Editor's Note: The following article was written by Keith Flynn, developmental pit crew director for Hendrick Motorsports. It was published in the official magazine of the American Football Coaches Association.
On Monday, Hendrick Motorsports hosted its annual pit crew combine. Below is a look inside the process.
Every year, thousands of amateur athletes dream of continuing their career into the professional ranks.
At Hendrick Motorsports, we allow that dream to live on, albeit in a sport they might not have considered: professional stock car racing.
Through our developmental program, we have a track record of working with collegiate athletes from across the country and positioning them onto pit crews at NASCAR’s most elite level, the Sprint Cup Series.
There, they work with the organization’s four full-time Chevrolet teams on the Sprint Cup circuit with drivers Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Football players from Alabama, Nebraska, Clemson, UNC and other top programs are among the group of Hendrick Motorsports pit crew members that also include athletes with backgrounds in wrestling, baseball and a variety of other sports – even surfing.
So how did the world of football begin to overlap so much with the world of NASCAR?
It started as a vision for how pit crews could be optimized. Years ago, they consisted of mechanics that understood the adjustments the cars needed throughout the race. Then, an idea changed everything.
Why not bring in elite athletes and train them year-round to excel at pit stops?
That’s exactly what we did – and continue to do – at Hendrick Motorsports.
“They understood the importance of practice and repetition in any team environment,” Director of Human Performance Andy Papathanassiou explained in a blog on HendrickMotorsports.com. “They were comfortable with coaching to help them improve. They were used to overcoming adversity and keeping their cool under pressure situations. They were also used to performing and focusing through distractions in front of lots of people. We call this ‘Over The Wall’ thinking. This is when you think like an athlete. How you think is more important than just being bigger and stronger than everyone else.”
For us, it starts with the recruiting process.
As part of the NASCAR season, we’re already traveling all across the country for 10 months out of the year, as races stretch from Florida to California.
We’ve used that constant traveling to our advantage and utilized it as a recruiting tool. We are constantly looking to cultivate relationships with coaches to find out who could be a fit for our system. We enjoy that face-to-face time, getting to know coaches and players throughout the nation.
From that strategy, we have developed a pit crew combine.
TESTING THE BEST
Similar to the NFL Scouting Combine, we put athletes through a series of football-style drills to test their abilities and allow our coaches to see how they stack up.
We hold these combines three times a year in three different locations, and it has without a doubt elevated the athleticism of our program.
The type of athlete we are searching for is not necessarily one that can immediately change a tire in six seconds. We are looking for athletes with strength, athleticism and the work ethic necessary to succeed in the high-intensity world of NASCAR, which might be new to them.
Once we identify candidates, we continue to coach them with a staff featuring pit crew coaches with decades of football experience, and even a former Miami Dolphins college and pro scout. In addition, the strength and conditioning staff consists of three full-time coaches and an intern.
And the experience on the staff goes beyond the coaches. Our head athletic trainer, Gene Monahan, worked for the New York Yankees for 49 years. The organization also utilizes physical therapists, so the attention the athletes receive from all angles is second-to-none.
In addition, our facilities rival those of any other professional program, featuring a 4,000-square-foot weight room renovated just three years ago with state-of-the-art equipment, an outdoor conditioning field, training room and pit pad for practice. The outdoor field has been customized to what we do on race days. It includes a five-lane track surface, an artificial field, a sand pit and a multi-use area.
PREPARING ATHLETES FOR SUCCESS
On pit road, it’s all about short, explosive movements. So that’s what we focus on in our training.
Development of athletes requires top-notch facilities and coaches, but it also takes the support and experience of partners like Under Armour, EAS and Gatorade to make it all happen. With their help, no stone is left unturned when it comes to performance.
Through that continued coaching, teaching and nurturing their talent, we help the athletes thrive in their new environment, and in the process they help our program thrive on the track.
The reasons why athletes are so important on pit crews are countless, but one is that they’ve grown accustomed to precision in their job, and that’s precisely what pit road requires.
“I always think about it as an NFL kicker,” Chris Burkey, the former Dolphins scout turned head pit crew coach, said in a HendrickMotorsports.com blog. “If an NFL kicker is going to miss a field goal, he needs to miss it by inches, not feet. If he misses by feet, he’s probably not going to kick next week. Our mishaps on pit road have to be NFL-kicker misses, in the sense that they’ve got to be so small that you’re questioning where we even made the mistake. It’s the difference between losing a tenth of a second on pit road and losing a half a second. And in 12-second pit stops, those moments could mean the difference between a win and a loss for one of our drivers.”
Through our recruiting process, we bring some of the best athletes in the country to our program. Here, we have a dedicated coaching staff working seven days a week to help those athletes transition into a new, different and likely unexpected life in NASCAR.
When that type of human talent is combined with our state-of-the-art training facilities both indoor and outdoor, it’s no surprise that Hendrick Motorsports has risen to the top of the pack on pit road.
Since 1984, Hendrick Motorsports has earned a record 11 car owner championships in the Sprint Cup Series.
And with the help of coaches across the country – and the talented athletes they spotlight – that run of success can continue. And dreams of professional athletics can become a reality in the process.