By Cole Cusumano
AVONDALE, Ariz. — It’s not everyday you get a storybook ending outside of fiction, but when the checkered-flag waved for the final time in 2021 at Phoenix Raceway, Kyle Larson and NASCAR achieved that with a money stop defining the season and a generation of motorsports.
Fittingly enough, the flawlessly executed 11.8-second pit stop by the No. 5 team would not only go on to decide the championship, but put an exclamation point on the five-lug era for the NASCAR Cup Series. As pointed out by Denny Hamlin’s rear tire changer, Lee Cunningham, this long-standing 72-year tradition is being uprooted as the sanctioning body prepares to enter a drastic transitional period.
Since making the announcement in Spring of 2020, NASCAR has been under scrutiny by fans and competitors alike when it was revealed the next gen car would adopt a single-lug wheel, similar to Formula 1. Initially set to debut this season, COVID-19 hampered production of the new vehicles, allowing everyone to take in the bittersweet symphony of the squealing Paoli air guns for one more year.
While the imminent change promises a more competitive on-track product, it also marks the end of what many referred to as the artisan age of NASCAR’s premier level. The mutually somber emotions widely disseminated by tire changers during pre-race throughout pit road at Phoenix transformed into elation once it was all said and done, but those feelings were quickly replaced by a feeling of uncertainty for many of the more experienced crew members.
“I just think the veteran people all across the sport probably have the same feeling I do, which is, the skillset is different to go to one-lug and I think what separates your good tire changers from your mediocre and your entry level guys is accuracy,” Cunningham told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “It’s a harder skill to hit five objects than it is one, right?
“The biggest thing is it feels like it’s taken some of the advantage away. Part of your craft has been removed. It’s like, I perfected my craft for 15-16 years and now I’m going to be obsolete. Some entry level guy is going to be able to walk right in and essentially maybe take my job.”
Cunningham, who began changing tires in 2005, is one of many veteran over-the-wall workers fearing job security may be an issue as teams look to cut costs with the next gen car.
A contributing factor to these beliefs is the impending release of roster limits, and the assumption they will be cut down, but with nothing set in stone; it’s one big waiting game. Should this be the case, Cunningham anticipates versatility and knowledge on the mechanical-side will be advantageous. Luckily for him, he worked as both an interior and underneath mechanic for seven years, in addition to his 16-year tenure changing tires.
Naturally, the presumed sacrifice in technicality is the driving factor working against the single-lug transition. However, as noted by Roush Fenway Racing tire changers, Chris Shuman and Seth Gajdorus, there’s a growing reassurance that’s not entirely the case after going through some trial runs.
“At first I was a little upset about it, because I enjoy the five lugs,” Gajdorus told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “We finally got the speeds down a lot to where we can run really fast pit stops, but after practicing a little bit and working on it, I think the single lugs are actually going to be really fun and still just as challenging.”
Beginning with the logistics of a single-lug service, the assessment is it’s really not much different than a traditional pit stop. The choreography, roles of tire changers and the action of gunning the nuts remain the same.
Aside from shaving off some time, the main differences lie in the new equipment and adapting to the makeup of the next gen car, both of which present advanced physical and mental challenges.
While the motions of changing tires will be relatively unchanged, it’s the small details, such as the “sending” technique and timing, where crew members are seeing change in the actual service.
“For a rear tire changer you have a shorter bumper cover (or tail of the car), so you’re able to get there a lot faster, but it’s not very different,” Gadjorus explained. “The amount of time that you’re taking the lug nut off and putting [it] on is maybe a couple tenths faster than hitting five lug nuts.
“The major difference is pulling the tires and getting them off the hub, because you have to pull them one-handed and these new tires are extremely front-heavy, so they fall over quite a bit.”
The new 18-inch aluminum wheels may be a bit bigger and heavier than what tire changers are accustomed to, but they cater to a quicker and more efficient pit stop. Their overall increase in size is accommodated by larger spokes, which tire changers can now fit a whole hand between for better grip.
The “front-heavy” feel is a byproduct of a weight distribution (or wheel offset) to the center of the wheel. This makes for a smoother roll and more control, lessening the safety risk of uncontrolled tires.
“One difference for the front tire changer is you’re sending that wheel,” Shuman told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “You’re not pulling it and setting it to your side and then getting up and pushing it like you do now. You’re pulling the tire and sending it straight to pit wall.
“The cool thing about that is the face of the wheel is so much heavier on the one side of the wheel that, even if you’re off just a little bit, it somehow self corrects and turns to where you want it to go.”
Another difference tire changers are noticing is the time engagement of the socket. For five-lug stops, they were able to pull the trigger prematurely on the Paoli gun and initiate the loosening process before hitting the nuts. The single lugs must be encased by the socket before ratcheting on and off.
Perhaps the largest unknown tire changers face is the torque specifications for the new wheels, which NASCAR has yet to announce. While the new guns produce more strength than the Paoli guns used for five-lug stops, teams are unsure of how long to stay engaged when tightening the singular nut.
In an effort to prepare without having a set parameter, teams are using F1 pit stops as a baseline for practice.
“We’re hearing that the F1 wheels are a little different,” Cunningham admitted. “Their lug nuts are a little different, but it’s as similar as it can get. They need to have like 600-foot-pounds of torque to get the wheel tight, so that’s the number we’ve been shooting for.”
For reference, the torque specifications were only around 75-foot-pounds per nut for five-lug pit stops.
As for the aforementioned physicality increase, this comes in the form of the new equipment being distributed. The new air guns weigh in at nearly 17 pounds, whereas the Paolis from 2021 rang in at just over eight pounds. Additionally, Cunningham said the bigger and thicker hose “feels like you’re dragging a car behind you,” compared to the traditional ones, which felt weightless.
“We’re starting to notice that all our body parts are sore from the way we hold this heavier gun,” Shuman said. “I would say [working out] we would pay special attention to different areas now. Our focus would be more into forearms, shoulder, grip strength-type stuff. Definitely more stretching and more attention to detail when it comes to how you feel.”
The final piece of uncertainty tire changers face resides in the makeup of the next gen car. It’s part of their job to inspect areas such as the suspension, brake calipers and rotors when the vehicle gets damaged, but they’re learning quickly in the infant stages of analyzing these parts that it’s going to take some time to catch on.
“You start looking under those cars and it’s like nothing’s the same,” Cunningham said. “They’re so different in how they’re assembled. What do I look for that can possibly break, or where’s it going to break? We’re going to have to sit down with some of the mechanics after they go to some of these tests and things and figure some of that stuff out.
“It’s definitely a new challenge, but if you keep the right mindset, I think a lot of us veteran guys can carry on into the single lug nut era.”
With the 2021 season officially in the rearview, teams are eager to fully indulge in the laundry list of unknowns and specifics of NASCAR’s future with the next gen car. While there’s still much to iron out before next year, Cunningham, Gajdorus and Shuman expect most of the kinks to be resolved and differences between the single-lug pit stops to be relatively unnoticeable once 2022 rolls around.
Although they’re confident they’ll have the motions and logistics of a single-lug stop figured out with plenty of offseason practice, they understand there’s no substitute for real-time action where 40 cars are flying by and slamming on the brakes on pit road.
“To anybody, whether that’s somebody new or an experienced tire changer that’s kind of fearing this change, I would say just kind of embrace it,” Shuman concluded. “Just push through it and take that same drive that got you to this point and put it towards the one-lug stuff. Don’t give up on something because something’s going in a different direction.”
We’ll have to wait until February 6 in the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to witness the competitive debut of the next gen car, and even then there’s no guarantee there will be live pit stops. NASCAR is holding numerous test sessions for their highly anticipated new Cup Series vehicle throughout the offseason, so you’ll want to stay tuned to News from the Pits for all the latest progress on that front.
Nothing has been announced in regards to pit service testing, but there’s a possibility teams will have the chance to practice in a live setting during one or multiple test sessions.