CONCORD, N.C. — The pit guns are buzzing. Lug nuts are flying off tires. There’s chatter and instruction back and forth. Encouragement, competitive banter. It’s a money stop taking place not on pit road in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event, but in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity National Pit Crew Development Combine Presented by Goodyear.
The second annual event was held May 25-26 at NASCAR’s Research & Development Center, just a few miles down the road from Charlotte Motor Speedway where Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio) takes place.
Under the direction of Rev Racing pit crew coach Phil Horton and his team of coaches — including some current NASCAR crewmen — 17 male and female athletes participated in the program as the sport searches for its next wave of pit road talent.
The athletes, recruited from colleges and universities across the United States such as Bethune-Cookman, Virginia State, Arizona State, Vincennes University, Norfolk State and San Diego State, participated in the two-day event. On Thursday, the athletes learned their roles on a pit crew, getting familiar with the equipment and a stock car. On Friday, the participants were evaluated through a series of fitness, agility and pit crew drills that culminated with a live pit stop competition.
The live pit stop competition brought plenty of competitive fire from the participants, each trying to make faster times for their own crews. Several notable faces watched the scene: Mike Helton, Vice Chairman of NASCAR, Eason Fromayan — a former college football player who left Georgia Tech early to pursue his NASCAR dream — as well as Jesse Iwuji, an officer in the United States Navy and a driver in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. Former Hendrick Motorsports pit crew member and college football player Dion Williams served as the emcee of the event.
“This program in particular is one that I take a lot of pride in,” said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. “This is Year 2 of a nationally based combine where we have reached out to a number of universities across the land and had great participation from some of the top athletes in the nation.
” … 17 college graduates that have degrees in fields outside of what we are doing here, they had a lot of options in front of them and still have a lot of options in front of them and we’re encouraged that they selected a path within NASCAR.”
While nearly two-thirds of the participants had a background in collegiate football, other sports represented included softball, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, track and wrestling. The growing trend of using former college athletes on pit road in NASCAR is all about trying to gain an edge on the competition as the athletic component on pit road has evolved in recent years.
For some, this is their first exposure to the world of NASCAR. The quickness in which one picks up the world of pit stops is the key to one’s success, Horton said.
“How fast they pick up handling the tools, handling the tires, the gas can,” Horton said. “Once you learn the basic eight fundamentals of how to do a pit stop, it’s a mental thing. It’s how you are able to do that under pressure; that’s the most important thing. They’re going to be fast, but we’re going to do have to slow them down, we’re going to have to get them under control. They’re going to have to learn those fundamentals to see if they can do that when it counts the most.”
Horton and his staff have a template based on height, weight and what position an athlete played in their college sport to identify who they feel fits best as a tire changer, tire carrier and jackman.
Bryce Bradley just graduated from Virginia State University. A defensive back in college for the Trojans, he found that there were far more similarities to his college athletic background to a role on pit road than he realized.
“Hand speed, hand-eye coordination,” Bradley told NASCAR.com. “I played defensive back so I do a lot of jamming and pressing at the line of scrimmage. Definitely with that (pit) gun you’ve got to hit with some force to get the (lug) nuts off.
” … Hip flexibility, when you got to sit down and get low. Because if you are high, you can’t really see the lug nuts all the way. As a defensive back, you have to have good hips so you can turn and run. So when you get down in there, if your hips aren’t flexible, you’re not going to be able to get low enough.”
Ezell Ruffin is another athlete looking to “go pro” in NASCAR. A former wide receiver for the San Diego State Aztecs, Ruffin attended training camp with the Indianapolis Colts in 2015. Ruffin cited the athletic mindset of performing as being a key takeaway from the experience.
“Being able to focus under pressure, especially when they put us on the actual car with all the cameras,” Ruffin told NASCAR.com. “You can’t really think about that. You just got to go in there and do your job. You got to be consistent and make it happen. They are counting on you to change that tire.”
One thing that was very present during the combine — the camaraderie of the participants as they went through different drills. Ruffin said that bond was formed very quickly among each other.
“When we all first came in everybody really bonded. We all come from athletic backgrounds. Everybody just graduated so we all got a lot in common. Out here, we’re athletes, everybody wants to compete so that’s going to drive everybody to everything faster, better, which is good. You need that environment when you’re trying to be at an elite level.”
At present, there are 35 NASCAR Drive for Diversity crew member development program graduates that are working in NASCAR, with 25 alums as part of pit crews in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Just three weekends ago at Talladega, three graduates — Kevin Richardson (front tire carrier), Mike Russell (jackman) and Raphael Diaz (rear tire changer) — were part of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing pit crew that helped Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to his first Monster Energy Series win.
The top performers from Friday’s event will be invited to join NASCAR Drive for Diversity’s crew member development program, operated by Rev Racing. From there, the selected athletes will receive expert training as tire changers, carriers and jackmen while they pursue full-time employment in the NASCAR national series.
The true measuring stick of success, Horton said, is to get crewmembers to a top-15 Monster Energy Series team within three to four years. Last year’s class has already seen immediate returns. Lamar Neal, a 2016 participant in the combine, currently serves as a pit crew member for Richard Childress Racing in the NASCAR XFINITY Series.
“Last year, we brought in 18 athletes and we selected 10 (for the development program),” Horton said. “Fortunately two of those individuals that came out of the Combine last year will be pitting in the (Coca-Cola) 600.”