Landon Walker has faced hurtling 250-lb. linebackers, but he’s never gone up against anything this dangerous. Here, on a strip of track at the Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Concord, N.C., the former Cincinnati Bengals prospect is about to go “over the wall” for the first time and put himself at the mercy of a 3,400-lb. stock car. Walker is so focused on his task and the massive gas can he’s carrying that the chaos around him recedes as though he’s in a tunnel. “The one-play, one-heartbeat mentality is the way I’m thinking of this,” he says. A Hendrick employee behind the wheel of the black and neon green race car grins and revs the engine to a menacing crescendo, then makes a sharp right turn and heads straight at him.
This tense, adrenalin-fuelled scene is the final test of a gruelling two-day camp conducted on a Pit Road practice area in a back corner of the sprawling Hendrick campus, located a few kilometres from Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of NASCAR’s cathedrals. Walker is one of two dozen recently graduated college athletes—baseball and football players, wrestlers and track stars—culled from combines across the U.S. and brought here during an insane summer heat wave to show what they’ve got. Finished with college, their athletic careers dashed by injury or because talent carried them only so far, most have never handled an air gun or gas can before. But the speed, strength and hand-eye coordination they honed in their sports is exactly what Hendrick wants in the pits—everything else, they can learn.
NASCAR pit crews used to be staffed by seasoned mechanics who simply worked as quickly as they could during a race; two decades ago, 19 seconds was a solid pit stop. But in the hunt for a competitive edge in races that often come down to milliseconds, teams have changed their thinking when it comes to Pit Road. Leading the way is Hendrick, a team with 10 Sprint Cup championships since 1995. All four of its drivers—Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne—have qualified for the 2012 Chase, NASCAR’s playoffs, and their groundbreaking pit crew program is a key part of that success.
In the early 1990s, Hendrick introduced practices for its pit crews to speed things up, later realizing it made more sense to teach athletes the basic mechanical skills they would need in the pits. Their program is the most ambitious, but competitors have followed suit to varying degrees, sparking an arms race in pit crew recruitment and training. Nowadays, the gold standard for a pit stop has been carved down to just 12 seconds. “It’s very difficult to gain on Pit Road anymore, but it’s very easy to lose,” says Ken Howes, Hendrick’s VP of competition. “Small mistakes get magnified.”
To stay ahead of the pack, four years ago Hendrick hired Chris Burkey, a former Miami Dolphins scout, to scour colleges for the best candidates and create a farm system. Today, the Hendrick pit crew program looks like a miniature Div. I college athletic department—a top-notch gym, strength and conditioning programs, rehab, nutrition, video sessions and go-’til-you-puke heat training.
The sheer athleticism demanded in the pits is a given with anyone who played high-level college sports, so when Burkey’s putting prospects through their paces in combines, he looks for the right body size and proportions, quick-footed agility, the ability to work like a mule while folded into a tiny space and the brain required to pick up on things and retain information. He’s found wrestlers have great leverage, baseball players—especially pitchers—can shake off mistakes almost instantly, and football players have that bulldog intensity. There are a couple of former hockey players—one AHL, one Major Junior—on Pit Road, including a backup on one of Hendrick’s teams, prized for their stellar hand-eye coordination and balance. The drivers are still NASCAR’s stars, but most teams now boast six more hard-core athletes hidden in plain sight.
Among the new recruits at this year’s camp, Walker is one of the few diehard NASCAR fans. He grew up in North Wilkesboro, N.C., the birthplace of stock car racing among the bootleggers, and during the four years he started as an offensive tackle at Clemson University in South Carolina, he made an annual pilgrimage to the speedway in Charlotte with his buddies. The 23-year-old signed with the Bengals last spring, but a knee injury ended everything and suddenly Plan B—a job with a pit crew—became Plan A. “This is where I want to be,” he says. “It’s just as much a sport to these pit crew guys as it is to the drivers.” Just before they head outside to the pit pad, Burkey offers a friendly warning: Expect to feel like clueless freshmen walk-ons for the next two days. “Don’t get too caught up in learning a technique perfect,” he adds. “It’s not gonna be perfect.”
There are four different jobs on each six-man crew and the athletes are sorted by body type. The biggest guys, including Walker, will handle the heavy fuel cans while the leaner, ripped ones will learn to jack the car into the air with a single thrust. The compact, agile guys will be tire carriers and the small, wiry ones will be tire changers. They practise on a Pit Road mock-up about 20 metres long, the coaches teaching the intricate components of each position. The tire changers skid into position on kneepads and try to hit five lug nuts dead-on with the air wrench, staring at the wheel like it holds the secrets of the universe. “There’s so many moves and it’s so fast—one false movement will cost you a race,” says Justin Hopper, 23, a former pitcher at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., now testing out his skills as a tire changer. Everyone has to be aware of his teammates’ positions to the inch, stepping around and over them with precise choreography.
Walker and three other behemoth football players start out with an empty fuel can that weighs about five kilograms, learning the feel when it connects with the vacuum valve at the back of the car. Then the coach fills the 42-litre can with water, turning it into a 36-kg dance partner that only knows how to lead. They take turns running toward the car and shuffling left and right along it. Their chests heave and facial muscles twitch as they struggle to control the gas cans. While waiting to go again, Walker runs through everything on his own, counting off the movements under his breath.
One by one, the jackmen on the other side of the car shove the jack into position and try to haul down on the handle to lift the car, then end up hoisted with their feet off the ground. “One thing I learned about this sport, it’s all about being smooth. It ain’t about coming out all rah-rah,” drawls Jeff Kerr, a coach who also works for Kahne’s crew, as he shows them how to get the right leverage. “Be smooooth.” Jackmen face the most danger on race day because they’re the first to sprint across the car’s path. Last year at Watkins Glen, Kerr was with Mark Martin as the driver got tangled up coming into the pits and overshot his mark—Kerr looked up just in time to see the Chevrolet symbol closing in on him. “I had to either get tall or get gone,” he says laconically. Kerr leaped into the air and landed in the middle of the hood like Spider-Man, then sprang off the side of the car and hit his position in time to get Martin back on the track.
As the recruits can attest, even running pit stops on a stationary car has its perils. Facing the last challenge of the afternoon, one guy nearly gets his head taken off by a swinging jack handle; another gets cut down by a rogue tire. “It was so humbling,” laughs Steve Justice, 28, a former Wake Forest football centre. Then a jackman forgets to keep a tight grip on the handle and the car crashes to the ground. “Whoa! Everybody all right?” yells Walter Smith, a coach for Kahne and Gordon’s crews. Somehow, everyone’s fingers are still attached, and the coaches call it a day.
The next morning, the recruits get to watch the big boys play when two pro Hendrick crews practise. It looks like a testosterone-fuelled ballet on fast-forward: Lug nuts pop off and fly through the air like metallic confetti, and the crew members dart past each other and hand off tires with a precision that suggests they could do it blindfolded. “Get outta here!” Smith hoots after one particularly good stop. “11.5!” The recruits stand along a fence, watching in awed silence except for the occasional question about technique. Walker hovers between fan-boy excitement and anxiety. “It’s kinda mind-numbing to see how good those guys are,” he says.
The grand finale of the camp is going over the wall with a moving car for the first time. Walker and the others line up clutching their tools and air hoses as the car hesitates, crackles briefly and then thunders to life. The energy level among the recruits ratchets up visibly as they lick their lips and shift from foot to foot. Walker stands with one foot on the wall, the gas can cradled in his arms like a giant robot baby as he watches the car close in. Then they’re off. One of the carriers crossing behind the car trips on an air hose and nearly dives face-first into the concrete. The air wrenches howl in staccato bursts as the tire changers frantically stab at the lug nuts. One discarded tire makes a run for it, but Walker thrusts out a foot to stop it. When the jack is yanked out and the car lurches to the ground, the guys hoot and fist-bump. They managed to change four tires and empty two fuel cans in 33 seconds—a hideous disaster for a Sprint Cup crew, but not bad for a first try.
Several mock pit stops later, they’ve stepped on and tripped over each other, jammed the jack and frozen in horror, but also managed to carve their time down to a personal best 18.26 seconds. “Good two days,” Burkey says. “You guys have come a long way.” He winds up the camp by ordering his recruits to wipe down the car and pick up the hundreds of lug nuts strewn across the pit pad.
A couple of weeks later, Walker and seven others get a phone call from Burkey saying he wants them on the development team. Walker is ecstatic. The eight guys who make the team will spend three months training obsessively together and the goal is to get them ready to go over the wall at a racetrack by the end of the year, starting with ARCA (lower-level stock car racing), truck races or the second-tier Nationwide series. After 18 months apprenticing together, they’ll split up to join established teams in Sprint Cup—the major leagues. It’s a great living—up to $100,000 a year—but the expectations are precise and intense: Remove five lug nuts in 1.1 seconds and put five new ones on in one second flat, shove a new tire into position in 0.5 seconds, connect the gas can in 0.6 seconds. Jackmen have 3.3 seconds to sprint from the wall to the far side of the car and get it hoisted into the air.
By the time Walker and his new teammates return to Hendrick HQ in September, Burkey is already visiting college campuses in search of the next class of recruits. He’ll comb fields and gyms and chat up strength coaches, looking for the next not-so-secret weapon who will help Hendrick stay a few milliseconds ahead of the competition.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet Magazine.