The reason NASCAR pit crews wear helmets stems from a series of incidents that occurred over the decades. At one time, NASCAR pit crews wore mechanic shirts and pants, hats instead of helmets, and they had no safety gear. You might be asking what changed, and why NASCAR pit crews now wear helmets.
NASCAR pit crews wear helmets because, in years past, crew members suffered unnecessary head injuries during incidents on pit road. Some members expressed concern, fearing helmets could obstruct their peripheral vision, prompting NASCAR to explore several helmet designs before their mandate.
Below, we will discuss the dangers of being a NASCAR pit crew member. We will dive deeper into why NASCAR mandated helmets for pit crews, and other safety gear they mandated over the years. We will also touch on the ill-fated safety mandates that NASCAR implemented in 1991.
It is dangerous to be in a NASCAR pit crew. Even with safety measures in place, like fire suits, helmets, and strictly enforced speed limits, the crew must continue to face 3,400 lbs (1540 kg) of steel driving down the pit road between 35 and 55 mph (56-88 kph).
When you watch a NASCAR race, arguably nothing is more fun than watching the race on and off the pit road. Now, in the 21st century, this is an exaggeration because the cars cannot literally race to their pit stalls due to pit road speed limits. Cars also cannot speed off the pit road.
Regardless of how safe NASCAR makes the environment for pit crews, there will always be risk of serious injury involved. Fortunately, incidents are rare in the 21st century, but there have been startling ones in the past.
Pit crews are also constantly working with fuel, which is extremely flammable. You may have seen instances when a car pulls away while the gas man is still filling it, causing fuel to spill onto the pit stall’s surface. It only takes one spark from a passing car to cause a fire on the pit road. While members wear fire-resistant uniforms, it may not prevent serious burns in the event of a fire.
Crew members also face potential dangers from working with the tools they use to provide service to the cars. For example, lug nuts can fly back into a tire changer’s face, or if the pit crew is trying to repair a car, there is always the chance of a member mishandling a tool.
Early in the 2020 Brickyard 400, a pileup ensued after Michael McDowell slowed too much in search of his pit box. Unfortunately, it caused a member of Ryan Blaney’s crew to be crushed between two cars trying to escape the chaos. The good news, though, is that the crew member was not seriously hurt.
At Riverside in 1987, Michael Waltrip’s car skidded into Bill Elliott’s, which was in the middle of a pit stop. Three pit crew members were injured, with one member sustaining serious injuries. That member would recover, but not before spending extended time in the hospital.
The most notorious incident occurred at the 1990 Atlanta Journal 500. Elliott and Ricky Rudd were in contention to win the race with 30 laps left when they barreled down the pit road. When Rudd attempted to stop, his brakes locked, and he spun into 2 of Elliott’s pit crew members.
The jackman suffered serious injuries but was able to recover. The rear tire changer, unfortunately, succumbed to head and chest injuries. A similar death occurred 11 years previously in 1979, prompting NASCAR to make safety changes on the pit road.
Some of NASCAR’s safety changes were effective, and others were not. In 1991, NASCAR implemented speed limits that we still see to this day. Later, they mandated how many crew members were allowed over the wall, and in 2002, they required crews to wear helmets.
However, 1991 was also an experimental year for pit road safety. Early that season, NASCAR declared that cars could not pit for fresh tires when under caution. This change proved to be short-lived, and NASCAR abandoned the mandate after only a few races.
NASCAR also attempted to mandate when specific cars could and could not make pit stops. When the caution flag waved, cars that started on the outside and inside rows would pit at designated times. This is another rule that was eventually phased out.
Before the 2002 NASCAR Season, you didn’t see NASCAR pit crews wearing fire-resistant uniforms or helmets. Instead, they wore hats, headsets, and short or long-sleeved mechanic shirts while they went to work on the cars. They also moved at a substantially slower pace.
The incident that finally pushed NASCAR to implement the helmet rule for crew members occurred when a member of Ricky Rudd’s pit crew sustained head injuries at the 1999 Pennzoil 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway after a pit road accident.
Even before NASCAR implemented the mandate, all members from Rudd’s and Dale Jarrett’s crews opted to wear helmets at the following week’s NAPA 500. Before Rudd’s and Jarrett’s crews strapped on the helmets, Ricky Craven’s crew was already wearing them.
Before NASCAR required all crew members to wear helmets, only the gasmen needed to wear fire-resistant uniforms and full-face helmets. Though, many tire changers and jackmen also chose to wear fire-resistant uniforms despite not being required to do so.
NASCAR didn’t require helmets before because there was concern that the helmets available at the time would affect peripheral vision, which could have kept crews from seeing other cars approaching their pit boxes. This prompted NASCAR to explore different types of helmets before requiring them.
Other than the helmets and fire-resistant suits, pit crew members also wear knee pads, and some tire changers even wear safety glasses to protect themselves from potentially flying lug nuts. The gasman also wears a special fire-resistant apron to further protect from fuel spills.
In June 2015, NASCAR went even further when they mandated pit crews in the Cup, Xfinity, and Truck Series to wear specially certified gloves, underwear, and socks. NASCAR took action regarding the additional safety gear following a fire on the pit road that occurred in April 2015 at an Xfinity event.
The incident occurred at Richmond International Raceway with three pit crew members for Xfinity driver Brendan Gaughn, suffering injuries. Two members were taken to the hospital to be treated while the third crew member visited the infield care center.
NASCAR is constantly in a precarious situation. On one hand, they need to keep their drivers, pit crew members, and everyone either inside or close to these cars safe. However, they also realize they cannot sacrifice performance and deliver fans a lackluster product.
Therefore, you rarely see NASCAR make too many changes at once. Instead, they will respond to major incidents, such as the fire at Richmond Raceway, or the unfortunate events at the 1990 Atlanta Journal 500 to prevent delivering a boring or mediocre source of entertainment.
Expect NASCAR to make further changes regarding pit road safety as the 2020s decade rolls on. However, these changes will not come at the expense of the on-track product, which is why they scaled back many of the changes made before the 1991 season. Instead, they will strike a happy medium.
NASCAR pit crews wear helmets because of head injuries members have suffered over the decades. Pit crews were reluctant to wear helmets because they felt they would block their peripheral vision and cause more incidents. This prompted NASCAR to explore different helmet designs before their mandate.