Oak Harbor graduate Brandon Harder is in his 1st year as the gas man for NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson's pit crew.
HAROLD HINSON PHOTOGRAPHY/ALAN MARLER / Enlarge
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- You could call it foolish -- picking up and moving to North Carolina on nothing more than a whim. It might be regarded as reckless, trying to break into an intensely competitive business without knowing a soul.
It's quite possibly unwise or even irrational to take a drastic leap like that, with no parachute, and no safety net to catch you if you fail.
Brandon Harder saw the potential reward as far too valuable to allow himself to be scared off by the considerable risk. In 2007 the Oak Harbor native dropped everything, moved to the hub of stock car racing, and looked for the bottom rung on the ladder.
"It was probably a pretty big gamble, thinking I could just show up down there, without knowing anybody, and find a good job in racing," Harder said earlier this week. "But it was just something I felt like I wanted to do. If you never give something a try, you'll never know. I thought I'd enjoy it, and I was willing to make the sacrifices to get there."
Where the 28-year-old Harder finds himself these days is as a member of the pit crew of five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. It's like showing up unannounced at the ballpark on day, and becoming a part of the Yankees.
"I never envisioned that it would work out this way," said Harder, who will arrive with the rest of the No. 48 crew on Sunday to assist Johnson in the Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race, the headline event in Michigan International Speedway's weekend of NASCAR racing.
The Cup cars qualify Friday, with a Camping World Truck Series race running Saturday.
"I expected it to be tough to get my foot in the door, since everybody seemed to know somebody in order to get their start, and I knew not one person," Harder said. "But I had the desire to work hard, and fortunately, that got me in."
Harder, a three-sport athlete at Oak Harbor High School, worked first for a Late Model racing team in Mooresville, doing "anything and everything". After a few more moves up the ladder, he got his shot with Hendrick Motorsports, which fields the racing teams for Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Mark Martin.
After being involved in team sports most of his life, Harder fit the pit crew member profile that Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knauss, has preferred.
"We haven't hired guys that have come from other teams a whole lot -- we're trying really hard to hire athletes from other environments -- whether it's a football player, a baseball player, a wrestler," Knauss told Nascar.com recently.
"We're trying to train those people -- true-blue athletes -- to teach them how to become tire changers, jack men, tire carriers. So we get a real athlete, people who understand what it's like to be coached, and what it's like to train day in and day out."
Harder, the gas man for the No. 48 team, said the training regimen for Johnson's pit crew is more demanding than anything he encountered in other sports.
Hendrick recently had artificial turf installed in the teams' training facility to protect his crew members from knee injuries.
"We're in the gym working out for a few hours almost every day, and we also practice our pit stops for an hour or so each day," said Harder, who played running back and defensive back at Oak Harbor "It's by far the most training I've ever done."
The Johnson crew usually flies in on the morning of the race, then jets back to North Carolina immediately after the conclusion. As the defending champions, every move and every pit stop is scrutinized.
"The expectations are huge and you have to know how to deal with that," he said. "The pressure is there every day. We're just looked at differently."
Harder, who studied construction management at Bowling Green State University, said he has had to prove himself at every stop he has made since moving to North Carolina, so he appreciates what he has achieved.
"I know none of this would have happened without a lot of hard work, and you have to be at your best every day to stay here," said Harder, who is in his fourth year at Hendrick but his first on the No. 48 pit crew.
"This is very much an athlete's job. It puts a lot on your body, so you have to be in top shape and perform every pit stop. A lot goes on in that 12 seconds."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.
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