Ryan Nolan takes us inside a Daytona 200 pit crew

Daytona for racing fans conjures up many different thoughts and images. For some it means the Rolex 24, some the Daytona 500, others it means soaking up some rays at Daytona Beach, but for a lot of us motorcycle riders it means Bike Week. Yet for me personally, it means one thing- the Daytona 200.

This year, a lot of exciting components were taking place at the 80th running of America’s most famous motorcycle road race. For starters, MotoAmerica would be taking over running the event from CCS (Championship Cup Series). This would mean greater media coverage, professional sprint races during the weekend and running the 200 under the new-generation Supersport rules.

With all of these changes, I really wanted to try to make it to the event. So when my good friend Jonathan Schweiger (whom we call “Schwags”) called to ask if I wanted to come pit crew for him, I knew I had to find a way to make it happen. This would be Schwags’ first time running the race, and I felt honored he asked me to be part of his crew. After some discussion, we were able to make the arrangements and before we knew it, we were on our flights to Daytona.

Great crowds turned out for the first MotoAmerica Daytona 200 event.

I have been to Daytona a couple of times before, once to help crew for another friend and the other to race the event as part of the CCS Race of Champions. Both were fun experiences and I was excited to get back to Daytona to experience the race again and see how the event was managed under MotoAmerica.

Once we landed, we were picked up by Schwags’ crew chief for the weekend, Joe, and he took us over to the track to pick up our credentials. The line was rather long and I volunteered to wait so Schwags and Joe could go in and start setting up our garage area. As I waited in line, it didn’t take long for me to start seeing some familiar faces. As I’ve said before, one of the greatest things I love about racing is how close the community is and with all the friends I was running into, it began to feel like I was back home at a big regional club event. It was great seeing friends I hadn’t talked with in a while or others I had seen regularly in our region, so I took time to catch up with everyone while we waited to get our passes.

While in line I met up with Chris, a friend of Schwags who lives nearby in Daytona. The rest of the crew would be made up of fellow CCS Midwest racers, Kyle and Jesse. So total, we had four guys plus Jonathan for the crew and I took some time to talk with Joe and Chris once we got our passes and started moving into our garage spaces. Seeing as I hadn’t worked with any of this crew previously, I wanted to take some time and get to know everyone to try to understand how we would be working together.

While we got things squared away in the garage, Schwags went to get his media photo taken for the event and I took some time at the end of the day to walk around the paddock to see where everyone was set up. There was that usual air of excitement in the paddock. I loved observing the mix of the professional teams like Attack Performance and HSBK alongside the club racers like us. Having the Twins Cup, Hooligans and Bagger classes all competing during the weekend also brought a variety of teams and machinery which added to the “cool” factor.

Unlike previous years, the forecast called for a lot of rain across most of the weekend. The main race was set to be held on Saturday with a rain makeup day on Sunday. Unfortunately, Sunday was supposed to be the nicest weather day of the weekend but we tried to keep things optimistic.

Schwags was eager and ready for his first Daytona 200 experience, as were we.

We finished setting up and called it a night, hoping for good news from the weather but sadly, we woke up to wet conditions. This meant a delay in proceedings and unfortunately, limited seat time for Schwags. By the time he went out on track there were still some wet patches but Schwags was able to get some solid laps in to “shake the rust off” and get familiar again with the Daytona’s high banks. The first qualifying session of the weekend was that afternoon for the Supersport class, and Schwags would be in group B. As the session began we noticed some dark clouds rolling in. According to the radar it looked like a rain cell would just skirt the edge of the infield track area so we were hoping for some luck and the rain would hold off.

However, the weather gods had other plans and we began to feel rain drops in our pit which was located on the southern edge of the track. This meant more rain was inevitable on the north end of the banking around Turn 3 and 4. We knew going into the weekend the race would not be run in rain conditions and moments later we were given an example of why. In the closing moments of the session a group of riders coming through Turn 3 on the banking hit the rain and rider Christian Miranda lost the rear, immediately crashing. It was a very high speed incident and several other riders began to slide off due to the rain as well. Fortunately no one was seriously, Miranda suffering some broken bones in his hand, but it brought an end to proceedings for the day. Jonathan ended the session fairly decent but knew he had time in the tank and he was eager for Friday and another chance to improve.

RoadDirt.tv in the house at Daytona!

Friday arrived with the weather a repeat of Thursday, i.e. a rainy start and a chance of on/off wet conditions the entire day. We kept a constant check on the radio and emails for updates. Qualifying was set to begin at 10:50 AM but with the morning rain, the session was pushed back to 1:30 PM. Needless to say we had ample time to kill so we double-checked everything on the bike, then wandered the paddock to visit with other teams.

During our down time we were able to watch the Twins Cup, Baggers and Super Hooligan races. I have to say if you have not watched Twins Cup race 1, you need to head over to the MotoAmerica YouTube channel and check it out. I can hardly put into words all of the craziness that ensued and it was one of the most eventful races I have seen to date. Our local midwest fast guys, Jody Barry and Ray Hoffman, had a good showing, with Jody fighting up front for the win until a rider went down in front of him, pushing him wide in the first horseshoe causing him to lose touch with the leaders. I knew Jody would be aiming for redemption on Saturday.

Once 1:30 PM rolled around, we were fortunate enough to have dry conditions and Schwags was able to shave off roughly 4 seconds from his best time on Thursday. We knew he still had time on the table for the race but we were able to improve and with qualifying complete, and turned our attention to pit stop practice. During our down time we assigned roles and I was going to be taking care of the rear wheel axle.

One of the guys shot a quick pic of our pit practice. We got faster and smoother with each dry run.

Chris would be my partner on the rear wheel. He would take care of removing the wheel and swapping it with the fresh rear that I would carry over the wall. We took some time to practice and I got used to the wheel gun and removing the axle. Chris and Joe gave me some pointers and we went through it until it all felt natural. I know it seems very simple to quickly remove the axle, especially with the quick change set, however, you need to make sure you’re setting the axle back in straight and not over-tightening. We practiced a few more times and I felt ready for the full team pit stop practices.

We found an open spot near the garages to practice and went through the motions. Schwags would pull up to our pit spot and we would all hop into action- Chris would get the bike on the stand as I set the new wheel next to him and as soon as the bike was up, I’d pull the axle. At the same time, Kyle would man the petrol can and start dumping fuel using our quick fill can as Joe stood by with a fire extinguisher. We decided to only change the rear wheel and fuel at each of our two pit stops during the race. We had a rough idea of how many laps we could get out of each tank of fuel but we would ultimately have to play it by ear as the Daytona 200 always seems to have some surprises in store. With everyone feeling good about our pit stops we called it a night and readied ourselves for the main event the next day.

Saturday began just the same as the previous two days with overcast, rainy skies. We were worried the race would be postponed until Sunday which none of us wanted to happen. We received an updated schedule which pushed the start time of the 200 back about an hour or so. Also, the Baggers class would be the only race to run prior to the main event, with the Twins Cup race being pushed until after the 200 and the Super Hooligans race 2 being canceled.

Myself (right) with the “Team Schwags” crew.

As we went to our pit to prep, the Baggers Class race got under way and we readied ourselves for the main event, double checking we had everything we needed and then walked through the pit stop game plan again in the pit box. We had a last minute adjustment as Jesse, who was to run our pit board, had to go help out Ray Hoffman. So a friend who was in town for the races, Tim, happily volunteered to help run the board. Since Daytona does not have a traditional start/finish location along a pit wall, all of the pit boards are held out at the first horseshoe which is the first major turn in the infield road course.

We got the first call and made our way out to pre-grid for the opening ceremonies. I always love the pre-race atmosphere and couldn’t help but picture how it would feel for myself someday sitting on the grid with my crew around me, photographers and crew members milling about everywhere. Sitting on the grid can often make the nerves worse for some racers, because all they do is sit and think about the race, so we tried to keep the mood light, joking around and talking about everything leading up to the race. I had my camera along so I took some shots of Schwags and walked around the grid. I have been fortunate enough to have been on the pre-grid before but I still am in awe, being able to walk around the guys I idolize and watch on TV.  I stopped back at our grid spot and took a moment to reflect, feeling very lucky and proud to be there to help out my friend and to have us all together to work toward a good result.

We received the call to clear the grid and gave Schwags a fist bump and wished him good luck. All the riders rolled out for the warm up lap and we made our way back to the pit box waiting for the nearly 50-rider grid to line up for the start. As the riders arrived in their spots everyone performed their last minute pre-race rituals to get in the zone for the green flag.

The engines wound up as the lights went on to signal the race was about to begin. The green flag dropped and Schwags launched with a good start, making up a few positions heading into turn one. He held the positive positions he had gained through the first lap and the race started to settle in. He had lost some ground with the group ahead but was trying to reel them in and get into their draft. He seemed to be finding his rhythm about 8 laps in when all of the sudden we saw the red flag come out.

Our pit was towards the exit of the pit lane and I did my best to look down toward the entry to see if Schwags was involved in whatever incident prompted the red flag. My heart began to sink as it appeared everyone who was going to come back was in the pits with no Schwags to be found. We were told the incident happened in the chicane on the backside of the track. I began to run scenarios through my head when Schwags suddenly entered the pit lane.

Schwag’s Daytona helmet. Photo by @cornnellchuphoto

He stopped at our pit spot and hopped off the bike. I gave the bike a quick scan and it appeared to be structurally sound but there was grass, dirt and what I thought was water all over the front. He explained to us a rider had crashed in front of him exiting the chicane and hit the air fence, dislodging it and he rode between the air fence and the bike. He also thought he saw the tank fly over his head, so clearly it was a pretty large incident. This was confirmed when he told me the wet substance on his bike was not water, but gas. Sure enough, I could smell the fumes and was amazed he rode through the carnage unscathed. He later told me he had thought to himself after riding through the incident, “What am I doing here?!” Something as jarring as that is sure to make you question things for a moment.

We cleaned off the bike and topped it off with fuel as we waited to see what the new grid positions would be. We received our new grid assignment and were told it would be a quick start procedure. Schwags rolled out of the pit lane and lined up to start the warm-up lap. With the fuel topped off we were starting from square one. However, based on how much fuel was used up when he stopped we estimated he would need to come in somewhere around the 20 lap mark.

This time when the green flag dropped for the restart Schwags didn’t get the best launch and lost a few positions. It seemed the restart disrupted his rhythm, which isn’t uncommon for racers. So much of racing is a mental game and if you get off your rhythm, especially if you are doing well, things can get thrown off. A few laps in, he began to settle down and get back to a consistent pace. It may sound odd with the 200 being a long race but time seems to go by rather quickly from a lap standpoint. Before we knew it we were in our lap window and Joe, our crew chief, decided to have Tim signal Schwags in for our first pit stop. With the few positions lost at the start, we knew it would be imperative we had a smooth and uneventful stop. As they say, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, so if we could be smooth we had a good chance to make up a couple of positions.

Schwags flying by the grand stands. Bit of a distance shot for scale. Daytona Speedway is immense.

We had a system worked out to have Schwags signal back to Tim to acknowledge he saw the board to confirm he was coming in. Tim signaled for a few laps but he did not get a confirmation. When you’re head-down in a race it’s easy to miss things that seem so obvious like a pit board. It can often look like the rider is staring right at you but often their eyes are looking in a different direction from where their head is pointing.

We were beginning to worry he may run out of fuel soon but fortunately, we got word he confirmed and was coming in. We readied ourselves on the pit wall, I had the wheel gun and new rear tire in hand with Chris standing next to me with the rear stand. Joe stepped out into our pit box waving his arms to indicate to Schwags where we were. It may seem easy to spot but the pit lane is long and disorienting when you’re actually rolling through.

Schwags hit his mark and we quickly scrambled to the motorcycle. Chris got the bike on the stand and I hit the rear axle with the gun and pulled it out smoothly. Chris hung the chain on the swingarm and placed the new rear wheel as Kyle filled up the tank with fresh fuel. Meanwhile Schwags downed some water and by the time this was done, Chris was getting the chain back into place, gave the tire a spin, I pushed the rear axle back into place and locked it with the gun. Chris dropped the bike off the stand, gave Schwags a push and he was off again.

We felt pretty solid with the pit stop and at the end of the pit cycle we were excited to learn we ended up moving up to 23rd from 27th prior to the stop. Schwags ended up pitting on lap 19 and his low fuel light had just come on when he decided to pit so maybe he could’ve squeezed out another lap or two but that was all. Based on these calculations, we would need to pit one more time with around 10 laps to go.

With the first stop completed, Schwags was again able to settle into a rhythm as we got into the middle of the race. He began to click off a string of consistent laps and was holding his position in 23rd. This felt like the longest part of the race, even though it was only 16 laps before our final pit stop where we would fuel again and swap out the rear tire.

We gave the signal for the final pit stop and Schwags came in on lap 36. I was feeling confident as he rolled up and we went through our same motions and I smoothly pulled the axle out and Chris swapped the tires. During our pit stop practice, the one hang up we had was getting the chain around the swingarm to clear the new rear wheel. The length of the chain needed to be about 1 mm longer to more easily clear the swingarm but we were still able to get it done.

Schwag’s cockpit view. 

During our final pit stop the chain did not end up being an issue, but when placing the wheel in the swingarm, you want to come in at a slight angle. Then as you set the wheel you rotate it into place to ensure the rear brake disc sets correctly within the caliper. As Chris went to place the wheel, I noticed the rear caliper brake pads were hanging and not sitting in the caliper. I quickly yelled for him to stop and pointed to the caliper. There are many times I’ve seen this happen and it often takes a minute to get the pads to go back into the caliper and stay put. To this day, I’m not sure how he did it but Chris was able to get the pads back in place in under 10 seconds. With that done, we got the rear tire buttoned up and with another full load of fuel, we sent Schwags back out to complete the race.

Chris was pretty bummed that the caliper issue had happened but that kind of thing isn’t anyone’s fault. I’ve seen pads fall out of a caliper more times than I can count on various kinds of motorcycles, including my own. I’m not sure I could’ve fixed the situation as quickly and I told Chris, the most important thing was he remained calm and that’s exactly what he did which helped us fix things quickly.

With the final pit stop completed we found ourselves in 24th. With the spacing between the riders behind we felt confident Schwags could hold his position as long as nothing out of the ordinary happened. The white flag waved as the four leaders of Cam Petersen, Brandon Paasch, Josh Hayes and Sheridan Morais fought hard and were in a tight group coming onto the banking out of the final chicane. Brandon had kept his powder dry and timed his drafting pass perfectly to beat Petersen to the line for his second consecutive Daytona 200 win. Standing in the pit lane watching them all cross the line in such tight quarters after 50 laps was an absolute treat.

Jonathan on track, on pace. Photo provided by Jessica Johnk.

We kept an eye on the banking as we knew Schwags would be coming soon and I silently just said to myself, “he’s got this”. I stood by eagerly and felt a huge sense of satisfaction and relief watching him get the checkered flag. We made our way back to our pit area with beaming smiles on our faces- we had done it and met our goal. Schwags was hoping to finish in the top half of the field and with the original entry list at 50, finishing P24 is a job well done.

I knew Schwags felt he could’ve probably ran quicker so I was curious what his emotions would be when he arrived back in the paddock. He was over the moon and I told him everything was worth it just to see the smile on his face. It may sound cliché, but being there with him and putting in all that work, seeing that smile, that look of satisfaction and pure happiness, made it all worthwhile.

Digging deep, leaning deep. Photo provided by Jessica Johnk.

I could not feel more humbled and happy to have been part of this event and I have to thank my friend Schwags for the opportunity to share this once-in-a-lifetime race experience.

If you’ve never attended the Daytona 200, I highly recommend you check it out. MotoAmerica put on a great race weekend for their first time running it. Yes there was weather and some “teething issues” but it was a great event. I think there was a lot of additional interest due to the new Supersport rules and I’ll be eager to see how things pan out across the season. Also, what made it fun was all of the midwest racing family I ended up seeing, from the local TSE racing crew who won last year’s race, to all of the friends who were in town working or spectating the event. It felt like home away from home.

My hats off to Jonathan, Joe, Chris, Kyle, Jesse and Tim for being a top-notch pit crew and for the memories I’ll carry with me forever. It was such a fun experience, I am definitely considering running the 200 myself someday. Partly to race, but also to make those one-of-a-kind memories with friends and family that only racing can provide. Thank you again Schwags, from the bottom of my heart. If you ever want to have another go, count me in! Or maybe you can crew for me someday, either way I know we’ll have a blast.

Ryan “Ryhno411” Nolan

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2 Comments

  1. Jonathan Schweiger

    Couldn’t have been more proud of our crew and effort for the 200! Thanks for the awesome write up Ryan and feature Road Dirt Mag!
    -Schwags

    Reply
    • Rob Brooks

      Here’s hoping you have a great racing season, Schwags!

      Reply

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