because it’s stronger than a regular clutch. You have to have a lot of leg power. It’s very hard to get going without spinning the tire.”

Once the car stops in the stall, there’s still more for the driver to do. Keep the wheel straight for the tire changers. Don’t stall the car.

“It’s cool to actually be able to feel the changers hit their lugs and feel the jackman make his first punch on the car, feel the carriers slamming that tire on the car,” Tomberlin said. “It’s rare to be able to experience it.”

It’s an experience only a few get. It’s quite a ride.

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Preliminary entry lists for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks at Phoenix

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NASCAR’s top three national series head to Phoenix this weekend to set the championship field for each series:

Cup – Can-Am 500 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Thirty-eight cars are on the preliminary entry list for this weekend’s race.

DJ Kennington is listed in the No. 7 car for Premium Motorsports.

Obaika Racing announced Wednesday morning that Tanner Berryhill will drive the No. 97 and make his Cup debut. The Cup entry list had not been updated by Wednesday morning to include that.

Cody Ware will drive the No. 51 for Rick Ware Racing.

Carl Long‘s No. 66 team has withdrawn.

Click here for Cup entry list

Xfinity – Whelen Trusted to Perform 200 (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC)

There are 40 cars entered for this event.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Truck – Lucas Oil 150 (8:30 p.m., ET Friday on FS1)

There are 31 entries for this race. Derek Kraus, a 17-year-old who finished fourth in the K&N West Series standings, will make his Truck debut this weekend.

Click here for Truck entry list

Carl Long explains why No. 66 Cup team withdrew at Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Carl Long said in a Facebook post that the No. 66 Cup team with driver Timmy Hill withdrew Friday because it did not have a sealed engine at Texas Motor Speedway.

Section 20.6.1.1.1.b of the Cup Rule Book states that “Teams that are not considered ‘full-time’ teams will not be permitted to compete in more than two consecutive Points Events without using a short block sealed engine that has been used in Competition in a preceding Event(s).”

Long explained why he didn’t have a sealed engine in his Facebook post:

“My last sealed engine was ran at Dover. The oil pump broke … killing engine. Next was our 1st race, Kansas, with our new engine program. Engine 1 broke a valve at beginning of Saturday practice. Then we had a huge amount of issues getting backup engine to fit. Neither of these engines were sealed at that time and both were destroyed.

“So we rented one from PME at Martinsville, a piece we ran earlier, but it did not have seals as the heads were removed for maintenance. So it was sealed at Martinsville, however, it saw fire damage and could not be used at Texas.

“I went to Texas with a fresh engine, knowing we had plenty of sealed engine starts on the #66 … Not knowing we were classified as a part time team. The official told a person on the crew I had to be sealed in Texas at the Martinsville race. I had no sealed engines and I knew we had plenty of sealed starts. Not realizing we are part time classified by NASCAR. During Xfinity practice I was called to the Cup hauler. My engine is not sealed and therefore not eligible to qualify. I pleaded my case. I have destroyed all my sealed engines. My backup is not sealed, and the one in my Phoenix car is not sealed.

“At this time we will be out of Cup racing. I can’t run at Phoenix without a sealed engine. So I will not be able to go to Homestead as I don’t have one ran at Phoenix. I could run a sealed engine from another team, but unfortunately their prices are usually more than we can afford. 

“The sponsors have been great in supporting us. I don’t see them remaining with us. What we do receive is just not enough $ to rent another engine and pay the race cost.”

On the issue of being a part-time or full-time team, Section 20.6.1.1.1.c of the Cup Rule Book states the definition of a full-time team is one that is “entered in all Events for the season).” Long’s team had not entered all the events this season, so remained classified a part-time team even though he had been at all races since July.

UPDATE: In a Facebook post Saturday, Long wrote: “We have a plan to return to Cup in Phoenix … hope to see you there!” but had no details.

Long also wrote in his Facebook post: “Unless something happens unexpectedly … We are done in Cup for 2018. I hope to build on 2019 with 2 cars at Daytona in Cup (yes, I’m still stupid) and 2 Xfinity cars.”

Five Cup cars to be docked practice time at Darlington

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon are among those who will be penalized time in Friday’s first Cup practice session at Darlington Raceway.

NASCAR announced that Dillon will be docked 30 minutes for failing inspection before the Bristol race three times.

Busch will be docked 15 minutes for failing inspection before the Bristol race twice.

David Ragan, Timmy Hill and Derrike Cope each will be penalized 15 minutes for being late to inspection at Bristol.

NASCAR also stated that the No. 7 car will be penalized 15 minutes of practice time for failing inspection twice at Bristol. That car is not entered at Darlington and will serve its penalty the next time it enters a Cup event.

In the Xfinity Series, three cars will be penalized practice time Friday .

Ryan Reed, Carl Long and Mike Harmon each will be docked 15 minutes for being out of the garage late. NASCAR also announced that the No. 13 car will be penalized 15 minutes for failing inspection two times at Road America. That car is not at Darlington. It will serve its  penalty the next time it enters an Xfinity race.

Radio confirms Timmy Hill’s car lost its battery around when Ty Dillon hit debris

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NASCAR still is trying to solve the mystery of what Ty Dillon ran over at Michigan on Lap 134 of Sunday’s race, but the No. 66 team of Timmy Hill may have provided a big clue.

Here’s the exchange over the No. 66 team’s radio a few laps after Dillon’s incident and right before Hill retired from the race on Lap 138 for an electrical issue.

Timmy Hill: “I’ve lost power here.”

No. 66 team: “Power?”

Hill: “10-4. Dash is dead, dash is dead. I need you to clear. The switch, it must be the switch.”

Hill then took his car to pit road.

No. 66 crew: “The battery. Is the battery there?”

Hill: “It’s the dash … the dash, man.”

No. 66 crew: “It’s the battery. The battery is gone.”

Hill: “The battery’s gone?”

Here are some reactions from other team radios after Dillon ran over the debris.

  • Clint Bowyer: “Holy… there was something on the back straightaway I thought. Somebody must have hit it. It must have been a lot bigger than I thought.”
  • Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch: “He hit a damn … it looked like a battery come out of somebody’s car and (it) ran right through the radiator.”
  • “Battery’s gone out of the 66. It may be out there somewhere.”

Carl Long nominally was listed as the owner of the No. 66, but a spokesman for Long said the car was prepared by Rick Ware Racing. The team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The exchange between Hill’s team and the reaction of other teams will be included in Tuesday’s edition of Scan All on NASCAR America.