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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

Athletes at center of pit crew revolution

BY RACHEL LENZI
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. — At the end of a training exercise, Bob Plott debriefed with a student at Performance Instruction in Training. The student was a former college and NFL linebacker who chose to pursue training as a pit crew member in stock car racing. He explained to Plott that the training was far more competitive than a professional football training camp.

“He said to me, ‘in football, I had a position coach that graded me, and all I had to do was make an 85-percent grade and I knew I had a job,’” recalled Plott, the general manager of the pit crew training facility in Mooresville, N.C.

The football player also realized the difference between being a successful football player and being a successful pit crew member.

“In NASCAR, if I grade out at 85 percent on Sunday,” he told Plott, “I don’t have a job.”

Plott wouldn’t disclose the name of the pit crew member, but the exchange highlighted a trend that’s arisen over the last 20 years in NASCAR: When a lug nut jammed into an air gun or a mishandled jack could mean the difference between winning a championship or losing a multimillion dollar sponsorship, NASCAR teams are in search of athletes who have proven to have the ability to be coached to the point where they work under pressure and complete tasks in a matter of seconds.

“Mentally, it’s probably the biggest game you can play in,” said Caleb Hurd, a gas man for Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota and a former Virginia Tech football player. “You’re working in front of crowds, you’re on national television and you’re able to block that out.

“The speed of pit crews is making everybody step up their game. How quick you get to the car, how quick you move with items, and how strong you are.

“And you hope not to be on TV for too long. If you are, it usually means you did something wrong.”

Why athletes?

NASCAR teams seek out potential pit crew members through a network of college coaches and personnel and hold combines to scout individuals who can be molded into a pit crew member. When they find them, they train them to become one of six pit crew members — a jackman, a front tire carrier, a front tire changer, a rear tire carrier, a rear tire changer, and a gas man.

According to PitTalks.com, a Web site devoted to NASCAR pit crews, 62 former college and professional athletes worked on Sprint Cup pit crews in 2013. Among those 62 is Nate Bolling, a Swanton graduate who played football at Wake Forest and who is now a jackman for Hamlin.

Former athletes, pit crew coaches explained, have a unique ability not only to quickly adapt to a new physical skill, but also have the ability to be coached and to embrace the concept of working with others as a means to achieve a common goal.

Trent Cherry, Team Penske’s Sprint Cup pit crew coach, said Team Penske started its combines two years ago and invites anywhere from 15 to 50 individuals, who go through a physical fitness session, interview with team personnel, and are taught the basic responsibilities each of the six pit crew members holds.

About 95 percent of that pool has some sort of athletic background, yet each team may draw only three or four pit crew trainees. They’re put on a developmental track that begins with months of training and starts with on-site work at an ARCA race.

“You used to see guys smoking cigarettes after pit stops, and you’d see guys who’ve never done anything athletic,” said Cherry, who worked on crews for Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, David Stremme, and Brad Keselowski. “Now you’ve got guys who come in just for race days and if you walk down pit road, you see some monsters working there. Forty percent of them may have been college athletes. In 2000, maybe two percent of them had been in college athletics.”

That evolution began in 1993 when Ray Evernham brought in a pit crew for Jeff Gordon that included former college athletes from UNC-Charlotte and Northeastern University and revolutionized what was then a seven-member crew. The “Rainbow Warriors” were the first professional pit crew who could complete rapid-fire pit stops, which minimized the time Gordon spent on pit road — and helped him win four championships.

“Ray really started focusing and understanding that races could be won or lost on pit road by just gaining a couple tenths of a second and being consistent with that, and seeing how it was getting harder and harder to gain those positions on the racetrack because of aerodynamics and track position,” Gordon said. “Pit crews evolved so much during that period of time. Ray said, ‘you know what? we need to start bringing the athletes in here.’

“And I think it did revolutionize things. Now, look at it. We have whole training facilities, recruitment, and everything else to get the best athletes we can to do that.”

Breaking in

Chris Taylor grew up in rural Missouri as an athlete and as a NASCAR fan and joined the Marines after he graduated from high school, spending four years in the Marine Corps Infantry.

When he left the military, he enrolled at Western Illinois and joined the baseball team as a walk-on, but found that the G.I. Bill could not finance all of his schooling. He transferred to Elizabeth City (N.C.) State University, and when he graduated, the competitive urge remained.

Taylor was too old to pursue professional baseball. He wasn’t ready to return to his hometown and look for a job, so he began sending resumes to various race teams.

“I knew I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t doing something competitive,” said Taylor, who is now the rear tire changer for Matt Kenseth’s team. “I settled on NASCAR. I’d seen news reports about the teams who were looking for military members and college athletes, and I said, ‘I’ve got both.’ I knew I’d have a good shot with my work ethic.”

A Chip Ganassi Racing representative invited him to take part in a strength and conditioning test in 2006. He was given an air wrench and one instruction: “Let’s see what you can do.”

Within the year he was working on a NASCAR trucks team and spent up to eight hours a day in the shop, working on tires. Some days he’d leave with his hands bloodied from hitting lug nuts into a tire.

“It’s all about the work you put in,” said Taylor, who works three days a week as a print technician for Joe Gibbs Racing.

While Taylor made the postcollege transition, Shannon Myers found himself at a crossroads after spending six seasons as a wide receiver in the NFL and the Canadian Football League.

When he considered retiring from football in 2001, an orthopedic surgeon suggested he pursue a spot on a NASCAR team’s pit crew. Myers dismissed it. While he grew up a NASCAR fan in North Carolina, he couldn’t make the connection between athleticism and making a car race-ready in a matter of seconds.

Then, Myers’ career ended. He had no choice but to pursue another career.

“I’d played football since I was eight years old, but NASCAR became that gap-filler that allowed me to retire,” said Myers, who is now a rear tire changer for Brian Vickers’ crew. “I’d encourage anyone to pursue this, because I wouldn’t have. I’d closed that door the first time, thinking this wasn’t for me, and that these guys weren’t athletic and it wasn’t athletic. You’d be surprised how athletic some of these guys really are.”

Bigger, stronger

Each major NASCAR team employs a pit crew coach and trains current pit crew members who are bigger, stronger, and quicker than their predecessors. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect.

In November of 2012, Jimmie Johnson lost a shot at the Sprint Cup championship when he had to pull his car into the garage for the final 43 laps of the final race of the season because of a hole in the oil line of his Chevrolet. But earlier in the race, a wayward lug nut appeared to foil his title hopes, as his crew did not put all five lug nuts on his left front tire during a pit stop.

“Races are being won by milliseconds,” Plott said. “The difference between first and fifth at Daytona comes down to that. If you miss a lug nut in changing a tire, that’s three-tenths of a second that you lose.”

While Johnson didn’t publicly fault his crew, the instance magnified the precision that’s necessary for a pit crew not just to function, but to work in sync.

“What I was surprised at was how team-based the pit crew is,” Myers said. “You’re only as good as your weakest link. You’re always depending on the guy beside you. It’s not about the individual. It’s how the team performs, and you’re always picking a way to try to find how you can help that team.”

Success, Hurd explained, is being as quick as you can while maximizing your individual responsibilities.

“And you have to do it in 11½ seconds,” Hurd said.

Even some of the best-conditioned athletes struggle when it comes to working on cars in a window of seconds. Some are cast off within hours of participating in their first combine. Others spend months, even years working toward joining a top-caliber team.

Cherry, however, finds an intangible reward in crafting a successful pit crew member.

“An athlete may come in, look at a piece of equipment, and say, ‘well, what is this?’ Eighteen months later, he’s working on a Sprint Cup car. We took him from nothing to succeeding.

“If you worked your butt off just to make the team, you might find a way to make a career out of this.”

Contact Rachel Lenzi at: rlenzi@theblade.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.



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