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Life in the pits

| Sunday, July 3, 2005

Pit crew chief Scott Durick rubbed his oily hands together in nervous anticipation.

Sitting next to him, fellow crew member Doug Emmert glanced quickly to his right several times at the No. 83 Modified car waiting in line to roar onto the clay track at Lernerville Speedway.

Go time.

Time to see if they had correctly adjusted their car for the track's conditions and properly prepared it to survive 20 laps of digging in the dirt.

Or not.

After veteran driver Brian Swartzlander gets behind the wheel, Durick, Emmert and other crew members, including Brian's son, B.J., climb into the stands.

The crew's job is to ensure the car gives the elder Swartzlander a decent chance to capture the checkered flag.

When it's time to race, all the crew can do is sit, watch and wait.

June 17 was a wild ride that ended in a rare way for Swartzlander's team, which hails from the Leechburg area.

But it also contained many moments every pit crew in Western Pennsylvania can relate to -- scenes few local racing fans see but are as important to Swartzlander's success as his skills behind the wheel.

These scenes have few similarities and many differences to what fans can see during NASCAR races on television.

Here's a behind-the-track look at Swartzlander's pit crew during a memorable evening of racing at Lernerville in Buffalo Township:

  • 7:30 p.m. -- The Modified heat races -- qualifiers for the main event -- start.

    Where is Swartzlander and his crew?

    Their usual spot in the pits (at the end of the second row) is occupied by an orange cone. His team usually pulls in and starts getting ready around 6.

    Keith Swartzlander, Brian's brother, has parked his trailer and car next to No. 83's place. Brian's and his crew's lateness baffles Keith and his helpers.

    One of Keith's crew climbs onto his trailer to get a better view of the spectator's parking lot and the road that goes by Lernerville. He shields his eyes from the sun. No sign of No. 83.

  • 7:34 -- Cars start lining up for the second and final Modified heat.

    Swartzlander is in the second heat, and if he doesn't race in that event, he can't participate in the feature later.

  • 7:45 -- Swartzlander's trailer finally turns into Lernerville's parking lot and stops near the gate to the pits.

    His crew hurriedly opens the back door of the trailer and unloads the car.

    The pit gate is located near the gate of the 4/10-mile track. So, Swartzlander rolls through the pit gate and into line near the track gate.

    His crew, breathing a sigh of relief, drives the trailer past the heat lineup and into their usual spot. They jump out, drop a few pieces of equipment at the rear of the trailer -- where the car will park -- and rush to the stands to watch the heat.

    Swartzlander's team was late because they had to change the trailer's dead starter at the last minute. There was nothing wrong with the car.

    One major hurdle down, and the racing hasn't even started yet.

  • 7:52 -- Swartzlander competes in the 10-lap heat while his crew observes.

    The crew squirms when No. 83 and the No. 777 of Kevin Bolland -- one of Swartzlander's chief rivals -- get close to bumping into each other several times. Later, they look a little nervous when Swartzlander trails a car spewing white smoke.

    But Swartzlander negotiates the obstacles, finishes fourth in the heat and qualifies for the feature.

  • 8:05 -- Swartzlander exits the track, parks in the pits, and the crew begins talking with him about how the car handled and the adjustments they should begin to make.

  • 8:10 -- Swartzlander's crew jacks the rear end of the car and removes those wheels.

    Then, they check for loose nuts and bolts, which could develop during the stress of speeding around the oval and sliding through turns.

    They also scrape off the gooey clay from the car. It might seem like a purely aesthetic thing, but eliminating every little bit of extra weight helps.

  • 8:15 -- Durick opens the gas tank behind the driver's seat and pours in about five gallons.

    The car can hold about 22 gallons, but the crew likes to keep the maximum at about 18 gallons. Once again, this reduces any excess weight.

    Fuel can be bought at Lernerville, but Swartzlander's crew brings theirs.

  • 8:20 -- Durick takes off the small hood in front of the cockpit and looks inside.

    He makes sure nothing has leaked onto the motor. Clay could throw off the oil pump belt. All is good.

  • 8:25 -- Gears become the next order of business for the pit crew.

    By changing the gear ratio, the car's wheels will not spin as hard and will come out of turns more gradually.

    This increases the driver's amount of control and reduces the chance of damaging the tires and motor.

  • 8:31 -- Emmert begins to work on the adjustable pan hard, which can be seen when the right rear wheel is removed.

    If the pan hard is adjusted up, the car will slide better through turns. Usually, this is done when the track is not slippery.

    If the track is slippery and the wheels need more bite to get through turns faster, the pan hard is adjusted down.

    On this night, Emmert and Swartzlander decide to move the pan hard down.

  • 9:00 -- Swartzlander talks to Durick after watching other heats and decides the gear ratio will have to be reduced.

  • 9:05 -- B.J. Swartzlander throws new tires on the rear of the car. Tires are usually changed after 2-3 nights of racing.

  • 9:10 -- The pit lights come on.

    It's still a little dark under the car where Emmert is sprawled on a mat marked with a large Pepsi logo.

    "You sleeping under there?" Durick asks Emmert.

    Emmert lays out and crosses his legs jokingly in response.

  • 9:12 -- There's an announcement over the public address system that the Modified feature is coming up soon.

  • 9:15 -- The gear lube change is completed. Swartzlander and Durick have decided not to take as much out as originally planned. Emmert takes the pan of extra gear lube to the trailer to be used again in the future.

  • 9:17 -- Car is taken down off the jack.

  • 9:20 -- The crew does a last-minute tightening of the tire bolts and puts a cap over the inner circle of the right rear tire to prevent clay from collecting.

    The wrong size cap is brought from the trailer first, but the crew eventually finds the correct size.

  • 9:23 -- Swartzlander jumps into the car, buckles himself in, connects the steering wheel to the car again and pulls on his helmet.

    He then gets in line for the feature, while the crew stays behind to put away some equipment.

  • 9:30 -- The crew, with family and friends, climb into the stands located between the pits and the track to watch the race.

    Durick and Emmert don't say much as they watch Swartzlander, who starts third.

    The car is particularly strong through the turns, Swartzlander says later, and he takes the lead early.

  • 9:44 -- Swartzlander and his crew are rewarded with a milestone.

    The Allegheny Township resident wins his first race since April 16, 2004, and notches his 100th career victory and 44th at Lernerville.

    The crew celebrates with Swartzlander in Victory Lane near the center of the track.

  • 9:50 -- Swartzlander returns to his spot in the pit to celebrate with his crew, family and friends.

    "This feels real good," Durick said. "I've been with Brian's team for many years. Brian's like family. We've been thinking about the 100th win for awhile."

    "They're good," Swartzlander said. "I've got a lot of good guys. Scott debated me on changing gears. We changed our mind, and it went good."

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