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Former College Athletes Go Pro With NASCAR Pit Crews

Former college football, baseball and hockey players will compete in the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend. They aren't racing the cars - they're on the pit crews.

Repairing cars as fast as possible has become a sort of pro sport within NASCAR, complete with world-class training facilities, grueling schedules and even recruiting departments.

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.

"Coach Burkey called me up and asked if I wanted to come try out for his pit crew, and I said I've never watched racing," Craig said. "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 race fan - we need you to be an athlete."

Craig and about a dozen other athletes-turned-pit-crew members train at Hendrick Motorsports in Charlotte. Hendrick built a training complex specifically for its pit crews. There’s a small track, a sandpit and field turf, where the pit crew members did agility drills and used a thick rope to pull a 75-pound sled.

It’s a full-time job – training and film sessions during the week, races on the weekend. Across NASCAR, this is becoming the norm for pit road.

'Professional Facilities' And Tryouts

Penske Racing in Mooresville built a brand new gym last year for its pit crew members to use. Shawn Powell is Penske's head strength coach. He used to be a strength coach with the Carolina Panthers.

  "The majority of our athletes have a collegiate or professional background in sports," he said, "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."

Penske’s pit crew members have come from football, baseball, hockey, soccer and wrestling programs. Pit coach Brian Haaland said he even tried out a guy from the U.S. Olympic bobsled team.

"He was in good shape," Haaland said. "He was a strong kid, so we’ll see when all the coaches sit down, and see if he has a future here or not."

Athletes Instead Of Mechanics

Up until about 20 years ago, pit crews were nothing like this. But then a former Stanford football player snuck into a garage at a NASCAR race.

"I just asked around, does anyone need any help, anyone need a pair of hands? And I found a team willing to let me help," Andy Papathanassiou said.

He had what was then a pretty radical idea: that athletes could do a better job than mechanics on pit road. 

"You can say my biggest value initially in racing was that I knew nothing about racing," he said with a laugh. "I saw it as an athletic event - with practice and repetition, coaching, the organization that you give to any sort of sport, from grade school soccer all the way up to the NFL."

He eventually convinced driver Jeff Gordon’s crew chief to let him take that approach with Gordon’s pit crew. It became known as the Rainbow Warriors, legendary in NASCAR for their intense workouts, fast pit stops and colorful uniforms.

Now Papathanassiou is basically the athletic director for all of Hendrick Motorsports. He said the top pit crew members make around $100,000 a year.

12 Seconds Of Organized Chaos

During last weekend's All-Star race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was clear that today's pit crews just look different, both in the way they're built and the way they move.

James Craig and others on driver Kasey Kahne’s team did squats and pushups to stay loose until Kahne swerved into the pit.

Kahne's tires hadn’t finished squealing to a stop when six pit crew members leapt off the pit road wall and sprinted around the car.

"That was a good stop there, nice and clean," pit coach Chris Burkey said afterward as the crew huddled around a video monitor to watch the stop and look for ways to improve. 

Adjusting To NASCAR

Craig played a support role during the stop. He still needs to work his way up to the top circuit. And he’s still adjusting to the differences between this and college football.

"I'll never forget at Daytona this year, my very first race, we were all kind of jacked up before the race and we were all getting excited just like before a football game," he said. "And 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."

Craig said that’s just how it goes on pit road: long waits followed by brief moments of insanely high intensity. For the former East Carolina football player, it’s his version of going pro.