View Full Version : Gone to the pits

10-01-06, 09:20 AM
Posted on Sun, Oct. 01, 2006

Gone to the pits
NASCAR gets in the reality TV business with its new show Ultimate Pit Warrior Challenge where military personnel compete for a spot on a real pit crew

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — In the middle of the stock-car-racing operations that characterize this Charlotte bedroom community, a miniature military camp mushroomed almost overnight.

Members of the United States military services arrived to take residence in the squad tents and make visits next door to the operations center.

The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines — some officers, some enlisted personnel — came laden with full gear and high hopes. Their quest: earn the chance to become an over-the-wall member of a race team’s pit crew at a real race.

Only one of the 30 would advance, “but just being here has been an awesome experience,” said Doug Spencer, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve who works in the Pentagon.

The opportunity emerged from the “Ultimate Pit Warrior Challenge,” another in the reality-show craze, and unfolded at the Pit Instruction and Training headquarters.

Perhaps people in the endless string of cars leaving classes at the nearby NASCAR Technical Institute or workers at Robert Yates Racing next door wondered about the curious tableau. But participants, 29 men and one woman, had time only to consider the next challenge.

“Competition, NASCAR and the military,” John Roberts, a Speed Channel announcer and one of the judges, said. “That’s a perfect combination. People are going to want to watch.”

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The high-pitched whines of air guns pierce the air. Bodies scramble around the race car with the hope of mastering the lightning-fast tire change. An instructor watches and offers suggestions.

The military contestants get the same expert training that PIT students — whether seeking skills to join a race crew or participating in a corporation’s team-building program — receive.

What the over-the-wall gangs make look so easy is anything but.

“(Showing the difficulty) is the idea,” said Jeff Hammond, broadcaster and PIT vice president who teamed with Columbia sports agent Doug Ames and Hollywood producer Rick Bieber in converting an idea into a mountain of video tape.

Hammond had pondered a reality show in connection with PIT’s real business, and Ames introduced the idea of using military personnel.

“It’s an incremental process,” said Bieber, former chief executive of HBO Pictures. “You conceptualize a show or a movie, put the pieces together and execute the idea.

“The military involvement pushed this one over the top.”

The producers plan six half-hour segments and a one-hour finale, which will include the winner’s performance in the Oct. 28 truck race in Atlanta.

“You have these young people in the service, and you can see their energy and spirit,” Bieber said. “They compete, but they also support each other. It’s really a brotherhood, and I feel privileged to be involved.”

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The 30 contestants who made the trip to Mooresville represented a cross-section of the military that generally shared a passion for stock-car racing.

Jeremy Beck, a Navy petty officer first class, discovered the competition on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Web site. Dan Colvin, a Marine captain who is an aircraft maintenance office at Cherry Point, N.C., found the information in an e-mail release to all Marines.

“I’m going through (e-mail), delete, delete, delete,” he said. “Then, I came to one about this and held up. I opened it and saw the deadline was the next day. I had some annual leave and sent the application.

“We went out of town for the weekend, and I had a phone message when we got back. My wife told me, ‘You might want to listen to this.’ ”

Spencer, assigned to the Navy’s public information office, heard Hammond mention the competition on a television show and quickly applied.

“You don’t pass up opportunities like this,” he said.

Those opportunities included an introduction to the unappreciated world of the pit crew. They wrestled with 75-pound tires, discovered that jacking the car requires more than meets the eye and found demand for hand-eye coordination in removing and installing lugs.

Most of the contestants had served recent tours in the Middle East, and possible future deployment created an unexpected problem for the producers.

“After we started, we found out one guy would be overseas before the Atlanta race,” Ames said. “We had to have an alternate in case he won.”

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Some came on temporary duty orders, others used annual leave and all quickly discovered the competition would be no walk in the park.

They slept on the floor one night, heard Hammond’s booming voice at 5:25 each morning and did physical training pulling sleds or lifting tires.

“I can relate to these guys,” said Doug Burns, a retired Army first sergeant and one of the judges. “They have not been treated well.”

But they found a correlation between how the a pit crew works and a military operation.

“You have a job in both, but you have to be situationally aware in both, too, or somebody gets hurt,” said Spencer, who was on duty near the location where a hijacked airliner crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

“If you drop the jack and the tires aren’t on right, you have somebody’s life in your hands. In the military, if you go out on a fire team to engage an adversary on patrol, you have to know what everybody is doing.”

PIT began with the idea of developing people to handle pit-road jobs. The eight-week course covers all the tasks and includes real stops with real cars screaming to a stop on the facility’s quarter-mile track.

The stops are filmed and the students critiqued, and, Hammond said, “We find out if they have the skills to work on pit road.”

The company’s next step led to a team-building program that has attracted such corporations as United Airlines.

“It’s all about teamwork in racing, and the same thing applies in business,” Hammond said. “You get everybody pulling together for a common goal, and that’s to win at the end. In business, it’s save time, save money, work more efficiently and, in the end, win at the bottom line.”

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The would-be Warriors reported on a Sunday, and eliminations began a day later.

“They were really gung-ho,” the Speed Channel’s Roberts said. “The (PIT) coaches worked with them, but there were two or three that really stood out from the first.”

“You have to be an athlete,” Spencer said.

Eliminated candidates would meet with the judges: Hammond, Roberts, Burns and Ty Manns, a retired Army major.

“As one of the guys told me, ‘I have been shot at and my friends have been killed. This (elimination) is nothing compared to that,’ ” Ames said.

The numbers dwindled and the pressure grew. The tests became more difficult, the eliminations tougher.

The added pressure brought added appreciation for the military, Bieber said.

“Whatever you think about the war, you think highly of those fighting it,” he said. “You put your politics aside, and we’re very supportive of these people. They have been amazing and have represented their services and the entire military in the best way.

“The audience will become very invested in these young people, and that’s why the eliminations are so difficult. In the end, one person has to win, and that’s the drama.”

Several networks have expressed interest in obtaining the rights, and Roberts predicted the editing process will be difficult.

“We’re capturing the personalities of these guys, and it’s incredible stuff,” he said. “A ton of good (material) will end up on the cutting room floor.”

And the winner is ... ?

Ames laughed at the suggestion he might reveal the answer and said, “Just like all the people who competed, the audience will be amazed.”

Reach Sports Editor Bob Spear at (803) 771-8406.