Auto sport is unique in that it is both a tremendous team effort and based off of individual skill. Drivers are the stars, but they have their backup “band,” as it were.
And those people really matter.
What Happened at Indianapolis?
NASCAR raced at Indianapolis last weekend, with no fans in the stands (which was particularly stark at this track) and without Jimmie Johnson, who is in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. (I hope he has a mild case and recovers quickly).
What happened was a racetrack nightmare. A wreck near the entrance to pit road sent the back half of the field spinning. Indianapolis’ pit road is one of the narrowest on the circuit. This video shows what happened. It may well be one of the worst pit road crashes in the history of NASCAR, involving multiple cars.
One car slammed into Ryan Blaney’s pit, forcing one crew member to take a dive over the hood of Blaney’s car and briefly pinning another, Zach Price.
Price was taken to the hospital for evaluation, but has since been released. He has an unspecified leg injury.
He got lucky.
The Risk of Being Pit Crew
The fact is, pit crew take a risk. While incidents such as that are rare, minor injuries are common. The Motorsports Injury Database tracks epidemiological trends in pit crew injuries, and reveals that crew members are at risk of tennis elbow (drivers are more likely to get carpal tunnel), hand and finger injuries, and hip injuries. A study showed that tire changers, like Price, are at the highest risk of injury.
NASCAR has taken steps to protect pit crew. Pit road speed limits were instituted in 1991 after the death of a tire changer named Michael Ritch. Helmets were made mandatory in 2001 after another pit road collision. These changes have greatly reduced the risk to crew members, but the truth is there’s always going to be some risk. Going over the wall as cars speed in towards you, trying to do everything as fast as possible.
These athletes take risks, even as they do what they can to mitigate them.
And they are athletes.
We Don’t Know Their Names
The accident marks the first time I’ve heard the name “Zach Price.” Yet I’ve probably seen this guy a hundred times.
NASCAR posts pit crew rosters. This is the roster for Team Penske at the Daytona 500 back in February, just as an example. The crew has five members, and five back-up members. (Crew members also often cross-train for emergencies). Most fans don’t look at them.
The vast majority of pit crew members are men. In 2019, Rick Ware made history by having two women go over the wall (as tire changers). There are more women on the road crew. The “excuse” often given is that the job does require a certain amount of size, but I see plenty of women who are large enough. (The first black woman went over the wall in 2018).
The fact is that for all but the most serious fans, the pit crew are faceless in fire suits and helmets, a brief distraction while we focus on the star, the driver.
And even so, NASCAR does a better job highlighting pit crew than other series. If I pull up the official page for the Mercedes Formula 1 team, only the team chief and technical chief are named. I did manage to, after some digging, find a couple of names in an article written to educate fans about how pit stops work.
Races are won and lost on pit road. A good pit crew is as important as the driver, in their own way.
As fans, we need to acknowledge this. And wish a speedy recovery to Zach Price. Hopefully we’ll see him go over the wall again one day.