Most NASCAR fans might think of a team's pit box as nothing more than a place where the crew chief, owner and the driver's significant other sit and watch the race. In fact, the seating on top of the pit box is probably the most inconsequential of all its many features.
Rather than being just a place to sit, the "war wagon," as it's sometimes called, is a giant information center, said Dan Timmons, owner of Nitro Manufacturing. Timmons' company, based in Mooresville, N.C., designs and manufactures a variety of custom-crafted metal for the motorsports industry and is the primary pit box supplier for teams in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series, as well as many Busch series and Craftsman truck teams.
Working from scratch, Timmons and his 10 employees can build a custom pit box for the Cup series in eight to 10 weeks, depending on how elaborate the box is configured and how many orders they're working on at the time.
"We have a basic design that we like to keep from a construction point of view in order to produce them fast enough," he said. "But we also have enough built-in areas so that we can massage and tweak them to personalize them for each team. That depends a lot on what electronics they want."
The electronics include television monitors, a satellite dish, video cameras, DVRs, VCRs, computers, and anything else a race team's engineers deem necessary. Plumbing setups are also included, and every pit box has a warm-up hub used by the tire changers to limber up before pit stops.
"The sky's the limit," Timmons said. "As NASCAR gets more exacting, the teams need to pick up that technology as well. The data acquisition that is used on the box also has to advance. It's basically a big storage container for a little bit of tools and a huge amount of data."
"As technology and rules change, the boxes change," Timmons said. "They evolve as much as the race cars themselves."
But at 4,400 pounds, pit boxes weigh considerably more than the cars.
"Weight is a concern because they have to be pushed around manually," Timmons said.
In addition, while Nextel Cup and Busch teams have the boxes and crash carts transported to each racetrack by a third party, truck teams have to haul their own. Because of the weight limit that transporters can legally carry, the pit boxes need to be as lightweight as possible.
"Obviously the tools to do a pit stop are minimal -- a couple of impact guns and a jack, a big hammer, and some duct tape," Timmons said. "The rest of it is computers, electronics, and backup systems."
"Some boxes have television screens on the front and the back," he said. "That depends on the needs of the team engineers. Some teams have three or four engineers that sit on the box during the race, while others only have one. And of course they each need a place to sit, which means more seats on top."
The television monitors are used to play back pit stops as well as follow the action on the track.
"Cameras on the box have advanced a lot over the past three years," Timmons said. "Everybody used to put one camera top-center over the car. Now because the pit stops are so crucial, guys are doing one top-center and a right-side camera, and others are using three cameras -- top-center, right-side, and left-side."
Much of the software used by the race teams is provided by suppliers who created their products for the NFL and adapted them for NASCAR.
"A lot of stuff is coming from football to racing," Timmons said. "In football, they can take one play and overlay up to three or four plays to see where the quarterback's left foot and right hand were. It's the same way with pit stops now. They overlay each stop over each other to see where they gain or lose time. As new programs come out, it changes our end of it as far as the construction side goes because we have to find a home for all of the stuff.
"During the race, when the crew chief makes changes to the car, the engineer will make a note of that on his laptop. After the race, they can bring up those changes and review how they affected the car. When teams talk about 'looking over their notes' from previous races, that's the data they're referring to."
And the technology doesn't come cheap.
"Our standard size box, which we do for the truck teams and some of the Busch teams, is around $25,000 plus electronics," Timmons said. "Electronics can range anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000, depending on how trick they want to get. The Cup style boxes start at around $55,000 for the box itself, and to add graphics and electronics, it can add anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 per box."
Despite the hefty price tag, Timmons said that his company prides itself on constructing pit boxes in a way that saves the teams something priceless: time.
"We really have a huge influence on teardown time," he said. "After the race, there's a second race, and that's to get to the airplane and get home. They have half a day to set up the box, but they only have about 10 minutes to tear it down and get to the airport. So we design around that concept. We avoid using pins and clips and bolts that can be lost, because teardown time is very critical."
"For example, at Daytona, there are over 100 planes lined up to take off the minute the race is over," Timmons said. "There are race cars still being loaded on the trailer and a lot of the over-the-wall guys are already at the airport trying to get out. The longer it takes them on pit road to pack up, the further back in that line they are to take off. So the easier you can make things work on the road, the better."