NASCAR Holds National Pit Crew Combine To Increase Diversity
NASCAR is trying to increase its diversity, and its efforts go beyond who's behind the steering wheel. Pit crews have become essentially a sport within the sport, as race teams train former college athletes to sprint around cars, changing tires and lugging equipment. In Concord recently, NASCAR held its first national pit crew combine, and its purpose was to attract minority athletes.
Branden Dozier didn’t think playing football for UNC Charlotte would lead to this. Neither did his friends.
“They were like, oh, what are you doing now since football fell through?” he says with a laugh. “I was like, right now I’m at a NASCAR combine. They were like, what? What do you do? I was like, I change tires!”
Dozier had never changed a tire until the day before this combine. In fact, none of the nearly 20 people trying out are anything close to mechanics. Their specialties are college basketball, football, softball, and track and field.
“Let’s see what we got!” yelled Phil Horton at the beginning. He was NASCAR’s first African-American pit coach, and he runs the combine. (He's also with the race team Rev Racing.)
He clips 15-pound weight vests onto the men and 10-pound vests onto the women, and their first test is a jump rope workout.
Brehanna Daniels is among several athletes from historically black colleges and universities. The former Norfolk State basketball guard grunted through ab rollers and sprinted back and forth between cones.
She slipped, and Coach Horton says they have to stay under control.
“Same thing like running around the car!” he tells them.
Pit crews evolved over the past 20 years or so from gear-heads to athletes. After all, the stops are all about speed, strength and precision.
Today, pit road is arguably the most diverse part of NASCAR. Brandon Thompson oversees crew member development for the sport, and he says it’s important to build on that.
“To be able to see someone who looks like you and say, hey, that could be me - it's not a pie-in-the-sky idea anymore,” he says. “It adds credibility when we go back and say, no, this sport really is open and inclusive.”
Thompson worked with HBCUs and other universities nationwide to draw athletes to the combine. They’re competing for spots in the Drive for Diversity program, NASCAR’s developmental program for minorities and women.
“We always say that the crew member portion of the Drive for Diversity program is one of the hidden gems because for a long time it's been pumping people into the national series,” he says.
There are now about 35 graduates of the program working on pit road. In the lower circuit, they can make about $40,000 a year, and in the top series, six figures.
Kevin Richardson is one of the graduates. The former Appalachian State running back came to the combine to help, and he spent much of the day giving tips to the rookie tire carriers and changers.
“It's kind of like we never are out of this program because we come back and mentor the young guys whenever we get the opportunity after work,” Richardson says.
The athletes practiced firing air guns before the main event at the combine: a pit stop where they replaced two tires. One person wedges a 40-pound jack under the car and heaves, two people fire guns to loosen lugnuts, and two others smack on 60-pound tires.
Some stops go better than others. Coach Horton catches a San Diego State basketball player pressing the wrong button on the air gun.
“So you tightened them?” he said. “All right, just switch it and lets get it right this time.”
The longest stop took about 30 seconds. The fastest took 10, which Horton says is only three seconds slower than the pros.
Norfolk State’s Brehanna Daniels got the hang of it.
“That gun is something crazy, I'll tell you,” she says. “It's different when that pressure is coming out too and just seeing the lugnuts fly off and then the sparks flying out. It's a lot of stuff going on.”
Several women have made it on pit road, but there’s only one regularly working there now. Daniels takes that as a challenge.
“Me being a minority and being a female, it already makes it hard and tough for me,” she says, “so I'm just trying to add a new face to the pit crew stop and change the game a little bit!”
Later this month, Coach Horton and NASCAR’s Brandon Thompson will pick 10 athletes from the combine to join the Drive for Diversity program.