words: michael venutolo-mantovani
photography: geoffrey knott
The tire changer is perched atop the short concrete wall, knees bent, ready to spring into action once the battle-scarred race car pulls into the pit. They give the impact gun’s trigger a few pulls, eliciting a series of the zip-cracks synonymous with stock car racing. Perhaps this is a way of shaking some kind of race gunk out of the gun. Perhaps it’s just force of habit, passed down through generations from the moonshine-running outlaws who invented the sport.
Thirty-nine race cars rumble down pit road, their 358-cubic-inch small blocks shaking the very ground beneath them as 47,000 fans rise to their feet. They have packed into Darlington Raceway’s grandstand on a sweltering late-August South Carolina night for The Southern 500, one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races, and are all angling for a better view of one of stock car racing’s most exciting moments: the pit stop.
Thirty-nine pit crews spring into action as their drivers pilot their cars into the designated pit stalls, where each car will get four brand-new Goodyear tires slapped onto their race-worn hubs, have a full tank of Sunoco fuel dumped into the tank, and undergo the track- and sway-bar adjustments necessary to hug the banked curves of Darlington’s famously brutal track, a track so violent and unforgiving that it’s referred to as “Too Tough To Tame.”
When the car comes to a screeching halt, the pit crew leaps over the wall as brake dust billows out of the used-up wheels. The crew—one front tire changer, one rear, two tire carriers, a jackman, and a fuelman—work their choreographed routine, dancing around each other with a preternatural sense of the exact location of their teammates. The tire changer sprints toward the car’s far side, staying as tight to the bumper as possible. As the jackman slides his massive steel carjack beneath the car, hoisting the 3,500-pound race car’s right side off the ground, the tire changer slides to their knees on well-worn knee pads and hits each of the rear right tire’s five lugs.
Zip Zip Zip Zip Zip
The tire carrier pulls the melted tire from the car and rolls it aside for another crew member to handle. A fresh wheel wrapped in brand new Goodyear rubber is lifted onto the car’s hub. The tire changer smashes the little button on their impact gun, changing its setting immediately from loosen to tighten.
Zip Zip Zip Zip Zip
The five lugs fasten the wheel safely to the car, the jackman frees the tension on the jack, the car thuds to the ground, and the pit crew sprints to do the exact same to the car’s left side. The jackman again lets out his jack and the car slams into the asphalt.
“Go go go go go!” the crew chief tells his driver via radio the instant the car hits pavement. The wheels spin as the driver smashes the gas pedal into the floor, coaxing the 800 or so horses beneath his hood back to life. Four fresh tires, a full tank of fuel, and precise race adjustments—all in under 15 seconds.
The pit crew climbs back over the wall and remove their helmets to reveal heads covered in fire-retardant head sleeves. Most of these men are large-to-enormous in stature. Many are former major-college football players. Tossing tires, massive car jacks, and fuel tanks around like this requires raw strength and plenty of athletic ability.
As they climb back over the wall and congregate behind their team’s pit box, and the helmets and head sleeves come off, it becomes apparent that the tire changer isn’t exactly like the rest of her team. The tire changer is Brehanna Daniels, the first African-American female tire changer in NASCAR history.
Mooresville, North Carolina is the center of the American stock car racing universe. The governing body of NASCAR is headquartered 30 miles down Route 77 in a gleaming high rise in uptown Charlotte. But here in Mooresville, every gravel parking lot finds at least one race car hauler and an in-process chassis build can be seen through almost every open garage door. It is here that the rubber tracks of a million burnouts dot every country byway, and discarded tires pile up beside home carports where stock car racing lives.
It seems like every car on Mooresville’s winding country roads is a hot rod, with road-rumbling exhaust pipes and asphalt-grabbing, low-profile tires that can push these American-bred street machines down a quarter-mile race strip in sub-14 seconds. Nearly every truck is lifted, sitting high on 33s or 34s at minimum, each of their pitch-black rear windows adorned with a sticker denoting the number of the modified or street stock that their owner races every Saturday night at local tracks throughout the Southeast.
A light rain falls as Daniels pulls into the parking lot of Mooresville’s Xcalibur Pit School in her bone stock Jeep Wrangler, an outlier in this lot full of those Mooresville hot rods and those Mooresville trucks. She apologizes for being late. Daniels doesn’t have a full-time job with a race team, so she has to work nights at a Charlotte-area Top Golf driving range to help with her expenses.
She heads into the no-frills facility where she trains every day and waits for the weekly call that tells her which race, and with which team, she’ll be working that weekend. NASCAR’s underfunded teams can’t afford to carry full-time crews on the payroll and use outfits like Xcalibur as a sort of weekly pit crew staffing agency. Daniels has no way of knowing where her next race will be.
Xcalibur is a converted garage that hosts a simulated pit stall. Tires, perhaps a hundred of them, are piled behind a 20-foot-long, two-foot-high concrete wall, and there are buckets everywhere filled with thousands of tiny yellow lug nuts. Every few minutes, a stock car rumbles to life just outside the garage’s rolled-up door and pulls into the fake stall for a practice stop. A team of crew hopefuls will change this car’s tires and mimic a tank refill dozens of times over the course of the afternoon.