Hendrick Motorsports

5 24 48 88

John Gianninoto blogs about his first over-the-wall experience

I joined Hendrick Motorsports as a developmental pit crew member in September.  Formerly an offensive lineman from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, I didn’t have a racing background, but knew I wanted to continue my athletic career in a team sport.

Even without previous racing experience, after training daily as both a fueler and jackman for almost three months, I was ready to hit the track when our coaches told a few of us we would work as the pit crew for Chase Elliott in the Snowball Derby on Dec. 2.

Fueling Chase’s No. 9 Chevrolet at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla., was only my second time attending a race. I traveled with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 team to the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in October, but watching the Cup guys work can be deceiving. The No. 88 team makes it look easy to execute a clean stop in 13 seconds or less. Now that I’ve gone over the wall in a race, I understand that practice makes perfect for any pit crew member, and teamwork is crucial to making it look as easy as the No. 88 veterans.

My nerves were definitely up before the Snowball Derby began. Three of us from the development team were given the opportunity, so when we first got there, we had to get to know the rest of Chase’s No. 9 crew. We also had to adjust to new equipment before the race. In practice at Hendrick Motorsports, I use a gas can designed for Cup cars, and those cans have a ventilating fuel system. But for the late model race at Five Flags Speedway, I discovered I’d be using a can called a red head. I realized just how different the two are during the first pit stop when I splashed gas all over the Chevy, the ground and myself.

After that first stop, I talked with my coaches and figured out what adjustments to make the next time. Chase’s No. 9 Chevrolet is a late model car and sits lower to the ground than a Cup Chevy so I had to adjust my approach to make sure I hit the gas hole straight on to avoid spilling all that extra fuel.

Once the first stop was out of the way, my nerves settled and we had a great race. It was awesome to work with a driver like Chase. You can tell he cares about his crew and really makes it a team sport. I learned what teamwork on pit road is all about when Chase was caught up in an incident with about 100 laps to go. I helped as much as I could – making sure everything was clear so the mechanics could do their work. Cautions worked in our favor and Chase drove through the field to grab a fifth-place finish.

The Snowball Derby was a great first taste at going over the wall. Fueling a car in the heat of competition is where you really learn what adjustments you need to make and what you should work on during practice. I’m ready to for the 2013 season to go get more experience on pit road.