I’m standing more than 2 feet off the ground on a narrow white wall, wearing a full-face black helmet and kneepads thicker than pillows. To my right is Derrell Edwards, a former college basketball player who’s 6 inches taller than me. To my left is Jake Holmes, who played college football and has to be that mauch wider in muscle.
Edwards has two hands on a large silver jack, while Holmes has a 48-pound wheel hooked under each arm. Former college baseball player Blake Houston and I hold wheel guns that, when fired, will spin fast enough to bruise my hands. We’re all hinged at the hips, staring over our right shoulders at a burbling race car in the distance.
Edwards gives the driver a wave. As the car throttles toward us, he counts down: three, two, one—
We all jump.
For Edwards, Holmes, Houston, and their teammate Mike Hicks, that’s a normal workday. They pit Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 car for Joe Gibbs Racing in the top-level NASCAR Cup Series, changing four tires in about 10 seconds while fueler Justin White adds gas. Their performance can win or lose a race, and they train all week to perfect it.
Unlike IndyCar or Formula One, where crews line their pit box and wait for the car to stop, NASCAR crews start at pit wall and dive into traffic. It’s a sport of agility, precision, speed, and danger, and it’s not just about having the nerve to jump—it’s about knowing that if a car hits you, there’s a decent chance you’ll roll off the hood and keep going.
I fell in love with NASCAR pit stops in May 2012, when a friend at Joe Gibbs Racing let me watch Hamlin’s crew practice. Back then, I was a 16-year-old megafan, not a motorsports reporter, and the Gibbs crews didn’t have a fancy practice pit box with enough replay televisions to fill a sports bar. They just jumped off a wall in a private alley behind the shop.
My eyes pinballed to keep up with the stops, from Hicks—who’s been a Gibbs tire changer for 15 years, and on Hamlin’s crew for most—loosening five lug nuts in less than a second to his teammates thrashing a new set of wheels on the because.
It mesmerized me: the speed, the choreography, the sharp whirrs of pit guns as they hit each lug. I’ve dreamed of doing it ever since.
In May, I finally did.
The four Gibbs Cup crews train from 7 to 11 am on weekdays along with two from 23XI Racing, a Gibbs-aligned team owned by Hamlin and Michael Jordan. Each day, they cycle through warmup, pit practice, strength and conditioning, physical rehabilitation, and film review.
I planned to spend two days shadowing the daily routine of Hicks, the person I’d watched change tires 10 years earlier. That meant I’d become a temporary part of Hamlin’s crew, training with them and replacing Hicks at practice.
The crew is elite. Hicks, now 36, is thin, machine-fast, and pure muscle. He does Crossfit in his garage after he leaves pit training for the day, and he makes handstand-walks look easier than walking on foot. Jake Holmes, who sprints around the car with a tire in each arm, is so strong that lifting weights can be hard on his joints. He thus uses inflatable cuffs that restrict blood circulation, letting him lift lighter weights but get the results of heavier ones. (They turned my arms purple, and I traded 20-pound dumbbells for 5-pounders during bicep curls.)
Edwards, meanwhile, could probably bicep curl me.
Hicks’ job—and that of his teammates—transformed with the introduction of the new-for-2022 “Next Gen” Cup car with wheels fastened by a single lug nut instead of five smaller ones. Tire changers could loosen or tighten five lugs in about a second on the old car. Now, it’s half.
With larger lugs came a beefier pit gun. The old one weighed 7 pounds, spun at 10,000 rpm, and torqued each lug nut to around 60 lb-ft, while the new one weighs 11, spins at 15,000, and torques to around 600 lb-ft. The new socket could swallow your fist, and it grips the heavy reusable lug in between loosening an old wheel and tightening a new one.
NASCAR tire changers depend on feel to tighten lugs, making it easy to get wrong. While five lugs required more intricate hand movements, they also offered leeway: If one wasn’t tight, there were four more to fall back on. With one lug, there’s only one chance to get it right.
Loose wheels have rolled off countless moving cars this year, while others have gotten stuck. Once, Erik Jones’ crew had to cut a wheel off with a saw.
We warmed on a strip of green turf slicing down the shop’s weight room. Then, we ran drills and pit stops on the team’s practice car, watched replays from each corner of the pit box and overhead, and analyzed race data.
One day, Hamlin’s crew spent at least 30 minutes debating the pros and cons of a tweak that could save four-tenths of a second. To win, they must constantly evolve.
My training began with a lesson on choreography. The jack handler and changers start on pit wall, while the tire carrier and fueler start next to it. When their car is less than one pit box away, they jump.
Edwards jacks the car, while Hicks and fellow change Blake Houston loosen wheels. Holmes drops one of the new wheels by the jack and runs the other to the rear, then he and Edwards slam them on once the old ones are off. The changers tighten the new wheels, Edwards drops the jack, and they do it again on the other side.
The motions were complicated but precise, mesmerizing our photographer.
“Their feet, their hands, everything,” he said while clicking through photos. “They’re in the exact same place every time. Each pit stop is identical.”
I began drills with a stationary wheel hub and disconnected pit gun, sitting flat on my knees and ankles while Gibbs’ director of player advancement, Chris Hall, walked me through tire changes.
First, I made sure the gun’s silver lever was in the “off” position to take off the lug. Then I hit it and removed the 48-pound wheel with my right hand while holding the 11-pound gun in my left, sinking my hips deeper between my feet to move out of its way. As a new wheel went on, I slammed the gun into “on” to tighten it.
“Want to try a live pit gun?” Hall asked. “You’ll scream.”
“No I won’t,” I responded.
Pressing the trigger on 15,000 rpm felt like gripping a miniature jet engine. Once I caught my breath, Hall made me do it again—this time, on a wheel. The gun then became a handheld jackhammer, bruises darkening around my thumb and index finger as the week went on.
Many things can ruin a pit stop, including misaligning the gun’s tiny teeth with the lug or instinctively pulling on it while loosening the wheel. I did that often.
“The gun will pull back when it’s done,” Hall said. “If you pull, you risk dropping a lug that’s spinning too fast to catch.”
I did four live pit stops that week. As I stood on the wall for each, nightmare scenarios filled my mind. I saw myself tripping on Holmes’ tire or my own ankle, hitting the ground teeth-first, or dropping my expensive gun and damaging it.
But once Edwards gave the driver a wave, I had to jump and run. If I didn’t, I’d get hit.
The pit stops came naturally from there, likely because I’d spent months studying. Run. Drop to your knees. Loosen the lug. Pull the wheel off. Slam the gun into “on.” Tighten. Do it again on the other side.
My stops took about 18 to 20 seconds—twice as long as the pros.
Training with Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t just show me the complexity of pit road, leave me with bruises down my arms and legs, or make it hard to walk for the next three days. It taught me how accessible pit stops are.
I didn’t think I’d be able to run a stop like Hicks, even in slow motion. Neither did he. He told me to put my gun down and pull the wheel off with two hands if needed, because it’s better to lose time on purpose than by accident. But once the adrenaline hit, I used one hand easily.
The week also brought back something I hadn’t felt since high school: the camaraderie only sports teams have, whether it be strategizing minor improvements or quietly laughing when, because we were talking, none of us heard which exercise to do next. It taught me that the thing I’d dream of doing for 10 years was as special as I thought it would be.
I’d say I wish I could go back and tell my 16-year-old self I finally learned how to do pit stops, but I don’t think she needs to hear it. She always knew she would.
Like any tire changer, all she needed was the courage to jump.