For Love of the Game
When I worked as a roadie for a couple of “hair bands” back in the day, I often heard from fans about how cool it would be to have a job like mine, or fielded queries about how someone could get involved in a similar pursuit. I always answered that getting the job, or even performing it, wasn’t particularly difficult but having the ability and mindset to spend countless days, weeks, even months on the road in close proximity with the same few people was absolutely essential.
I’d also explain that after the show they’d just enjoyed so much, after the party they may have been heading to, after they called it a night, we would just be wrapping up and quite possibly sitting three-abreast in the front of a Ryder truck and heading hundreds of miles on through the night to the next gig. But we loved it and at 20-some years old it all seemed worth it.
I suspect it’s much the same for crewmembers of professional race teams, but even more so for nitro workers. I was watching some of these guys perform with several teams at the recently completed NHRA event in Atlanta and I’ve got to say, a harder working lot would be difficult to find.
I’ve often marveled at what makes a fuel-car mechanic tick, at what provides their motivation. I mean, I can understand the satisfaction derived from building a smooth-operating machine, the pride of craftsmanship, the drive to win, the thrill of seeing and hearing your creation thunder down a racetrack.
But in drag racing, particularly in the fuel ranks, it all lasts for such a brief moment. Certainly, NASCAR or Formula 1 team members put just as much heart, time and effort into building their rides, but once they get to a track they at least get to watch their machines circle past many times in practice and qualifying—and barring unforeseen accidents—for two to four hours on raceday, even if running in 30th place or worse. Some, through pit stops, will even get to be part of the “on-stage” action so the attraction is easy to understand.
Nitro crewmembers, on the other hand, get to see their car go down the track a maximum of eight times on any given race weekend; four times in qualifying and four times in eliminations. There’s absolutely no room for error on raceday; anything but finishing first means an early exit, pack it up and go home. So, let’s say at an average of 4.6 seconds per pass for a Top Fuel car, that’s a maximum of 36.8 seconds of on-track performance over the course of three days.
Taking it further, if an NHRA team had an absolutely perfect season and made it to the final round at all 23 races this year (which we know is all but impossible), its crew guys would get to witness their results just a little over 14 minutes. Of course there may be a few testing days sprinkled in here or there, so that might up the total by a few seconds or even a couple of minutes, but you get the picture; it’s an awful lot of work for little tangible gratification.
Think about it, after countless hours at the shop putting together the car, for most team members it’s into a truck or crew van for a cross-country journey to the next event followed by long workdays and the close quarters of overcrowded hotel rooms. Once the racing starts, they may get to accompany the car to the line and watch it disappear in a cloud of clutch dust, hoping to see that win light come on. Then, it’s a rush back to the pits where they’ll have to completely tear down a smokin’ hot engine and clutch, put it all back together, service everything else and hope no detail has gone unattended. Oh, and it all has to be done in a 75-minute turnaround.
I was casually discussing exactly these thoughts with a fellow trackside photographer at Atlanta and he agreed, pointing out you rarely even see these guys smile. They’re either engaged in serious thrashing, concentrating on the job at hand, or appear dog tired, spent from fulfilling their responsibilities.
But I suspect that just as we did back in the ‘80s, these dedicated pros would say the hard work is all worth it. They’re not in it for the fame or the fortune, (neither of which is very likely, or at least not until that crew chief position opens up!), but because they love the challenge and love the sport. It’s easy to understand why the drivers so often thank their crew guys beyond all else in post-race interviews. They give it their all.