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September 21, 2017

Chip Ganassi Racing crews driven by family-like bond

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CONCORD, N.C. — For a NASCAR pit crew, there’s a degree of pleasure to be found in putting all the choreography together and rattling off a lightning-fast pit stop. It’s a level of satisfaction that Chip Ganassi Racing’s group of athletes know well.

CGR’s No. 42 crew found that sweet spot earlier this month, making quick work of the final service for Kyle Larson and providing the difference-making track position that won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway.

Then there’s the impact that goes beyond four fresh tires and fuel. It’s why Ganassi pit crew coach Shaun Peet took time out of the team’s Tuesday morning huddle — before the pep talk in the heat of the NASCAR Playoffs — to read a note of appreciation that made its way to his inbox after last weekend’s postseason opener.

“I wanted to take the time to thank you for the way I was treated this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway,” the letter began, written by a fan who serves as a teacher of special needs children and who spent time interacting with the Ganassi crew before and after the race. The note continued, “The smile on his face and the excitement in his voice is something I rarely see from him. This is something both of us will never forget.”

The sentiment moved Peet to share the appreciation with his crew before the over-the-wall reps began.

“So it’s great when our pit crews do great, but that’s the stuff for us that transcends this whole thing, right?” Peet said. “We’re lucky. Our philosophy is we’re going to win with good people here. …

“If they can affect lives positively while in this sport, for us as coaches, that goes beyond them pitting a race car in 10 seconds. We’re really proud of this group. We feel like we have 30 great human beings here.”


So how does a scrapper of a hockey player from a blue-collar logging town in Canada land in NASCAR, graduating with a double major from an Ivy League university along the way?

“Completely by accident,” Peet says.

And that’s how a whale of an ‘all things happen for a reason’ story comes to pass. In the fall of 2001, Peet had been sent down from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Triple-A affiliate to the Greensboro (North Carolina) Generals. Already unhappy with the demotion down the minor-league hockey ladder, the then-26-year-old defenseman reached a turning point, goaded into a fight by a pesky player from the opposing Reading Royals.

“The first inkling that I knew I was in trouble was our team idiot was already kicked out,” Peet says now, reflecting back on his role in the escalating hostilities that led to what East Coast Hockey League officials called the worst brawl in the association’s history. “Big trouble” was how the so-called team idiot termed it, and he was right. Penalty minutes were handed out like Halloween candy, and Peet was suspended for 18 games, a quarter of the team’s season.

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From there, the chain of events forms a serendipitous string. There’s the chance meeting with a NASCAR fan in the coliseum stands while serving his suspension, the casual visit to a race shop where he earned an impromptu tryout as a jack man, the eventual job with the Keselowskis, car owner Bill Davis and eventually Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I didn’t even know what NASCAR was,” Peet says. “And here, 14 years later, I’ve enjoyed it all.”

The Charlotte area where Peet wound up is a long way from his hometown of Nanaimo, a harbor city on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. But it’s also a good distance from Dartmouth, where he played collegiate hockey and earned his degree with concentrations on psychology and sociology — majors that have served him well in managing the many personalities on the team.

His transition drew recognition from the school’s alumni magazine, in a feature akin to Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” segment. One picture lauded a physician’s achievement in medicine; the second, a Naval officer recognized for his outstanding accomplishments as a pilot. “And then the third picture was me running around a race car,” he said with a laugh.

“I never thought I’d be here, but I’m glad I am,” Peet says. “I really, truly feel like I haven’t worked a day in my life.”


The mood at Tuesday’s pit practice after the Chicagoland race is decidedly light. Upbeat songs blare as the test mule Chevrolet — marked with a No. 42 on the driver’s side and a No. 1 on the other to represent both teams — pulls in for practice stops. “Five yards per carry, baby!” one crewman shouts over the music, making a nod to the football background of many team members.

It’s a collegial group with regular words of encouragement, but underneath, there’s determination and drive that push them to be better. A small “Wheel of Fortune” style wheel adorns a pit box, indicating which crew is next up in the pit-stop rotation. Elimination-style tournaments determine weekly winners for a larger, quarterly tote board. It’s all meant to promote an internal spirit of competition, a means of figuratively sharpening the sword to face off with 38 other pit crews on race day.

“Every once in a while, I get to work out with the guys and it’s pretty interesting — it doesn’t matter what they’re doing, they’re still competitive,” says Matt McCall, crew chief for Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevy. “It’s a race — no matter what you’re doing — to be the best.”

After each practice stop, the crews huddle to review replays, receiving immediate feedback on their routine. Mike Metcalf — a pit coach who doubles as gas man for Kyle Larson’s No. 42 — says breaking down film is an old-school touch adapted for the current generation — a more visual, screen-dependent group.

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While Metcalf and Peet will still make minor adjustments to fine-tune their crews’ technique, Chip Ganassi Racing plans no wholesale changes for the playoffs. The emphasis on fundamental skills — a focus drilled into the team since before the season began — remains the primary goal.

“You reap what you sow, and these guys have worked their guts out for nine months and they’re ready to go,” Peet says. “The hay’s in the barn and you’re going to see the result of that effort over the next nine weeks. So for us, it’s not hard. It’s just keeping it on course and letting them do what they do.”

Says Metcalf, a former fullback during his football days at Appalachian State: “Our pressure, the serious stuff, we started that months ago. We’re already ready for it.”


“I’m just thankful that Shaun Peet’s better at this than he was hockey.”

Chad Johnston, Larson’s crew chief, delivers that faint praise with a smirk. But in another breath, he applauds the job the coaching staff has done to build a stealthy-good over-the-wall corps.

If there’s any sort of pressure in the postseason, it doesn’t show in the ambiance before, during and after pit-stop practice. After the series of stops, the team takes turns shooting long-distance shots then chasing down rebounds at the basketball hoop in CGR’s back parking lot.

Those breaks in the day are part of the more elaborately planned activities during the season. The team members commemorate opening day of the Major League Baseball season with a Wiffle Ball tournament. Canada Day comes along on July 1, providing Peet a chance to celebrate his roots with a hockey tourney on a makeshift rink on the grounds, made out of racing tires.

The extracurriculars have all helped to create a family-style atmosphere and support system among a group of athletes from all sorts of cultural and geographical backgrounds. The common thread, beneath all the fun times and the well-fueled competition, is an enduring code of character.

“The thing I’m most proud of is the quality of human beings we’ve got in this program,” Peet says. “One of the big things we keep getting back from the people we talk to is, ‘wow, you have a really diverse group.’ The funny thing is, we’re not. Visually, we look diverse, but every single one of our guys is hard-working, has a ton of integrity, cares deeply about their family, cares deeply about this group. So really, all the important things, they’re exactly the same.”