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FEB 19, 2014

Inside The Oval: Work On A Pit Crew? No Thanks, Says Ford PR Guy

97Daytona500_Grab

By Dan Zacharias
Ford Racing Public Relations

There are a lot of things I will do in this world.

I will ride the scariest roller coaster in the amusement park even though I know the end result may not be pretty.  I will try to fix anything that breaks in the house despite the fact I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time.  And I will gladly volunteer my time to help those less fortunate.

But there are a lot of things I won’t.

I won’t jump out of an airplane.  I won’t touch a snake.  And I won’t be an over-the-wall guy on a NASCAR pit crew.  No way.  No how.  Here’s why.

I had just been hired in the spring of 1997 by Sports Marketing Enterprises, which was affiliated with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, to work in media relations with then-series sponsor Winston in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.  Part of my responsibilities included working with driver Jimmy Spencer and the No. 23 Camel Cigarettes team.

Coming from the world of intercollegiate athletics, I was used to being close to the action.  Plus, I had been to a few NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races in person, so when I settled into position at the back of the pit box for my first Daytona 500 I felt prepared for what I was about to see. Boy, was I wrong.

Many of my co-workers went into the race feeling as though Spencer was a real threat to win, but all of that optimism disappeared when he hit the wall coming off Turn 2 on Lap 49.  The accident tore off the right-front quarter panel of his purple and yellow Ford Thunderbird, but the extent of the damage wasn’t immediately known.

As Spencer, who was running fourth at the time, was making his way around to come down pit road, my boss, the late T. Wayne Robertson, jumped on the radio and proceeded to start telling everyone associated with the team what had happened.  Besides being the head of SME and one of the most powerful men in the sport at that time, T. Wayne was the sponsor of Spencer’s car so he had a vested interest in its on-track performance.

Well, T. Wayne was still describing the damage as Spencer approached the pit stall, but there was one rather big problem.  Spencer, known in the sport as Mr. Excitement, didn’t have any brakes and even though he was on the radio trying to tell the crew, T. Wayne’s ongoing narrative had him locked out so the message never got through.  The next thing I knew, jack man Wayne Jenks was flying through the air across the car’s hood as Spencer slid through the box.

“When I ran out I could see he didn’t have any brakes, but I was too far out to stop,” recalled Jenks, who was just about at the right-front corner of the car when Spencer’s bumper arrived.  “You don’t ever stop and come back.  That was one of the things you learned early or you got yourself killed, so I just kept running and he kept turning it until it got to the point I had to jump.”

After jumping and rolling in the middle of pit road, Wayne quickly picked up the jack and went about his business of working on the car.  The front end was damaged enough that they had to take it behind the wall and replace some of the suspension, but I was in a state of semi-shock at what I had just witnessed.

In real time it looked as though Spencer made contact with Wayne’s right leg, but that wasn’t the case.

“It barely grazed my shoe,’” said Jenks, who grew up in the town of Northbrook, N.C., and credited his reaction time from being a three-sport star at West Lincoln High School for his narrow escape.  “If you look and break it down, I jump and the jack propelled me forward as the car went under me, so I didn’t actually ever get hit.  When I landed the first thing I did was look up because I knew other cars were coming down pit road, so my first instinct was to get out of there before I really did get run over. ”

Even more amazing was to see Wayne’s reaction in the aftermath and how he acted as though it was no big deal.

“It’s kind of like being a policeman or anything else.  Most of them do it for the adrenaline rush and that’s why I did it,” said Jenks, who retired from pit road duty four years ago.  “It was exciting, so I never did think twice about it.  It’s just one of those deals where you know it could happen, and you’ve got to learn to put that out of your mind.

“In the older days it wasn’t unusual to have to jump up on the hood of a car because it used to be wild when they came into the pits,” continued Jenks.  “They’d cut through your pits or come in hot.  You might have to jump on the hood and slide across it -- just stuff you learn to do over the years.  They come in hot, and you jump across the hood and when you come off you go to work.”

Now when you put it like that, sliding across a hood sounds like something everyone would want to try at least once, doesn’t it?

(Editor's Note: The incident mentioned above occurred at the 7:55 mark of the video below.)

Dan Zacharias is a member for the Ford Racing Public Relations staff.

  • 16 years on the NASCAR beat for Ford Racing
  • Faster than a speeding bullet when it comes to transcribing driver interviews
  • Able to leap pit wall in a single bound during post-race mayhem