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#EnduranceWeek: Pit crews must compete 'without a dip in performance'

#EnduranceWeek: Pit crews must compete 'without a dip in performance'

CONCORD, N.C. – When Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt Jr. steer their Chevrolet SS race cars down pit road, their Hendrick Motorsports pit crews climb the wall and wait to execute with efficient perfection -- in 12 seconds or less.

Months’ worth of precise preparation -- lifting weights, training in the heat, practicing pit stops and even doing yoga – have brought the pit crew members to this very moment. Their endurance is enhanced, but Andy Papathanassiou, Hendrick Motorsports Human Performance director, adds his own twist when defining the word. Endurance to him isn’t just the ability to get through; it’s “the ability to get through your work without a dip in performance.”

No change in execution, even though the pit crews could see 10-plus stops during Sunday’s 600-mile event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. No fade in intensity, even though the race is the longest one in NASCAR’s eight-month stretch.

#EnduranceWeek: Watch Sunday’s Sprint Cup event at 6 p.m. ET on FOX; listen live on PRN. 

Their endurance is based in plans created by Papathanassiou’s team of pit coaches and strength and conditioning coaches; their dietary choices are guided with the help of a nutritionist. Nothing is done half-heartedly or by accident when it comes to preparing these professional athletes to complete sub-12-second pit stops. 

“Pit stops are performed using controlled speed, where acceleration, deceleration, agility and power are factors,” said Mark Morrison, strength and conditioning coach for Hendrick Motorsports. “The programs we implement train each individual for optimal muscular strength while in a safe environment. Since all our positions require speed and strength, each position will train lower, mid and upper torso which includes plyometric training, quick feet drills, body awareness, balance and strength related skill development drills.”

Such a huge emphasis is placed on improving fitness for the pit crew primarily because it helps reduce the risk of injury. Training, traveling and racing for 36 Cup weekends a year is physically and mentally taxing. And even though Charlotte is a home track, it’s particularly demanding given crew members typically show up eight or more hours prior to the green flag. 

They have jobs to do. They spend time pre-race fueling their bodies, preparing the tires, building the pit box and fine-tuning the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS race cars for the upcoming event. On Sunday, that event is a 600-mile one with a 6 p.m. ET start (FOX, PRN) so once their pre-race duties are completed, the guys try to take a quick break. They might eat another healthy snack, catch a quick nap or talk to their families on the phone before they dress in their firesuits and meet for stretching. Once the green flag drops, their focus doesn’t waver for the next 400 laps. 

It’s like being on call for four solid hours. They know they’ll have to perform, but they can’t always predict when. That’s why they’ve spent so much time preparing their bodies, taking vitamins daily and supplementing their intense training with MET-Rx products to promote fast muscle recovery. During the race, the crew members will drink Gatorade and eat healthy snacks like grapes to maintain proper hydration and nutrition levels. They know by the time they’re on pit road, especially in the heat of the summer, they better be ready.

“That’s where a lot of the resistance and stamina training that we do during heat training pays off,” said Kevin Harris, front-tire carrier for Earnhardt’s No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS. “We’re not lifting weights outside strictly to build muscle strength; it’s about endurance. Every one of our drills is timed. You have 30 seconds or a minute and go – you’re jogging or doing the battle ropes or crawling in the sand. 

“So when we’re at the track, it’s getting real hot out now, and we’re sweating a lot. Obviously, we try to stay as hydrated as possible. We condition our bodies during the week -- being on pit road, practicing those reps. The idea is when we get to the track, this is not new to us. We’re ready.”