A Prospective Pro Athletes' Backup Plan? Pit Crewing For NASCAR
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This summer we're meeting young people who've found some unusual jobs. Today we got to Charlotte, North Carolina. Reporter Michael Tomsic of member station WFAE met a 24-year-old former college football player who now works on a NASCAR pit crew.
MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: James Craig played linebacker and defensive back at East Carolina University. As some of his teammates were getting calls from NFL teams last year, he got a call from a NASCAR pit coach.
JAMES CRAIG: Coach Burkey called me up and asked if I wanted to come try out for his pit crew. And I said, you know, I've never - never watched racing. I don't know anything about racing. I've never changed a tire, in fact. And he said, that's perfect. He said, we don't need you to be a race fan, we need you to be an athlete.
UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Ready? Go.
TOMSIC: Craig side shuffles as quickly as he can to a ladder lying on the ground. He's 5'10'', 180 pounds with short blonde hair. And he makes it look easy. A coach tells him and about a dozen other pit crew members to move on to the next drill.
UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Switch.
TOMSIC: Craig works for the racing team Hendrick Motorsports, which built this training complex in Charlotte for its pit crews. There's a small track, a sand pit and there's field turf where Craig uses a thick rope to pull a 75-pound sled.
UNIDENTIFIED COACH: All right. Good lift, Craig, good lift.
TOMSIC: It's a full-time job - training and film sessions during the week, races on the weekend.
CRAIG: It's perfect for a guy my age who's single, loves to travel, loves to be an athlete. It's kind of everything I wanted in a job.
TOMSIC: Across NASCAR, racing teams are stocking their pit crews with athletes.
(AIR GUN FIRING)
TOMSIC: At Penske Racing, crew members fire air guns to loosen lug nuts as they practice changing tires. This is after a morning weightlifting session in a state-of-the-art gym Penske built last year. The head strength training coach here is Shawn Powell. He used to be a strength coach with the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
SHAWN POWELL: The majority of our athletes have a collegiate or a professional background in sports. So if we're going to ask them to come in and train like professional athletes we need to have a professional facility for them to train in.
TOMSIC: Penske's pit crew members have come from football, baseball, hockey, soccer, and wrestling programs. Pit coach Brian Haaland says he even tried out a guy from the U.S. Olympic bobsled team.
BRIAN HAALAND: He was in good shape. He was a strong kid. We'll see, you know, when all the coaches sit down and see if he has a future here or not.
TOMSIC: You could say that college athletes like Craig James owe their jobs to former Stanford football player Andy Papathanassiou. About 20 years ago, Papathanassiou snuck into a garage at a NASCAR race and volunteered with the team.
ANDY PAPATHANASSIOU: I knew nothing about racing so I saw it as an athletic event with practice and repetition, coaching, you know, the organization that you give to any sort of sport, from grade school soccer all the way up to the NFL.
TOMSIC: He eventually became a pit crew coach and now many racing teams view their pit stops as athletic events, too. Papathanassiou says top pit crew members make around $100,000 a year. Hendrick Motorsports won't say how much it pays entry-level members like James Craig. During the All-Star Race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway this year, Craig does squats and push-ups to stay loose. His job is to keep the hose for an air gun out of the way after driver Kasey Kahne swerves into the pit. Kahne's tires hadn't finished squealing to a stop when six pit crew members leap off the pit road wall and sprint around the car. They fire air guns to loosen lug nuts. They rip off 65-pound tires and smack on new ones. And 11.92 seconds later...
TOMSIC: Kahne stomps on the gas pedal and accelerates back toward the track. Craig plays a support role here, though at what you can think of as NASCAR's minor-league races, Craig is one of the six who leaps over the wall and changes tires. He still needs to work his way up to the top circuit. Back at the training complex, Craig says he's still adjusting to the differences between this and college football.
CRAIG: I'll never forget Daytona this year - my very first race - you know, we were all kind of jacked up before the race. And we were all getting excited just like, you know, before a football game. And, you know, the green flag goes and the cars start running. And we sat there for 35-40 minutes before we even had to do anything. So it kind of messed with our minds a little bit.
TOMSIC: He says that's just how it goes on pit road - long waits followed by brief moments of insanely high intensity. For the former college football player, it's his version of going pro. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte.
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