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The Pit and the Pandemonium

Nov. 21, 2005
Nov. 21, 2005

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Nov. 21, 2005

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The Pit and the Pandemonium

Should your brain pack up and move to Pluto, leaving you to volunteer for Jeff Burton's NASCAR pit crew, as I did, here are the actual, helpful safety tips they will give you, no joke:

This is an article from the Nov. 21, 2005 issue Original Layout

1. When on fire, don't panic.

2. If a tire comes at your face, try to block it with your arm.

3. Should a race car flip at 150 miles per hour and hurtle toward the pit, be sure to run.

Burton's pit crew enjoys making rookies so scared their spleens run up their throats and out their mouths.

"He's gonna be a Gas Runner, right?" Burton said at a team meeting before Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway. (Yes, I was, though I had no idea what the hell one did.) "Anybody show him pictures of the last Gas Runner we had?"

Burton and his crew know disasters because they've been in more of them than Anderson Cooper. Gas Man Larry (the Legend) Hartle--he shoves the 81-pound fuel cans into Burton's Chevy--caught fire last year at Michigan. As five teammates pounded on his prostrate body to try to snuff out the flames, Larry remembers thinking, Man, I must really be on fire!

Shock Man Skip Pope didn't have to guess. He knew. He was in the garage just a week ago when a tailpipe belched a plume of fire, turning his arms and legs into tiki torches. "I didn't enjoy it all that much," he said, surprisingly.

Oh, and the team's Jack Man, Josh Yost, nearly had his right foot sliced off when Rusty Wallace's car clipped him. Six months later Yost still can't work in the pit nor has he regained the feeling in his foot.

All of which made me ask the question, "Excuse me [nervously clearing throat]? But [sweaty brow] what exactly [cough, cough] does a Gas Runner do?"

"You'll find out," they said, grinning gleefully and handing me my uniform. It was not comforting: Fire-retardant helmet (if I wanted it), fire-retardant suit ("Remember, that suit's only good for eight seconds," one Tire Catcher said), even fire-retardant pit shoes, which carried a pleasant warning under the tongue: MOTOR SPORTS ARE HIGHLY DANGEROUS WITH RISKS OF DEATH AND INJURY. And then a cheery, "Just do it!"

Gas Runner? Why not Nitro Juggler? Wolverine Flosser? This is not what I had in mind when I dreamed this idea up. I was hoping for Guy Who Hands Driver Gatorade or Guy Who Washes Window with 20-Foot Squeegee. Gas Runner? What was that? Run after Burton as he peeled off, carrying dripping handfuls of Super Leaded?

I was getting cold feet in my flame-retardant shoes.

Burton stayed mum, taking me instead to the Sunday drivers' meeting, where the invocation preacher actually said, "God bless our sponsors, without whom we couldn't be here today." You think God started with Coors or Viagra?

Finally, just before the race, Chad Tigert, the team's actual Gas Runner, finally spilled: All I had to do was put Larry the Legend's empty gas cans into this kind of wagon, walk about 300 yards down pit road, fill them up at a makeshift Sunoco station and come back. That's it. A lot of pit bull.

"Are you kidding me?" said Burton's boss, owner Richard Childress, who won six titles with Dale Earnhardt himself. "Gas Runner is the most important job of all! Name me one car that ever won without fuel!"

So as the crew was facing down fear, fire and death, I was waiting in line with my stupid little wagon, nowhere near the action. My best time: 9 minutes, 47 seconds. I felt like the guy who fights the war from a desk in Dubuque. At no time did I think to myself, Man, I'm really on fire!

The closest I got to paint-swappin' was trying to sneak past the Gas Runner for Kevin Harvick as he walked with his stupid little wagon. I tried to pass him low, near the vending machines, but he cut me off.

Meanwhile, my teammates were reliving Days of Thunder (thanks to great pit work, Burton didn't have to pit with most everybody else at Lap 230, vaulting him from 17th to seventh) and Days of Blunder (they had a DMV-slow 16.38-second stop a little later, yanking Burton back down to 18th).

I wasn't there for that last screwup, but I got back with my wagon just in time to see the Rear Tire Changer, Aaron Smith, pounding his helmet over and over on the wall in frustration. He looked as though he'd gladly take fire over whatever had just happened. Burton finished 15th, behind winner Kyle Busch.

Later that night, safe but deflated, I went through the Taco Bell drive-through, where the guy made especially good time hustling up my chalupa.

Now that's a Gas Runner.

• To see a photo gallery and video of Rick Reilly's pit crew experience, go to SI.com/reilly. If you have a comment for Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

"He's going to be a Gas Runner, right?" Burton said before Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500. "Anybody show him pictures of our last Gas Runner?"

PHOTOROBERT BECK