Robert Richer comments: "Yes, there was a time when the “pit men” who serviced the cars were actually in a pit below the racing surface. What a terrifying view it must have been."
Robert, one of the innovations of the first races held on the Long Island Motor Parkway in 1908 was the supply pits in front of the Hempstead Plains grandstand. Here is how the pits were described in the October 15, 1908 issue of The Automobile:
The most novel and interesting part of the homestretch equipment was the row of supply pits that stretched in front of the grandstand for its entire length. There was space enough between the pits and the track for racing cars to stop for their supplies. Mountains of tires were dumped into the pits in the aggregrate, to say nothing of the rivers of gasoline and oil. It was very highly interesting to watch the crews take on supplies and make their adjustments.
Each car had its designated section of the supply pit. As seen here, the M34 Lancia driven by William Hilliard made a "pit" stop during the 1908 Meadow Brook Sweepstakes.
For the 1908 and 1909 races, only the driver and mechanician were allowed to work on the car. The pit crew could only pass along the supplies. Here, driver William Luttgen refueled the #5 Mercedes as referee William K. Vanderbilt Jr. watched during the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race.
Another view of Luttgen and his mechanician Marx refueling at the service pits.
George Robertson and Glenn Ethridge refueling "Old 16" at the Locomobile pit.
For the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup Race, the pit rules were revised allowing two of the pit crew to assist and driver and mechanician. However, this assistance was limited to the replenishment of water, oil, and fuel and the replacement of tires. These crew members could also crank start the car.
Robert, here is the view that the #6 Simplex crew had during the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup Race.
Does anyone know when the first below-ground service "pits" were used for auto races in Europe and the United States?
August 14, 2010 Update: Based on the comments below, it appears that the Targa Florio held on May 18, 1908 was the first race that had below-ground pits. However, I can not find any images to document it. This photo was from the French Grand Prix de l'ACF held in Dieppe on July 7, 1908. The 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race was likely the first use of pits in the United States.