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Pit Road Dangerous to Racing Crews

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Robert Yates was sitting on the wall along pit road watching his drivers race when a car suddenly came right at him. The NASCAR team owner barely had time to move.

Dave Blaney had lost control and was spinning fast down pit road. Pit crews scrambled for safety as Blaney banged the concrete. Trying to escape, Yates fell off the wall.

An ambulance was called, but Yates insisted he was fine and went back to work with nothing worse than a bruised knee.

He was lucky. Others haven't been. Increasingly, the danger zone in auto racing is stretching onto pit road.

``The potential for serious injury is there, and you have to be on your toes for anything,'' Dale Earnhardt said. ``You have a lot of things going on with 30 cars coming down and guys running out to change tires.

``One slip-up and someone can be in a lot of trouble.''

The near-hit on Yates two weekends ago at Talladega Superspeedway was just one of the many this season.

Mark Martin's brakes failed during the Bud Shootout at Daytona. He hit crew member Mike Ehret, who got away with a bruised leg.

A week later, Tony Stewart ran into Mike Lingerfelt as he left his pit during the Daytona 500, breaking the crewman's right leg.

``You know the dangers are there, but it's your job to get it done and you trust the other person enough to where they are going to give you a little bit of room,'' said Shawn Irvin, a tire changer for Mike Skinner. ``Sometimes they don't, and that's why we've had so many guys going over hoods this year.''

Other circuits have the same problems.

Michael Andretti ran over crewman Ty Manseau during a pit stop in CART's Miller Lite 225 last June, a week after Dave Stephens, a crewmen for Gil de Ferran, was knocked down during a pit stop.

Neither man was seriously injured, but those and other accidents led CART to make helmets mandatory for crewmen.

In the IRL, Steve Fried, chief mechanic for Robby McGehee, was nearly killed last year when Jimmy Kite's car hit him from behind on pit road at the Indianapolis 500. Fried was flipped and landed on his face, sustaining serious head and chest injuries.

The IRL encourages but does not require crewmen to wear helmets. Part of the problem, IRL spokesman Fred Nation said, is that helmets impair vision and hearing. NASCAR also does not require crewmen to wear helmets.

Congestion on pit road is nothing new. But with an ever-increasing emphasis on quick service, multicar stops at very slow speeds probably create more danger for defenseless crewmen than well-protected drivers face on the track at close to 200 mph.

During a stop under caution early in a NASCAR race — when teams change four tires and refuel in 15-18 seconds — nearly 300 men will go over the wall while as many as 43 cars scramble in and out of pit stalls not much larger than a spot at a parking meter.

``Considering all the things that are happening on pit row and all the things that have to take place, it's chaos,'' Ehret said.

It also can be deadly.

Ricky Rudd's brakes locked up as he was making a stop in 1990. The car spun out of control and killed Mike Rich, one of Bill Elliott's crewmen.

In 1998, Chris Bradley, crew chief for Adam Petty's ASA team, was killed because he was under the car when the jack was lowered too soon and Petty drove over him as he sped away.

Rudd's accident led to the first major rules changes concerning pit road. Pit stops under caution were banned for the first seven races of the 1991 season.

Now, cars on the lead lap pit before those off the pace, and speed limits on pit road vary from 35-55 mph.

Earlier this month, NASCAR implemented a new regulation requiring teams to put tires on the inside half of the pit box before the car leaves. Drivers should no longer have to swerve to avoid abandoned tires.

``Safety on pit row is something we are very concerned about,'' said Gary Nelson, Winston Cup's director of competition. ``This new rule makes it a much safer situation because it takes away the risk created by teams avoiding tires left out there deliberately or unintentionally.''

Ehret likes the new rule, but hopes more can be done.

``It's still not real safe, but I don't know what you can do to make it better,'' he said. ``But it's routine, so you just do your job and try not to think about the danger.''

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On the Net:

NASCAR: http://www.nascar.com

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