CONCORD, N.C. -- Growing up, T.J. Semke didn’t have aspirations to becoming one of the top pit crew members in NASCAR. He wanted to play football in the NFL. However, a back injury, bounty hunting and a routine meeting at Kansas Speedway changed Semke’s athletic course.
“My mom said, ‘Don’t do that football stuff. You’re gonna hurt your back and whatever,’” Semke said. “I said, ‘Okay, Mom, I’ll go do NASCAR and go play in traffic for a living and jump in front of cars. That seems a lot safer.’”
His journey to becoming the jackman of the No. 9 team recently was highlighted by Sports Illustrated. It started with Semke suffering from a fractured vertebra due to playing football as a defensive end in high school. The junior was given the choice to keep playing and risk surgery as a young man or quit and prolonging the surgery. Semke opted to keep playing and eventually walked on to the football team at the University of Kansas in 2014.
However, there was one aspect of Semke’s lifestyle that then-coach Charlie Weis didn’t like – his part-time job as a bounty hunter. Semke was working with his mother’s boyfriend at the time and word had gotten around about his side gig.
“When I got my scholarship from Charlie Weis, he kind of told me, ‘Alright, I’m gonna give you a scholarship, but no more bounty hunting,’” Semke said. “I said, ‘I’ll take that deal all day, every day.’”
Like they do every year, coaches from the Jayhawks went to the race at Kansas Speedway to meet with Hendrick Motorsports coaches in 2016. After asking if a football player fit certain criteria to join the Hendrick Motorsports team, the Kansas coaches recommended Semke.
“They said, ‘Would you be interested in doing any of this NASCAR pit crew stuff if the NFL thing doesn’t work out?’” Semke said. “I’m like, ‘What is that? They get paid? Is this like a real job? What does that mean?’”
Semke was training for his NFL Pro Day in 2016 when he decided to go to the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew combine that summer. He said he was surprised about the physicality of the training and said it was similar to the NFL combine. Out of 200 participants, he was one of about 35 people called back. The next round was tougher – Semke had to show off his athleticism with tools in hand.
Despite not having a NASCAR background, he was one of five hopefuls who were hired.
“There’s little kids you’ll see run around with a football or playing baseball or playing catch with their dad but I’ve never seen a little kid running around with a jack in his hand, or run around with the air gun in his hand,” Semke said. “It’s something that you can’t really train for or practice for. As athletic as someone can be, it’s an unnatural job.”
Semke worked his way through the NASCAR ranks quicker than most and moved up from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series by 2018. He was on Chase Elliott’s team after he made the switch from the No. 24 car to the No. 9 at the start of the 2018 season and has been there ever since.
“My first win was also Hendrick Motorsports’ 250th win, which was a big milestone,” Semke said. “It was also Chase Elliott’s first win in the Cup Series. So that was just all kind of one big cool moment.”