Stories

NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Jerry Teel grinds a tire in the pits April 19 at WaKeeney Speedway.

NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Scott Fall makes adjustments on Cody Graham's hobby stock during races April 14 at WaKeeney Speedway.

Behind the scenes

A cold north wind whipped off turns three and four, carrying with it dusty debris at WaKeeney Speedway.

Not far from that corner was Scott Fall and Cody Graham, both braving the elements as they crawled underneath Graham's hobby stock to make adjustments.

Then it was on to air pressure in the tires, and anything else needed to make sure the car was ready for the night's feature.

All that work behind the scenes proved to be a key element for Graham, who went out and won his fifth race in a row to start the 2013 season.

Graham got the accolades from the fans, friends and family. Fall got a chance to be in the winner's circle picture, then quickly faded to the background -- a place he's content to be.

Fall is similar to many crew chiefs in the pits, a humble person willing to put in extra hours for few accolades from the fans. While drivers get the trophies and sign T-shirts, the pit crew is busy staying out of the limelight.

"When he first started racing, we were working on the car almost every night of the week," Fall said. "Because when you first start racing, there were a lot of wrecks involved. That also came with time, that he started to realize you don't look at the car directly in front of you. You have to look three, four or five cars in front of you to see what's happening. Once he figures that out, the wrecks have kind of taken care of themselves. Not that it doesn't happen time to time. It's been a learning experience for both of us for sure."

Now, Fall is one of several main men in the pits counted on to have things in tip-top shape when drivers hit the track. Sure, many drivers help out, as Graham does on his car. But crew chiefs are the first to admit -- and drivers, too -- that it takes more than one person to help get things ready.

"It was kind of odd," Fall said. "What experience I had in racing before was always in drag racing. When he told me he wanted me to help him get started doing this, I didn't know what to expect because I had exactly no idea what to do with these cars. ... He kind of wanted to do this on his own, sort of, so he asked me to help him. I never thought I'd still be doing this, still be helping. I figured it would be for a couple of weeks and that would be it. It's kind of one of those things that's got into my blood, and I enjoy it."

Once it gets in a person's blood, it usually sticks for a while. It has to, because the pay isn't great and the hours can be long and dirty.

"It's like a job most of the time," said Bruce Lagroon, crew chief for son Corey Lagroon's modified. "You have to love it, and obviously we do. From grinding tires to everything under the sun, it takes a lot to keep everything going. Unfortunately, you take the good times with the bad times, and hopefully there's more good times than bad times."

Bruce has been around the racing scene a number of years, and now he's happy turning wrenches on his son's car.

"We never had this sophisticated stuff back then,"  Bruce said. "Even when I drove, it was just a little Pinto. ... You think you don't have to do anything to them, but there's still work to do on them. Now you get these cars, with all the four-bars and greasing them and checking them and lubricating them and checking every nut and bolt on them. They're made to do this, they just don't always do it. As hard as everybody tries to build a good, quality deal, sometimes you just have metal fatigue. You have to try to stay on top of that, look at all your welds and brackets and make sure something doesn't come apart."

A lot of that eye-balling the car comes during the week, after a normal 40-hour work week.

"It's a lot easier to do it in the comfort of your garage than it is laying out here on the dirt working on it,"  Bruce Lagroon said. "We try to take advantage of that. We work a minimum of two nights, sometimes three or four nights, depending on what we have going on."

"There is a lot of time and energy that goes into it,"  Fall said. "We do a lot of work during the week trying to get the car ready for the weekends. But even when you get to the track and think you're ready, you're maybe not quite as ready as you thought because track conditions change a lot."

And when the races start and drivers are on the track, it becomes even more crucial to have a pit crew. If a driver cuts down a tire or needs something that forces them to pull into the pits, guess who has the lucky chore of fixing the issue?

Many times, drivers rely on family to help. Graham is married to Fall's step-daughter. The Lagroons have the father-son relationship going.

For Kim Cunningham, being the crew chief for her husband, Terry, keeps her busy on race nights. She's helping get the car race-ready, filming when he's out on the track and bolting to change tires during a race if Terry cuts one down.

"Sometimes if I'm the only pit crew, I'm trying to recruit extra helping hands," she said. "I try to help get somebody to gather and get stuff like tires if needed."

At many tracks in the area, wives take the primary role when their spouse is on the track. And don't think they're worried about getting dirty.

"I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty," Cunningham said. "I'm not afraid of grease on my knuckles or dirt under my fingernails. It's just a way for us to spend time together and have fun."

Crew chiefs also get a sense of pride when the cars and drivers do well. There's a frustration level, too, especially when a squirrel -- what people call a driver out of control -- causes damage.

"When they damage something, you get upset a little bit because you know you have to fix it," said Aaron Talbott, crew chief for Marty Clark's modified.

"You take ownership of your work you have to do."

Talbott has been helping Clark since 2003. He and his wife would watch Clark race, then find their way into the pits afterward. Soon, Talbott was helping a bit here and there, then settled into the role as the crew chief for several years before trimming back his schedule -- or at least trying to.

"It's just working on the car,"  Talbott said about the thrill of helping. "Naturally, you don't get the enjoyment of watching and driving in the race, but you want them to do well. If the track is not conducive to the driver, it's tough. You're basically working for someone else."

Talbott has been in the car, though. On the track, even.

He once got a chance to compete in a mechanics' race at Norton, but Clark warned him about putting even a scratch on the car. When he pulled back into the pits, he got a ribbing from his wife and Clark for not going fast enough.

"I had never even sat in one," Talbott said. "It gave me a whole different perspective."

Keeping things in perspective is key for those helping in the pits.

Keeping on top of things is just as important.

Fall and Graham did their homework during the winter, and that's helped them get off to a fast start.

Usually, Graham struggles on tackier tracks and excels on dry-slick surfaces. But a few of his wins so far to start the year have been on tacky tracks.

"It is, but it's almost been confusing the early part of the year because we're used to going home with our heads hung and not knowing what to do next until it gets dry-slick,"  Fall said. "It's kind of nice. It's kind of out of the ordinary to feel this way early in the season."

But those highs easily can turn to lows, and crew chiefs -- along with drivers -- are the first to admit a bad night at the track is better than a good night somewhere else.

"The highs are the high, and the lows are way down underneath," Bruce Lagroon said. "We've been doing this for a long time. I don't know what I'd do if we weren't doing this. I like fishing, but there's just something about racing and getting dirty."

NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net