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, 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.
“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.