Bidding a fond farewell to NASCAR’s five-lug wheels

Five to one, baby,
One in five,
No one gets out of here alive, now.
You get yours, baby,
I’ll get mine,
Gonna make it, baby,
If we try.

— “Five to One,” The Doors

Sometimes you feel like a nut,
Sometimes you don’t.

— Almond Joy and Mounds jingle


On Monday, as NASCAR tested its Next Gen car at Auto Club Speedway and posted pictures and videos accordingly, no one was talking about the size of the spoiler or the shape of the body or even speeds achieved during the ride’s hot laps. No, everyone wanted to get a look at its wheels, more specifically, what was keeping those wheels attached to the car.

“Let’s see that single lug wheel,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted, simultaneously speaking for every NASCAR fan and competitor.

An hour later, not only did NASCAR post photos of the single center-lock lug-nut wheel design but the sanctioning body announced it would be switching to that design permanently in 2021. Gone will be the current five-nut model that has existed since essentially the dawn of stock car racing.

For anyone who follows the sport closely, that proclamation was not a surprise. At least it shouldn’t have been. Heck, we told you it was coming in our Daytona 500 preview three weeks ago. During that race weekend, a handful of NASCAR crew members even posted semi-mournful farewells to the old-school way of changing tires as they realized the next time the Great American Race was run, it would likely be with much different pit stops.

But even if you knew the single-lug change was imminent, the reality of seeing it and thus its becoming real was still a little shocking.

Why? Because the changing of the tires has always been the biggest bull-riding, badass facet of NASCAR pit stops. All due respect to the jack men, tire carriers and gas can men (their job is also expected to change in 2021), the true cowboys of pit stops have always been the tire changers. They’re the ones who slide out onto the asphalt on their knees, literal gunslingers, slinging their air guns and the hoses connected to them into place, taking a mental snapshot of where the five nuts are located and ZZZZIR ZZZZIR ZZZZIR ZZZZIR ZZZZIR removing those lugs, removing the old tire, replacing it with fresh rubber, then ZRRRIP ZRRRIP ZRRRIP ZRRRIP ZRRRIP, tightening the five new lug nuts down to the posts … and launching back to their feet to do it all over again on the other side of the car.

NASCAR fans who were upset about the single-lug announcement — and gauging by social media, there were plenty — if they are being honest, that’s what they will miss. Even more than the skill it takes to hit those five spots cleanly and twice-over in fractions of a second. It’s that five-part sound effect from which people are so scared to part ways.

What’s it going to be now? FRRRRIP FRRRROP? ZZZZIPF ZZZZZOPF? BRRRIP BIRRRRP? We don’t know. What it’s going to be like when I visit a race shop to watch tire changers run drills? For years they have kneeled next to posts affixed with five nuts and repetitively practiced hitting them with air guns. POP-POP-POP-POP-POP! Now, will they still be there but hitting only the same spot in the center? POP.

We don’t know.

Will I ever be pelted again in the pits, zinged by a lug-nut projectile run over by a race car as the car leaves the pit stall and launched into my back? Will my friends at Pit Crew U., the training center for so many NASCAR tire-changing hopefuls, have to change the title of their legendary “5 On 5 Off” training program? Will I be still be able to casually pick up an easy and free souvenir from the ground after races are over, as I did for my cousin Jackie at Homestead-Miami Speedway after Jeff Gordon’s last race, at Talladega for my brother after Dale Earnhardt’s last win and for myself at Sonoma when we thought we’d just witnessed the final race for STP on The King’s famous No. 43 machine? Will Charlotte Motor Speedway mascot Lug Nut have to trade in his soon-to-be-dated noggin for a larger, single-lock skull?

Again, we don’t know!

What we do know is why this change has been made. The new single-lug design is here because of that very word, design. NASCAR’s current three manufacturers, as well as those who have inquired about possibly joining the sport in the future, are pushing for more brand identity and street relevance from the Next Gen car. Chances are, the ride currently sitting in your driveway is sitting on four 18-inch forged aluminum wheels. That’s what Chevy, Ford and Toyota wanted represented in their race cars, like, you know, a stock car is supposed to do. A single lug on a wheel like that is more durable than five, just as we have already seen in IndyCar, F1 and sports car racing.

What we also know is that no matter how many lugs or tires or gas cans or fuel hoses or whatever lie ahead for the future of NASCAR pit stops, the people who go over the wall every weekend won’t change. They will still be cowboys and badasses and former college athletes. They will still watch film of their work, looking for any tiny bit of the stopwatch that can still be shaved. That is never going to change, no matter how much work there is or isn’t left to do.

“In 1960, we were changing two tires and fuel in 45 seconds and thought, ‘It sure seems like we’re wasting a lot of time in the pits, doesn’t it?” NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood recalled at Daytona last month during a discussion of the expected 2021 changes.

Working alongside his brothers, aka Wood Brothers Racing, it was Wood who was really the O.G. of modern tire changers. First, he carefully choreographed his movement, all the way down to how he slung the air hose over the hood of the car, an air hose he also revolutionized by cranking up the air pressure and speeding up the action of the gun.

Then they lightened the jack and decreased the pumps it took to raise the car to change the tire. Then they reinvented the gas can, maximizing good old-fashioned air and gravity to get the gas into their cars more quickly.

“We cut our stops down to 25 seconds almost immediately,” Wood said. “Then, over the years, we trimmed this and that, and got it below 20. Now these guys are changing four tires and gas in 12 seconds.”

The 85-year-old smiled, pointed a finger toward the team’s No. 21 Ford and continued in his soft, matter-of-fact Virginia lilt. “The only thing going to one lug nut is going to do is make everything faster. Faster is how we like things around here.”