A reasonably good football team could be formed from workers located in an unusual place — NASCAR’s pit road.
NASCAR teams are increasingly turning to former college athletes to fill positions on their over-the-wall pit crews, having found that the strength, mobility and speed of the former players fits well with the need for rapid pit stops. Virtually every major team has a football connection on pit road.
“There are some really good athletes out here,” said Rowdy Harrell, who is one of them. A tire carrier for Hendrick Motorsports and driver Alex Bowman’s team, Harrell was a member of three University of Alabama national championship teams as a linebacker. He has gone from Roll Tide to roll tires.
The sports clearly are different, but, Harrell said, the attributes that make successful football players often transfer to the pressure and teamwork of 15-second pit stops.
“It’s a very different mindset here, and Nick Saban (Alabama coach) and Rick Hendrick (NASCAR team owner) are completely different in the way they attack their tasks,” he said. “But what they have in common is that it works — so many championships.”
Harrell’s NASCAR connection came through an Alabama assistant coach, who told him, “This is a chance for you to still be an athlete.”
Mike Metcalf is the fueler for Kyle Larson’s team and shares pit-crew training leadership duties with Shaun Peet at Chip Ganassi Racing. Metcalf was a running back at Appalachian State.
“Strength is super important on the football side,” Metcalf said. “It’s important up to a certain line here. But once you’re strong enough to jack the car or throw a tire, you don’t need to be any stronger. We invest a lot in trying to get faster.”
A key in both football and racing is focus, said Metcalf, who was lured to racing by a trainer who also had a football background.
“You have to kind of lock in,” he said. “How do you hear what’s going on on the football field when 50,000 people are screaming, or how do you hear over the engines? I don’t even hear any of it. You sort of get this ability to tune everything out and focus on the job.”
Richie Williams, jackman for Kasey Kahne’s team, played football with Metcalf at Appalachian State and was quarterback on a national championship team. Several of the former college athletes working on pit crews had virtually no connection to racing before arriving on pit road, but Williams in an exception.
“I grew up 25 minutes from Darlington (Raceway), so I grew up watching NASCAR,” he said. “I always loved racing. Even in college, I’d watch racing on Sunday instead of the NFL.”
After playing in the Canadian Football League, Williams crossed over to NASCAR in 2009 after contact with an individual from NASCAR’s diversity program.
“Reflexes, quickness and strength are all important, but the way we work out is different,” he said. “We do yoga on Mondays, the weight room on Tuesday and CrossFit on Wednesdays. Thursdays there’s a light workout and cardio.”
A key difference in running offenses and racing around a pit box is the timing, Williams said.
“Here what you’re looking for is finding that gray area on the edge of being safe around the race car but also being fast,” he said.
Harrell echoed the finesse idea.
“In football, you’re meeting every problem with your body,” he said. “The car — you’re finessing your way around it. You’ve got to find a way to be as close to it as possible without running into it. You’re going as hard as you can to get around the car, but you have to have fine-tuned movements, and you have to make adjustments on the fly.”
And mistakes stand out, he said.
“You have to be more tight-knit in pit stops because one weak link will mess it up and cost you three seconds,” he said. Three seconds is an eternity when top teams are trying to gain positions with fast pit stops.
“The cars are flying by, the pit guns are loud and the sun is hot,” Harrell said. “There’s a lot that can take your mind off what you’re doing, but I was used to that after Alabama.”
Getty Cavitt, fueler for driver Michael McDowell, was a linebacker and fullback at Western Kentucky.
“This is all about mobility and being a team player,” he said. “You’ve got to rely on the guy next to you just like any other sport. You’re depending on other people knowing what they’re supposed to be doing.
“I never really planned on being around speeding race cars. But you still get the same kind of injuries — your foot being run over, stuff like that. It’s still a physical sport.”
Justin Kirby, a tire carrier for Kahne’s team, played tight end at Jacksonville State.
Football was tough, Kirby said, but the long NASCAR season makes his new job a different sort of challenge.
“The biggest thing is the season is a lot different,” he said. “You’re working out with football even in the off-season, but NASCAR is a really long season — Valentine’s Day to Thanksgiving — and pitting cars in the other (national) series, I’m doing close to 90 races a year.”
NASCAR is using the athlete-as-pit-crew-member model in its diversity push. NASCAR announced recently that seven former college athletes have been selected for its Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program. They will move to North Carolina for training as tire changers, tire carriers and jackmen.