Q: Lately I have noticed some news items using the term “pit road.” Even Nascar uses it on Twitter. I’m in my 80s and have always thought the area where race cars are serviced at the track is called “pit row.” Am I wrong?
A: As far as we can tell, the motor-racing terms “pit road” and “pit row” showed up in writing around the same time in the early 1960s.
The earliest example we’ve found for “pit road” is from a report that appeared June 3, 1963, in The San Bernardino Sun in California about a race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina:
“The crowd of 55,000 already was on its feet as [Junior] Johnson came out of the third turn to complete the 397th lap. Suddenly, his racer swerved noticeably and lost its speed. The left rear tire was in shreds as he came into the pit road, where his alert crew put on a new one.”
And the earliest written example we’ve seen for “pit row” is from the July 3, 1964, issue of the same newspaper:
“ ‘He was the greatest.’ That was the accolade heard most along pit row yesterday as Daytona International Speedway prepared to run its Firecracker 400 stock car race—one of the favorite events of Glenn (Fireball) Roberts. Roberts, of Daytona Beach, died in a Charlotte [NC] hospital early yesterday of complications from burns he received in a three-car pile-up there May 24.”
The two terms may have appeared earlier in motor-sports magazines, but we couldn’t find any older examples in the racing magazine archives we were able to search.
As for present usage, “pit road” is more popular than “pit row,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks terms in digitized books.
The gap is even wider in searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present. The results: “pit road,” 2,976 hits, versus “pit row,” 166.
However, the Ngram and NOW corpus results may be a bit off because some streets, especially in rural areas, have names like “Sand Pit Road” and “Gravel Pit Road.”
Interestingly, we couldn’t find either “pit road” or “pit row” in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, doesn’t have an entry for “pit row” either, and its first definition of “pit road” is “any of the network of passages in a coal mine.”
The OED adds a second sense of “pit road” as a variant of “pit lane,” the usual racing term in the UK for “a side road parallel to a course which leads into and out of the pits.”
The earliest written example we’ve seen for “pit lane” is from an article in the April 2, 1956, issue of Sports Illustrated about a race at the Sebring International Raceway in Florida:
“After five laps, the [Mike] Hawthorn Jaguar came roaring back up the pit lane.”