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Pit crew development program leaves lasting mark with athletes

Phil Horton likens the driver-pit crew relationship to the difference between NFL quarterbacks and special teams.

Drivers may have the celebrity status of a quarterback, but special teams are expected to do their job behind the scenes to perfection on football teams. When they don’t, they are the first ones criticized. But every part of the team is important.

Pit crews are the sometimes-overlooked part of professional racing. They not only take care of the car, but they also take care of the driver, ensure their safety and help to put them in a position to win the race.

A successful pit crew can change the pace of a race. Drivers and pit crews depend on each other. If a driver can take a team up to third place, maybe a fast pit stop can get the driver into second or first, Horton explains. That can be the difference between winning and losing.

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program was launched in 2004, establishing a driver and pit crew development and recruitment program. Those initiatives are part of the NASCAR Diversity, Equity & Inclusion platform. Max Siegel, the owner of Rev Racing and a former executive with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and USA Track and Field, has been instrumental in making significant Drive for Diversity advancements through the years.

RELATED: Learn more about NASCAR Drive for Diversity 

Horton, who is the director of athletic performance at Rev Racing, serves as the pit crew coach for the Drive for Diversity Crew Member Development Program. His background in athletics is wide ranging. He was a former strength coach for the Milwaukee Bucks and former head trainer at the University of Memphis and Florida A&M University. After a long career in that area, Horton started a private athletic training practice in North Carolina and began his work in NASCAR. He was first a personal trainer for former driver Ernie Irvan but soon began working with other drivers, pit crew athletes and race teams.

“I have 15 Cup wins as a pit coach, 12 Xfinity wins, 12 Truck wins, and a Truck championship from 2010,” Horton said. “That’s what makes it fun. Those are the rewards of being a part of a racing organization and winning.”

Now, he focuses on training new pit crews and looking for new ways to make pit stops more effective as the sport progresses.

The pit crew development program has become a staple for teams in finding high-quality pit crew members. The program boasts more than 90 alumni on teams all around the NASCAR garage. A large number of pit crew members come from professional and college sports backgrounds, specifically former players in football, basketball and softball.

Pit crew members must be strong, fast, and focused to be able to do what needs to be done. It’s also the ability to perform on the big stage that is something Horton is keenly keeping an eye out for.

“We’re looking for someone who doesn’t mind getting dirty … and someone who can deal with the pressure of performing in front of big crowds while changing tires,” Horton said. “We look for individuals who not only understand the team concept but have the personality to make that happen.”

On average, a four-tire pit stop in NASCAR is about 14 to 15 seconds. The top pit crews in the Cup Series get four-tire stops down in under 14 seconds, per Racing Insights. Two-tire stops are done in half the time. In this time, the over-the-wall crew jacks up the car, changes the tires, fuels the car, makes any adjustments, and sometimes rips a tear-off from the front windshield. If a car has a minor crash, the crew is needed to repair damage before the car can get back on the track.

It takes years to build the necessary skills to work on NASCAR Cup Series teams, Horton said. Crew members start at the grassroots level or in the ARCA Menards Series, then climb the ladder into the NASCAR national series. The pit crew development program trains its participants for about six months before they try out for specific teams.

RELATED: NASCAR, Rev Racing announce 2021 Drive for Diversity class

Horton travels to different schools and universities to recruit people and inform students about the ins and outs of NASCAR. If the resume fits, prospects will be invited to a NASCAR combine, much like the NFL Scouting Combine, but car-related and on a smaller scale. Candidates learn the workouts and routine of what pit crew members go through each week leading up to the race weekend. The combine serves as a test of their speed and their ability to quickly learn the concepts.

At every regional or national combine, about 10-15 people try out, but many are surprised at the number of physical capabilities it takes to be successful. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Rev Racing held a pit crew combine on the weekend of the Coca-Cola 600 for prospective pit crew candidates. The number of available spots depend on the season, but teams sometimes need backups in case of injury or illness.

“You only try out if you know about it, and you only know about it through your school or affiliated staff,” said Ricky Rozier, a fueler in Chip Ganassi Racing’s development system who gets his over-the-wall reps in all three national series for other teams on race weekends. “They really try to get those student-athletes out there to perform.”

Rozier is a former football player for Winston-Salem State University and already had an interest in NASCAR before trying out and looking into the Drive for Diversity pit crew program.

In the case of Jonathan Willard, a jackman for the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet team in the Cup Series as well as the Jeremy Clements Racing team in the Xfinity Series and the Hattori Racing Enterprises team in Camping World Trucks, he played football at Clemson University. He then moved on to play for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and in the CFL. Being a pit crew member has been a “great experience” for him, and this is his eighth season on board.

“I wanted to do something that was different from what everybody else was doing so by chance, I sent out a resume to the NASCAR Racing Experience and Andretti Racing School not thinking that they’d call me back,” he said. “Two or three days later, they called me in for an interview.”

This interview came at just the right time. He had just finished a brief stint in law enforcement and wanted to break away from his family’s drag racing business near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He trained twice a day with Horton one-on-one for about two months and got his first full-time gig a year later.

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Traveling to races around the country is a part of the job, and the schedule can be intense. The pit crews travel nearly every weekend from February to November. For those with a family and roots at home, this takes some getting used to.

Marshall McFadden, a jackman in Chip Ganassi Racing’s development system who gets his over-the-wall reps in all three national series for other teams on race weekends and another alumnus of the program, compares pitting to being in the NFL. Though he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams, his experience still couldn’t prepare him for NASCAR. The job requires you to stay in shape and constantly improve to keep your spot.

“By looking at it, you’re like ‘It ain’t too bad,’ ” McFadden said. “My first race of the season at Daytona in 2017 was very humbling. … I thought I could do it all, but it’s harder than you think. It takes a lot of practice, repetitions, and camaraderie with the team. I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.”

What was the biggest mistake he made at the beginning of his career? Not jacking up the car correctly during pit stops, which can cause the car to fall when the crews are changing tires and filling up the gas tank. It’s a common mistake among less-experienced pit crew members but a costly one, as all the actions of a pit stop are timing-based and well-choreographed. It took months of watching film for him to become comfortable moving at race-day speed with accuracy. With only five over-the-wall spots on each pit crew, each team member has to stay sharp.

Even though McFadden and Willard dreamed of playing professional football for most of their careers, they’ve both become accustomed to the NASCAR lifestyle and emphasize that everyone on a professional racing pit crew is an athlete.

The biggest difference? On a pit crew, you’re a special-teams athlete supporting the team’s quarterback, the driver.