12/20/10 — NASCAR pit crew gets up close look at refueling

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NASCAR pit crew gets up close look at refueling

By Gary Popp
Published in News on December 20, 2010 1:46 PM

One of NASCAR's most skilled pit crews got a close-up look at how the Air Force performs its job at top speed Friday.

The Michael Waltrip Racing Team was treated to a flight on a KC-135R Stratotanker by airmen of the 916th Air Refueling Wing at Seymour Johnson's Air Force Base.

The crew got a chance to see how their airmen counterparts refueled their racing machine -- an F-15E Strike Eagle -- at 21,000 feet and 400 mph.

With about 50 members, the Waltrip team was divided into two groups and rode in separate refueling tankers.

Waltrip's crew chief, Rodney Childers, knows firsthand the importance and difficulty of orchestrating people and complex machines to achieve a single goal.

"What these guys do is amazing. It is great to see them in action," he said after the flight.

For many of the team members, the highlight of the day was the opportunity to enter the boom pod, the compartment at the rear of the tanker, where the refueling takes place.

The pod is a small compartment with only enough space for three people to lie flat on their belly. The airman operates the boom from the controls of the center position and the spaces on each side were made available the Waltrip team members for observance.

All the Waltrip team members had a chance to see several Strike Eagles refuel. The fighter jets come within in 30-35 feet of the tankers, said Tech. Sgt. Steven Stanton, who demonstrated how to operate the boom.

Although the mid-air refueling operation is similar to a NASCAR pit stop, Childers said he noticed some differences.

"Race cars have a lot of parts, these aircraft have about a million more. There are so many things that could go wrong. It is really a learned skill," he said.

Another Waltrip team member, Richard "Lurch" Waldeck, the team's shop foreman, was equally impressed as Childers to see the airmen in action.

"It is just awesome," Lurch said. "I have never done anything like this before."

Lurch says the jobs of the airmen and the crew of Waltrip Racing are the same in the sense that they are constantly having to overcome issues that arise on a moment's notice.

"It is amazing what they do on a day to day basis."

Lurch said that Waltrip Racing has programs that give NASCAR fans the opportunity to watch the pit crews at work and to ask questions. Friday turned the tables on them, he noted.

"It's odd to be the one asking questions. We are usually the ones answering questions," Lurch said.

Tommy Raymer, a gear and transmission specialist, said he was humbled by the airmen's skill.

"What these guys do is 100 times more technical and precise," Raymer said. "This stuff is way more advanced than our cars.

"Seeing the refueling take place while traveling 400 mph at this altitude with such precision is pretty neat. The speed and what goes into makes our job look like nothing," he added.