Evolution of a pit stop: Era of the Rainbow Warriors
- Aug 26, 2010
- 24 Team
CONCORD, N.C. (Aug. 26, 2010)—When Jeff Gordon tried his hand with the heavier NASCAR machines, the California native and Indiana transplant knew an opportunity to race stock cars would open up a new world of possibilities.
In 1991, Gordon moved south to drive for Bill Davis Racing in NASCAR’s Busch Series [now Nationwide]. Gordon gained experience in the Busch Series, and then he and the team would move up to the Cup series together.
It was Speedweeks 1992, however, when a fateful meeting between Gordon and Ray Evernham would change everything and eventually turn into one of the most successful unions in NASCAR history. Evernham, a smart out-of-the-box thinker was a former Modified driver. He’d met NASCAR driver Alan Kulwicki while working as a mechanic with the International Race of Champions. Kulwicki wanted Evernham to work with him and finally the New Jersey native relented and moved to North Carolina. However, when the two reached Daytona in February 1992, a heated disagreement between the pair resulted in Evernham leaving the team. Evernham walked out of the garage and was headed home when he encountered Preston Miller, who guided Evernham to Bill Davis Racing and introduced him to Gordon who was 21 at the time.
Gordon’s ability to adapt to stock cars and his tremendous talent quickly fueled his name as NASCAR’s next hot commodity. Midway through his freshman season in the Busch Series, team owner Rick Hendrick discovered Gordon wasn’t under contract. He quickly signed him and as part of the package brought Evernham into the fold. Hendrick realized he had a driver-crew chief combination that was as close to perfect as a racer could get.
Also, a primary sponsorship from DuPont Automotive paints and a blue paint scheme accented by rainbow colors on its quarter panels would lead to the “Rainbow Warriors” moniker that stuck among media members and fans alike.
Gordon and Evernham became fast friends, something that’s not always the case between drivers and crew chiefs.
“We hit it off right from the beginning,” Gordon said in the 2004 book, Twenty Years of Hendrick Motorsports. “I could tell right away he was a sharp guy. He was excellent on a chassis and is a former race car driver himself, so when I said, ‘Oh, it’s doing this or that,’ he knew what I was talking about. He was somebody I could relate to. He was someone who knew quite a bit about a race car.”
During the next decade, Gordon and Evernham won 52 races and three of Gordon’s four NASCAR championships in Hendrick’s Chevrolets. The first title came in 1995, his third full season of competition. With Evernham at his side, he also claimed titles in 1997 and 1998.
Evernham was always thinking, always looking for the advantage in the rules by studying the obvious, but seeing what other drivers, team owners and crew chiefs didn’t see. He had found something that proved to be the key for building a lightning-fast pit crew: Capitalize on the mental and physical strength the crew members bring to the team. He also developed specialized positions.
“When we decided to start the team, we decided to look at it like it was its own little separate sports team,” Evernham says. “I couldn’t let them concentrate on being a good mechanic or good fabricator during the day and still be able to concentrate on being a good athlete on pit road. When the crew guys were initially assembled, they knew everything they were going to do was going to be different.”
At the start of Gordon‘s rookie season in 1993, Evernham called upon Andy Papathanassiou, a former football player from Stanford University who had spent many years training for and playing various positions on the football field. His job was to put an athletic way of thinking into the minds of car guys who would rather watch a football game than train as if they would play in one.
Evernham knew he had his work cut out for him.
“We went about the whole thing differently,” Evernham explains. “At that time, we didn’t have a lot of money to pay people and the pit crew guys. They weren’t making six figure salaries, but these guys were good. They sacrificed and wanted to do it. I think they knew they were doing something that was unique and being rewarded for their efforts. They got to be a part of Hendrick Motorsports and a part of the No. 24 team. We had a great driver and a great team. It was a good, close-knit team.”
Just as a running back is fast on the field and a lineman blocks for his quarterback, Evernham wanted people in positions that fit them according to their size and ability.
“What made them fast was the fact we did look at it like a sports franchise,” Evernham continued. “We worked on physical conditioning, worked on flexibility. We picked people by size and by physical stature per position, whether that was a tire changer or jackman or whatever the position was. We also worked on speed drills, vertical leaps and things like that as part of the training program. We event had special hand-and-eye coordination drills. We measured body fat and got well into the pit crew conditioning before many of the other Sprint Cup teams did. We reviewed videos of pit stops and we were one of the first to do that, too. The guys worked and acted like a team.
“We weren’t the first ones to go into the physical fitness angle and expand on that because there were other teams doing it. We just took it to a more organized level. It wasn’t fragmented. It was part of the daily regime for those guys.”
Evernham smiles when he thinks back to all of the races during that eight-year span where the Rainbow Warriors pulled off race-winning miracles in the pits.
“I can’t pick one race where those guys came through in the end because to be truthful, they did for Jeff Gordon and for myself so many times,” Evernham says. “When the pressure was on, they would really step up. We could make calls that other people just couldn’t make. We could count on our guys. We just knew we were going to gain on pit road and not lose.
“They might not agree, but I think they had their best, yet toughest day when we won the Southern 500 at Darlington [S.C.] Raceway (on Aug. 31, 1997); the day Jeff won the first of three career Winston Million bonuses.”
That day, Gordon had to fight a poor-handling race car due to some chassis set-up miscues that resulted in numerous pit stops to fix the problems. There was little hope of winning until the Rainbow Warriors put him in position to take the checkered flag.
“Jeff drove his butt off that day,” Evernham said. “We pitted like 16 times trying to fix that thing. We had spring rubbers going in, spring rubbers going out, sway bar hooked up, sway bar unhooked. They held their own on pit road and kept us in position to win that race.”
Gordon knew first hand just how smoothly the Rainbow Warriors performed on pit road. He directly benefited from every move they made and on many occasions, the end result was champagne and confetti showers in victory lane.
“That was something that Ray and Hendrick Motorsports really did a lot with,” Gordon says. “By tuning up our pit crew, those guys became known as the best. (Other teams) feared them.
“I would come down pit road and I knew they were either going to get me out first or they were going to pick up two, three or four spots on pit road every time.
“I think the Rainbow Warriors is why the sport has come so far. Back then, you could look at an area and focus on that area and see a dramatic increase in performance. These days, everyone is so focused in all areas it’s so hard to make any big gains or find an edge.”
In 2001, Gordon won his fourth NASCAR championship with crew chief Robbie Loomis. Evernham had left Hendrick Motorsports in late 1999 to form his own Sprint Cup team. Now, he is a television analyst with ESPN, but he feels the union he shared with Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors was a very important piece of NASCAR’s storied history.
“That was just an incredible, incredible time,” Evernham said. “I honestly can’t count the times when it came down to the money stop that they got us right out and in position to win. There were a lot of those. Whether it was great coaching by Andy Papa or just that the team jelled. Those guys had a ton of confidence and they got it done for us. The Rainbow Warriors put me and Jeff in position to win a lot of races.”