The NASCAR Challenge
WSSU Football players test their pit crew skills
NASCAR Drive for Diversity held a combine at Winston-Salem State University last week, hoping to entice football players to lend their athleticism to the fast paced world of racing pit crews.
In a sport where speed is everything, NASCAR pit crews made up heavily of former athletes has become the norm. The trend caught on when Jeff Gordon found success utilizing athletes for his Rainbow Warriors pit crew in the mid-1990s. Athletes bring the power, strength, speed, agility and finesse that can cut down precious seconds during a pit stop, said Phil Horton, pit crew development director for Drive for Diversity, a NASCAR program that seeks to draw more minorities into the sport.
“Athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than the mechanics,” he said. “And athletes are used to performing under pressure, which a pit stop brings some of the most incredible pressures you can have. It’s a one and done type of deal.”
The combine – a rigorous test of physical strength and endurance used by NFL scouts– had WSSU players performing a number of pit crew jobs. They acted as tire changers, who remove and replace lug nuts; tire carriers, who put new 24-pound tires on race cars; and jackmen, who elevate the cars using 20-pound hydraulic jacks. The combine also tested the players’ agility through sprinting, jumping rope and other activities. Those who make the grade will be invited to begin pit crew training later this summer.
The hopefuls included senior tight end Brandon McDonald, a NASCAR fan who said he could see himself as part of a pit crew.
“I did the (tire) changer, and it was kind of cool, so I guess changer would be be a good thing to do,” he said.
Senior fullback Ricky Rozier isn’t a NASCAR fan but decided to attend the combine after learning about it from his coaches. He liked what he experienced and likened it to football training with its repetitive moves and techniques.
A pit crew can spend as much time training in the gym as it does handling race cars, said Horton, a former Florida A&M University and Memphis State University athletic trainer. The regular training is necessary since crews have only seconds to put on a tire or remove five lug nuts.
Phillip Thomas, who helped conduct the WSSU combine, has already earned a spot on a pit crew through Drive for Diversity. The 21-year-old, who was scheduled to work in the pit for his first race on Saturday, is a former multi-sport athlete. He said he looks forward to the traveling involved with a job on a pit crew.
“I never thought I would be able to do something like this,” said Thomas, who wants to make racing his career. “To actually be in this program is a privilege to me.”
Horton said less than five percent of pit crews are made up of women and minorities. There are equally dismal numbers in other NASCAR divisions. Drive for Diversity is working to change the face of NASCAR as a whole.
“If you have something to bring, something to bring to NASCAR, if you have a talent, if you have a knowledge … it’s wide open,” said Horton.
To learn more about NASCAR Drive for Diversity, visit nascardiversity.com.