A day in the life of a NASCAR road crew.Team Target driver Casey Mears's rear bumper is hanging perilously from his car as he speeds around South Carolina's Darlington Raceway. He has hit the wall more times here than his pit crew can keep track of, so he's in no mood to dillydally at his next pit stop. He speeds toward the pit at 180 mph, and his pit crew, a laid-back cast of sunflower-seed-spitting cutups, perk up like prairie dogs with wrenches. Crew chief Jimmy Elledge counts down to arrival on the team radio.
Mears skids in, just skirting under the 55 mph speed limit (in 1990, NASCAR implemented the speed limit after a member of Bill Elliott's crew was struck and killed). The team leaps "over the wall" (the one-to-three-foot wall separating the pit box - where the pit and road crews, team managers and sponsors, and special guests hang out during the race - from the area where the cars screech in for pit work) with the determination of prison escapees. With a grunt and a thud, the rear bumper is ripped by hand off the back of the car like a piece of flimsy Scotch tape. Meanwhile, sizzling 65-pound tires are bouncing haphazardly away in all directions, replaced by fresh, asphalt-hugging new ones. Mere seconds go by before Mears guns the gas, causing his new tires to spin uselessly until they meet the pavement in a plume of acrid smoke and singed rubber.
When they do, a stray lug nut is propelled out from under the left rear tire like a heat-seeking missile, and it hones in on a target right between my eyes. Luckily, the speeding projectile collides with a jack that is resting on the wall, deflecting it back onto the track and away from my precious face. Welcome to the fastest, most dangerous 14 seconds in sports.