In a NASCAR race one single pit stop can be the difference between finishing first and finishing 21st. So pit stops have been turned in to an athletic competition of their own.
“When I got in to it pit stops were about 15 seconds. We changed the way they started doing the indexes and that dropped it down into the 13’s, and now they’re in the 11’s,” said Phil Horton, pit crew coach for the Drive for Diversity Crew Member Development program.
A former trainer for the Milwaukee Bucks, Horton moved to NASCAR in 1998, the middle of Jeff Gordon’s reign of terror. From 1995 to 1998 Gordon averaged 10 wins a year and won three points championships.
Part of the reason for Gordon’s dominance was the six guys going over the wall. Crew Chief Ray Evernham started adding former college football players to the team and soon the group … known as the Rainbow Warriors … shaved six seconds off the average pit stop time. Once other teams saw the results, the competition expanded from the track to pit road. Everyone wanted an athletic pit crew.
“Almost 90% athletes now,” said Horton, “whereas when I first got in to it, it was mechanics. We taught them how to do the pit stop part of it so they knew the mechanical but not the athletic side of it. Now we bring in athletes; they know the athletic side of it but not the mechanical.”
It’s easier to teach someone how a car works than it is to teach someone how to be an athlete … and that is what brought NASCAR to San Diego recently. The NASCAR Drive for Diversity Crew Member Development program is looking for athletes who might be a good fit for NASCAR.
It’s an NFL Combine-style workout trying to determine who might have the physical skills to make the transition, and they are particularly interested in football players.
“We have a template for which position we use,” said Horton. “We have wide receivers and defensive backs; those normally translate in to tire changers and carriers.”
Two former Aztec wide receivers went through the workout. Ezell Ruffin and Curtis Anderson are both familiar with NASCAR from enjoying races on TV.
“Playing football you’re out there competing in a team atmosphere,” said Ruffin. “You’re all working together towards one goal. That’s something I love to be a part of so why not give it a try?”
For football players this kind of tryout is nothing new. They’ve been going it pretty much their entire lives.
“You’re testing agility, your speed, your footwork, your strength. Everything you need to have to be able to perform on the field as well as on the track when you get there,” said Ruffin.
As is stated in the program’s name, NASCAR is also looking to diversify its employment and its fan base. They are especially interested in African-Americans, Hispanics and women to try grow the sport.
“Diversity is the thing to do now,” said Horton. “With corporations, with any type of business, with any type of sport it has to happen. That’s the way the country is moving and with NASCAR being a southern-based sport it’s trying to move in that same direction and make that happen, as well.”
Most NASCAR races take place in states like North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and Alabama. Even today those are places where race relations are often contentious. The Aztecs at the NASCAR combine see an opportunity to make a difference.
“Being able to go in to a sport where there are not a lot of African-Americans and stand out, to be able to perform and compete well, I feel like I would thrive in an atmosphere like that,” said Ruffin. “I think I’d be a good fit for it.”
“I think it’s pretty cool because you can encourage other people, other young people of ethnicity to potentially come and be in the sport and have it grow and diversify,” said Anderson. “If you’re one of the first it’s pretty cool.”
The program will hold a national combine at the end of May in Charlotte. The athletes who took part in the San Diego event will find out if they get an invitation this week.