Pit road’s friendliest team has drivers smiling, laughing
In the final moments before they begin their 400- or 500-mile journey, Cup drivers ease their cars down pit road, passing their pit box and crew, sharing a wave, thumbs up or fist bump as they drive by.
Their team, though, isn’t the only one to wish them well.
The Richard Petty Motorsports pit crew for Bubba Wallace waves at every vehicle — including pace cars and safety trucks — that passes their pit stall before the race begins. They’re the only crew to do so, sharing a bond with drivers before the green flag waves.
“I appreciate it,” said Ty Dillon, who waves back. “I think it’s cool. I look forward to seeing those guys on pit road. Just makes you smile.”
Landon Cassill is another who waves back to the No. 43 pit crew.
“It’s nice to have a smiling face and a wave,” he said.
Former champion Martin Truex Jr. also makes sure to wave at the Petty pit crew members.
“If you don’t wave at them you actually feel bad because they’ll like make sad faces,” Truex said.
Tire carrier James Houk started waving to all the cars a few years ago when he noticed that not every pit crew stood in its stall and saluted its driver as they passed before the start of the race.
“If I’m a driver and I’m driving past and I see all these crew members waving at their drivers and I’m just like I didn’t get a wave, I’m going to be sad about it going out on the race track,” Houk said. “That’s why I started waving at them.
“I was just like, ‘Man, they need somebody to at least tell them good luck.’ ”
The rest of the pit crew soon followed. While pit crew members have changed through the years, the tradition remains.
“The first few times that you do it, you’re a little bit embarrassed,” said jackman Will Goodnow, who joined the crew after last year’s Coca-Cola 600. “At least I was. Now it’s fun.”
There’s nothing to be embarrassed about for any new members. They’re continuing a tradition that dates back to the team’s namesake. While Richard Petty didn’t wave to his competitors, he’s known as much for signing autographs and spending time with fans as he is for his 200 Cup wins and seven championships. It’s only fitting that this pit crew treats competitors as Petty treats fans.
“I absolutely notice it because I’m probably the only driver that drives down pit lane and has since I’ve started, give everybody a thumbs up,” seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. “For the longest time the only people that waved back was the 43 (crew).”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said that when he sees the Petty pit crew waving: “I always laugh. It’s kind of cool.”
He also waves back.
But understand this isn’t a hi, how you doing gesture. Houk, the ringleader, sparks the enthusiasm with his exaggerated waves and gyrations. His teammates follow.
“We have fun,” fueler Ian Anderson said. “We love what we do.
“Up and down pit road, we are part of a traveling circuit. We see the same faces, the same people every single week. So when it comes down to it, we’re all friends and family until that green flag drops. From flag to flag that’s when we compete.”
The same five pit crew members also service the No. 11 car for Kaulig Racing and Justin Haley in the Xfinity Series and wave to the cars before those races.
That’s where Cup rookie Matt Tifft first encountered the pit crew’s waving.
“I thought it was kind of weird,” Tifft said. “I thought it was a joke or something but they obviously always did it. I met some of those guys on the plane because sometimes we share their flight back and they’re all super cool guys.”
For as much fun as they have, there is some order to what they do. The five pit crew members line up the same each week. Houk is always first.
“James is the ringleader,” said Rear tire changer Justin Fiedler, who is next after Houk.
Front tire changer Brody Essick is third — he always has his helmet on because that’s part of his pre-race routine. Goodnow is fourth and Anderson is always fifth.
It’s Anderson’s job to count how many drivers wave back at the crew. The record is 28 set earlier this year.
Essick comes up with a number of drivers he thinks will wave and the rest of the crew decides if it will be higher or lower than that total.
For the Monster Energy Open, Essick projected 14 drivers would wave back. The field had 24 cars, two pace cars and two safety trucks. Fourteen drivers waved back to the team.
So, not every driver waves. Sometimes a driver might not do so because he’s fiddling with his radio or focused on his pit stall. For others, they’re just focused.
“I always think they’re being silly,” David Ragan said. “I always think they need to act more mature and get ready to make a pit stop.”
Ragan also recognizes how he prepares for a race is different from others.
“Everybody gets ready for a big event in different ways,” he said. “Some people listen to music. Some people act funny. Some people clam up, don’t say anything. Some drivers stand there and sign autographs, and some drivers stand near the back of the car and don’t say anything.
“For me, I try not to be too goofy before I get ready to go. That way, in case I make a mistake, it doesn’t seem like I didn’t have my focus.”
Reigning champion Joey Logano also isn’t big on waving back.
“Call me a jerk, but I’m not really wishing anyone luck at that point,” he said. “It’s all about going to win.”
One driver who has never waved back to the No. 43 pit crew is Denny Hamlin.
So what’s up with that?
“I’ve seen it, but I don’t wave back or anything,” Hamlin said.
Told that he’s the one driver the No. 43 pit crew hopes will wave back to them some day, Hamlin said: “Maybe I’ll give them a wave.”
The next chance should be this weekend at Pocono Raceway. The cars are lined on pit road before the start. The key for the No. 43 pit crew is to have a pit stall close to pit exit so they can wave to most, if not all of the field.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Pit stalls are chosen based on qualifying. Slower cars pick late and have fewer choices. That can mean the team has a pit stall that is behind all the cars that are parked on pit road and the crew doesn’t get to wave. Or, as happened in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, the field is parked on the front stretch and doesn’t come down pit road.
Essick said that “it’s kind of a bummer” when they don’t get to wave to the field.
At ISM Raceway this year, the team’s pit stall was behind where all the cars were parked, meaning the crew members would not get to wave to the cars as they went by.
No problem. They waved as the drivers walked by to their cars.
The pit crew understands what they do is not for everyone. Still, many wave. They appreciate Johnson’s thumbs up. They note Chase Elliott waves a couple of fingers at them — “Somebody’s waving at you, so wave back,” Elliott said. Houk said Dale Earnhardt Jr. would wave as enthusiastically at them as the crew waved to him.
“It’s in my personality to want to make friends or get along with everyone,” Earnhardt said. “I thought it was our thing. I don’t know those guys personally, but it was something I always looked forward to that brought down the tension and nerves before a race.
“I’m all for everyone getting along. I also appreciate boundaries and going to battle and knowing your enemy. But there is a place in the sport for brotherhood and fellowship. I felt like that’s what was happening in those moments.”