Fast and furious
Black student-athletes are competing to be in the pit at NASCAR — it’s a sport, but it’s not a game
It’s Friday afternoon in Concord, North Carolina. Concord is known as the Mecca of Motorsports because 90 percent of all stock car racing teams set up shop in this energetic suburb. It’s in the heart of NASCAR country, not far from Charlotte.
Jeremy Kimbrough, a former defensive linebacker for the Washington Redskins, is swinging tires to test his strength and his hand-eye coordination. The endeavor requires raw power and dynamic movement — a combination of acceleration and coordination that threatens to test the limits of physics. If his aim is off by more than an eighth of an inch, he could send one of his crewmates to the hospital.
After three attempts, he slings his tire within 6 inches of his teammate’s ear, and waits for the satisfying clink as a 24-pound tire finds its home on a five-stud wheel base of a 3,300-pound race car. The teammate, tire changer Brehanna Daniels, a mass communications major from Norfolk State University, and a former point guard, is alert and unfazed by the tire’s proximity to her face. Seconds later Kimbrough hears the jolt and rev from Daniels’ impact gun — that sound is spliced with the ear-shredding grind of metal being bonded to metal under pressurized duress.
This is what it sounds like to be in the pit. These noises, along with the rhythmic pings of lug nuts bouncing and skidding across the cement floor, are the sounds of racial integration in stock car racing. Welcome to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Combine.
“This is …,” Daniels struggles to find the right word as she disposes of her gun, and transitions from kneeling into a squat. She takes several steps back. She looks at the race car and her handiwork.
“It was really scary at first,” said Paris Cotman, a junior track star from Virginia State University, where she’s studying to become an elementary school teacher.
“I’d never held a lug nut gun before, but I like it — the noise … it’s not a game. You have to make sure the [lug nuts] are on tight.”
Cotman flips a braided ponytail over her shoulder and adjusts her safety glasses. These pit crew competitors have converged in Concord to be evaluated based on a series of fitness, agility and pit crew drills. In this makeshift space littered with car parts, tool boxes and heavy automotive machinery, the day begins with tutorials on how to use everything.
Tire changers (such as Daniels and Cotman) learn how to handle the eight-pound impact guns so strong that they emit 105 pounds of pressure per square inch when pressed against a lug nut. Potential “jackmen” learn the equipment that raises the car in one smooth seemingly effortless motion so that the rest of the crew can get to work. Potential tire carriers (like Kimbrough) learn how to properly navigate the tight areas near the wheel without injuring teammates or losing time. Many of the competitors hail from historically black universities — Alcorn State University, Virginia State University, Appalachian State University, Clark Atlanta University, and Norfolk State University — plus San Diego State University, UNC Charlotte, and University of Kansas are represented at the combine. The recent college graduates hail from 12 states and American Samoa.
But in real life, there are almost no women on these teams, and until recently very few African-Americans. At most races, there are 12 to 15 pit stops per team, each one lasting an average of 13 seconds. In that short period of time, the jackman has to use his jack and body weight to propel the car high enough into the air for the tire carriers and tire changers to detach the old set of tires and replace them with four new ones. A race team will use up to 14 sets of tires during a Sprint Cup-level race. Such repetitious explosive exercise takes endurance and cardio-conditioning.
So the idea of reaching out to college athletes is the kind of a layup often overlooked when thinking of ways to diversify organizations. Daniels saw a way to bridge the gap between her student life and the one she has the power to craft for herself: “You have to be totally focused and tuned in,” she said. “You have to be precise and accurate, all the stuff I had to be in basketball.”
Tall, weighty football players transition to jackmen. Defensive backs morph into tire carriers. Track and field sprinters often become tire changers — bodies taut, ready to break over the wall with an impact gun, ready to secure lug nuts to the wheel base in order to keep the tire attached to the car. The purpose of the program is to attract minority and female candidates in hopes that, as they progress through the minor league and regional racing circuits and eventually land in the Sprint Cup Series (the upper echelon of stock car racing), they’ll help attract a more diverse audience to speedways and racetracks, because the state of diversity at NASCAR lags far behind progress made in other professional sports across the country.
“I came to the industry and started working with the pit crews and I realized that there was not an organized, fundamental way to do pit stops,” said Coach Phil Horton, a graduate of North Carolina A&T University and former strength and conditioning coach for the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s been a NASCAR fan since childhood, and this program is his brainchild.
“There was no such thing as a pit crew coach. There were pit coordinators and there were strength-trainers, but coming out of stick-and-ball sports … I realized these guys needed to be coached — they needed to be trained.” Now he is Rev Racing’s director of athletic performance and the chief athletic evaluator of Drive for Diversity program.
And if all goes according to plan, 10 of these former football, basketball, softball and track and field stars will find themselves in pit boxes on race tracks as crew members and mechanics for racing teams in the NASCAR organization. They will be changing tires in less than 20 seconds on cars that can cost more than $200,000 and cruise around track as fast as 200 mph. But first they have to survive the combine.
Coach Phil: “Let’s get it!”
The competitors go. Two at a time. Each wears a five-pound vest meant to simulate the weight of the fire suit each pit crew member has to wear.
The rhythm breaks down like this — one minute of exercise, 30 seconds of rest. The group moves through a series of circuits designed to test their core strength, cardio-conditioning, agility and mental acuity.
Someone puts on music — Pandora’s instrumental hip-hop station pours through the speakers. A jump rope — a piece of nylon with two plastic handles — tests cardio-conditioning. The rope flies tight, controlled circles, its arc predictable for those who can keep a beat.
Dr. Dre’s 2001 “The Next Episode,” robbed of its Snoop Dogg, Kurupt and Nate Dogg lyrics, pulses through the speakers. Sneakers clap cement at regular intervals. The muscles at the front of their legs flex and contract as they pull themselves up onto yoga balls. As the music transitions to something funkier, the competitors are doing situps, their faces are slick with sweat, but each has found his or her groove. They’ve done this before. Nostrils flare. During the tensest moments of exercise, air involuntarily escapes mouths, punctuating the beat of Nightmares on Wax’s 2006 “You Wish.” Lips are curled inward and get tucked between their teeth.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Quinta Funderburk, a former wide receiver earning his master’s degree in special education at Norfolk State, “but I didn’t think it would be like this.”
The physical evaluation portion of the combine ends with three attempts at a three-cone drill. The exercise is a simulation running around a car. A good pit stop, where crew members change out at least two tires, lasts 11 to 13 seconds. In a sport where winners are often determined by tenths of a second, over the course of a race, an extra two seconds on pit road can mean the difference between first and sixth place. And as athletes know, it’s not enough to have speed, one has to be able to control it. On Daniels’ first attempt, she made her turns too tight and missed the second cone. The second time, her sneakers squealed as she skidded to a stop at the same cone. For the third run she removed the black gloves she’d been wearing all day and let them plop on the cement near her competitors. One last run.
She thought about all the time with friends and family she sacrificed to train for the combine. She refused to let a basic drill kill her chances of finishing with a decent time.
“When I was trying to touch the line with those gloves on,” she said, “my hand was a bit slippery and my shoes were also. I figured I could cut more time off my run by taking away one of those problems.”
During the third run she shaved an extra second off of her time, demonstrating to Horton her ability to assess the situation, make adjustments and continue a task without growing frustrated, all actions that are key to becoming a crewmember on pit road.
“My family didn’t know much about NASCAR, [but] I always had an interest in it,” Funderburk said. “I followed Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon … and I thought it would be a new experience — it seemed like a great opportunity.”
Competitors like Funderburk (a four-star prospect out of high school) are attracted to the potent cocktail of speed and strategy that NASCAR provides. Most have little to no experience with stock car racing, but have the desire and capability to learn.
“Didn’t know too much about NASCAR before we started this,” Joshua Tate said.
The Clark Atlanta University biology major was a defensive back in college and landed on the radar of NFL scouts due to playmaking abilities and a propensity for interceptions and pass breakups. Competing in Concord as a tire carrier, last week he was at a minicamp for the Chicago Bears. He believes that attending an HBCU helped him thrive.
“I had a swagger about myself because I was hungry. I was from a smaller school and didn’t have all the things people from D-1 schools had. So I have to work two or three times as hard. I want to bring that to NASCAR. I think it would help me work my way up to Sprint level.” Making it to the Sprint Cup level is like being plucked from the NBA to be part of the U.S. Olympic basketball team.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and Coach Phil talked to me about how we can make an impact … There’s still room to be a pioneer in the sport.”
NASCAR and Rev Racing hosted regional tryouts at six universities and the athletes at the combine are the result of college recruitment and outreach efforts made by Max Siegel, CEO of Rev Racing, and Jim Cassidy, senior vice president of racing operations at NASCAR.
“Before the academy [competition] and teaching format,” Siegel said, “drivers were sent to different racing teams all over the country and they were less of a priority. We had to do something different.”
Siegel was the first African-American executive in NASCAR history. He and his wife Jennifer used their life savings to launch Rev Racing, and in 2009 he partnered with NASCAR, to bring multicultural underrepresented drivers to Concord. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson and NASCAR XFINITY Series drivers Darrell Wallace Jr. and Daniel Suárez are all recent graduates. The driving program was a kind of pilot program for the pit program.
“This is my first experience being on the inside of the track,” said Cotman.
Her excitement is palpable. She used to tear tickets in front of the speedway in Richmond, Virginia, but never had the chance to see the actually see the track or a race. NASCAR caught her attention when her coach encouraged her to try out for the combine to expand her career options. Athletes often need a backup plan. The numbers are real: Fewer than 2 percent of college football players get the chance to play professional football as part of the NFL. For men’s basketball, the chance of making it to the NBA hovers around 1.1 percent. The probability of transitioning to the WNBA for women’s basketball players? 0.9 percent.
That leaves a lot of college athletes in peak condition searching for a way to use the athletic prowess they crafted during high school and college.
“In this sport they’re held to an unrealistic standard of not failing,” said Coach Horton. “[Athletes] get that. That’s why we emphasize accuracy and consistency. One or two mistakes and you’re removed. Each race [from a points perspective] is a chance to win a championship.”
There’s nothing quite as amazing as walking down pit road and observing race crews in their pit boxes at Charlotte Motor Speedway before the start of the Hisense 4K TV 300, an Xfinity race that took place over Memorial Day Weekend. The combination of flammable liquids, power tools, suffocating heat and adrenaline fused with the roar of 43 800-horsepower race cars and cheers of thousands of fans sounded like heaven to Kimbrough. Well rested after the combine, he stands behind the No. 6 pit box at the start of the race and watches the officiant wave the green flag.
“Noisy” doesn’t begin to describe the way sound pulses and cuts through the boxes on pit road. The din of engines bouncing off the aluminum grandstands makes it too loud to speak, but he flashes a grin and gives the pit crew a thumbs-up. When it was time to leave the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Funderburk removed his earplugs and looked up into the stands. “It’s mind-blowing,” he said. “It’s an experience I never thought I’d have.”