Christmas Joye Abbott pulls open the blinds at 7 a.m. in her hotel room. Just hours away from her first race working on a pit crew, her mental checklist kicks in.
“I visually see myself go through the entire pit stop,” she says, so in the shower while putting on make-up on the way to the track, she repeatedly goes over what she is about to do:
“I’m timing when the car hits the line. I’m going out in front of it. Pause when it stops. Hitting one, two, three, four, five. Gun down. Pull (the tire). Come back. Button change (for rotation of her gun). One, two, three, four, five. Run around. Button change. One, two, three, four, five. Gun down. Pull. Button change. One, two, three, four, five.”
Those are the motions that Abbott, 30, has blistered and bloodied and bruised herself doing over the past four months in her pursuit of becoming a NASCAR front tire changer.
The 45th annual Snowball Derby in Pensacola, Fla., considered one of the premiere short track races in the country, is just a first step toward her NASCAR goal. She calls it “Day 1.”
Around 11 a.m. on Dec. 2, Abbott prepares her tires at pit stall 28 at the Five Flags Speedway. The rims are cleaned. She paints the lugnuts yellow, making them easier to see. Each one is precisely glued into place, five per tire.
Then, hours of waiting. She works to stay focused, to envision the perfect pit stop while she balances the excitement of working in her first professional race.
“I’m fighting the urge to do cartwheels and go around with my finger on the trigger (of her lugnut gun) and pull it: woop-woop-woop-woop,” she laughs.
Just before 2 p.m., the announcer introduces each racer to the crowd. Abbott is on the crew of driver Chris Davidson.
Abbott connects her gun, which she uses to remove and tighten lugnuts, to the main airline. She checks the pressure and pulls the trigger. Nothing. She adjusts the hose connection and tries again. Nothing.
Rear tire carrier Matt Holzbaur comes over to help. “Let’s try this,” he says turning a knob on the tank. Instantly, an explosion sends both backwards. The sound silences the announcer and the crowd.
Other crew and team members run to help. Holzbaur is able to control the flailing hose and turn off the air. No one is hurt, but the hose is destroyed. Team members scramble to find another and get it connected. The air regulator gauge had been left wide open and with the slightest touch of turning on the nitrogen, almost 2,000 pounds of pressure blew through the line.
Abbott attaches her gun to the new line. Then, a high-pitched whirl. It works.
She paces. Finally, the nod comes from the pit crew chief.
Abbott and men with experience ranging from four to 10 years at the top levels of racing, grab their helmets and gloves and rush to their positions along pit row. The No. 41 car takes another lap and then comes into the pits.
As a group they work so quickly that they move their driver up 10 positions and Abbott finishes changing her tires just ahead of the rear team.
Tim Morrison, a front tire carrier starting his fifth season in NASCAR who has been practicing with Abbott for two months, pats her on the back and hugs her. Other crew and team members congratulate her with fist bumps and handshakes.
“Well. It’s good to have that behind me,” Abbott says. “The nerves came at the last moment. I had to trust that all my practice had sunk in. It was a bit terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.”
Almost halfway through the race, the racing stops after an accident. Abbott’s mother, Barbara Nichols, who had driven nine hours from Texas to see her daughter’s first race, takes a moment to pass her a pink lip gloss called “Life on the A List.” Abbott burst out laughing, “Too perfect.”
Although her next two stops aren’t as smooth as the first, as a team they help driver Chris Davidson move from 28th position to finish ninth. Erik Jones, 16, wins the race. NASCAR driver Kyle Busch is third.
On both of the last two pits, the spring, coiled inside the socket in Abbott’s air gun, pops out while changing the first tire. The spring helps to shoot out the lugnuts, and without it a changer has to be even more exact and deliberate.
She muscles through.
After the race, four girls approach Abbott and ask for a photo with her. They have never seen a woman working in the pits. “I thought that you were really, really good,” says Haley Davidson, the driver’s 11-year-old daughter.
“When they saw that I could keep up with the boys they were kind of wowed,” Abbott says grinning. “It was pretty incredible to see that sparkle in their eye.”
What’s next: A month ago, manager Ted Bullard wasn’t sure Christmas Abbott would be ready for a pit crew at the Snowball Derby. Now, her goal is to work in the pits with a NASCAR Truck Series team at Daytona in February. “She’s exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Bullard says. “Her viability far exceeds being a front tire changer. Major brands are taking an interest in Christmas.” Abbott says she hopes to be on a team, but also will work as a tire changer in any race she can get to build her experience. “Let me in,” she says. “Let me play.”